By Fran Blinebury, for NBA.com
Posted Jul 1 2009 5:00PM
Every time the Rockets think they see a light at the end of the tunnel, it turns out to be an oncoming train.
Each occasion the Rockets believe they've finally turned a corner, they wind up getting pancaked by another tractor-trailer.
So if anyone was faithfully keeping a scorecard on Misery's Team, it only stood to reason that the news on Yao Ming would eventually be bad.
Now, after consulting with the Rockets' medical staff and a handful of specialists on the East Coast, a decision has been made to have Yao undergo surgery once more to repair the stress fracture in the tarsal navicular bone of his left foot, according to several sources. What has not yet been determined is the exact method for the repair.
By having the surgery soon, the hope is that Yao will be able to return to the basketball court by the second half of the 2009-10 season and possibly be at full strength for the playoffs.
"What I do is stay positive as much as I can, waiting, waiting for the hope," Yao said. "Right now, just like everything else, my heart is hanging there."
And the Rockets once more find themselves dangling by a thread after their most encouraging playoff season in 12 years saw them beat the Trail Blazers in the first round and extend the eventual champion Lakers to the full seven-game limit in the second round.
On the night when the Rockets finally eliminated Portland, giving the franchise its first playoff series win since 1997 and the first of Yao's NBA career, the All-Star center was elated but hardly satisfied.
"I wanted to get out of the first round," Yao had said. "But now this is not enough."
Even though his season was cut short again when the stress fracture was diagnosed in the middle of the Lakers series, Yao had entered his summer feeling upbeat about the future.
For the first time in years, Yao was not going to fulfill any playing obligations with the Chinese national team. His intention was, in fact, to do little more than rest and allow his foot to heal. After leading Team China in three straight Olympics (2000, 2004 and 2008), Yao's plan was to all but retire from international play, perhaps returning only for the 2012 Olympics in London, provided that China qualified for the tournament without him.
In his mind, it was time for Yao to try to get the most out of his NBA career, taking care of his body and delivering on the promise that his 7-6 stature and complete skills implied when the Rockets made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 Draft.
Yao hears and reads the criticism that he is too "soft" to carry a team on his shoulders to a championship or that he cares more about his loyalty to his national team than the NBA franchise that will pay his salary of $16 million next season. He hears and reads the knocks that he does not, cannot do whatever is necessary to keep himself on the court for a full season and playoffs.
Yao, as well as many of his teammates, were frustrated at the ongoing soap opera drama that surrounded Tracy McGrady through the first half of last season. The Rockets struggled to gain any consistency or momentum while McGrady bounced in and out of the lineup as he tried to return from knee surgery, then finally shut himself down for the season after playing only 35 games.
When McGrady opted to have microfracture surgery on his knee and eventually had shoulder surgery as well, the Rockets moved on without him and developed a core that showed promise for the future. That hope was still alive when Yao limped off against the Lakers, because the belief was that he'd have plenty of time to heal and be fit by training camp.
Now, all of a sudden, the free agent signing period arrives with the latest huge question mark hanging over the franchise. They were hoping to use McGrady's expiring $23 million contract for next season as either a trade commodity or to slice a big chunk off their payroll in the summer of 2010. But with Yao's turn for the worse, the Rockets are suddenly in hot pursuit of free agent Marcin Gortat from Orlando and could find themselves with other holes to fill. Ron Artest played out his contract last season and the Rockets would like to re-sign him. But Artest is closer to the end of his career and would like to play for a true championship contender. Without Yao -- and likely McGrady -- for the start of the season, the Rockets would not fit that description.
The results of the latest medical tests -- the CT scan by the Rockets and further examinations by assorted specialists -- have Yao more angry at the turn of events than depressed. He feels that he's wasted two months of potential rehab time and doesn't want to think about losing an entire season at this point in his career. He'll be 29 in September.
Yao's contract with the Rockets runs through 2011, but he can opt out next summer and the intent all along by the club has been to sign him to a next maximum level deal.
Still, there may even be some pressure on Yao from his family to not put himself through another round of foot surgery and the long, hard grind to get himself back into shape. His parents, both former basketball players, want Yao to have a life after basketball that is not limited by continued debilitating injuries resulting from the NBA.
But Yao is not ready to surrender. At this point, it's not about a new contract or the gobs of money or any of the criticism. The seven-time All-Star finally had a taste of playoff success this season and it whet his appetite for more.
So Yao will go back into surgery, perhaps for the last time, to prove that he can deliver on his promise to the NBA and the Rockets.
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