Posted Dec 16 2010 7:10PM
HOUSTON -- It's about a week before the start of the 2008 Olympics and I'm sitting at the dinner table enjoying all of the food that my native Chinese companions have ordered up for us in the private room at the top of the hotel in downtown Nanjing.
I've sampled some spicy duck, delicious chicken and many tasty dishes with vegetables I've never seen before, and quite frankly, I'm getting a little cocky, because they've told me I'm using my chopsticks better than any foreigner they've ever seen.
So the Lazy Susan spins around and I don't think twice about sampling more of the local cuisine by dipping into the bowl of brown broth and pulling out a slice of something.
Just as I lift it up and have it partly into my mouth, Yao Ming says, "I'll wait until you swallow it."
That causes me to gulp it down and ask, "What was it?"
Yao smiles. "Insides."
I frown. "Insides of what?"
Yao shrugs. "Insides of something."
I frown again. "You mean, you eat this and you don't know what it is?"
Yao cackles. "Are you kidding? A lot of Chinese food is horrible. I wouldn't touch that stuff."
Sometimes you remember the laughs to avoid the sadness.
On the same day that the first batch of All-Star balloting results showed him once again as the leading vote-getter among Western Conference centers, the results of an MRI showed another stress fracture in Yao's left ankle.
No one from the Rockets or from Yao's camp is saying anything. But this is likely the end. He said as much last summer when in the midst of his latest grueling round of rehab following reconstructive foot surgery that kept him off the court for more than a year.
At 30, Yao is still a young man for an average citizen, but getting too old to keep pursuing a kid's dream with a body that keeps breaking down. Truth is, his parents were concerned enough about his welfare that they did not want him to attempt a return to the NBA after the last broken bone that was suffered in the playoffs of May 2009. Before the birth of his daughter a year ago, Yao told me: "I want to be able to run around and play with my child, not always wear a cast and use these crutches."
His is a career that will be remembered more for promise than for proof, budding potential that never came to full bloom.
He arrived in Houston in 2002 as towering and iconic at 7-foot-6 as the durable Great Wall of China, yet over the course of his NBA career Yao's image had become fragile like a Ming vase. After missing just two games due to injury in his first three years in the league, he has been sidelined for 193 over the past 5 ½ seasons and played just five games in the past two.
Even while battling the series of fractures to his feet and ankles, Yao averaged 19.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, and for the three-year stretch from 2006-08 was most deserving of the starting center spot in the All-Star Game.
Yao grew from the timid, tentative stranger in a strange land who did not score in his first NBA game and spoke to the American media through an interpreter into a confident, dominant post player who became an All-American trash talker on the day he blasted the L.A. Clippers for 32 points and after one turnaround jumper defiantly shouted, "You try to (bleeping) stop me!"
Early in that rookie season, Charles Barkley told his TNT partner Kenny Smith, "I'll kiss your ass, if Yao Ming scores 20 points in a game." And a few weeks later, there was Chuck puckering up to the back end of a donkey during a halftime show after Yao delivered against the Lakers.
Yao was the symbol of an emerging China in the 21st century, as big a pitch man as he was a center, doing humorous TV commercials with Mini-Me from the Austin Powers movies and, of course, with Barkley. He was seen as the bridge across the Pacific, bringing together two vastly different cultures on the common grounds of sports and capitalism.
On the court and in the locker room, Yao has always been known as a tireless worker and an excellent teammate.
The league used Yao as a key to unlock the vast Chinese market -- still No. 2 worldwide behind only the U.S. -- for the NBA. China used Yao as an ambassador for its emerging influence in the global market. The depth of China's affinity for the NBA would be greatly tested by the absence of the favorite son, just as China's progress in the world basketball arena would be stunted without Yao. The Chinese national team has regressed without him. His arrival in the NBA did not signal an opening of the floodgates bringing in more top-level players. Yi Jianlian is, at best, an NBA journeyman and there is no other singular talent such as Yao on the horizon.
The Rockets had always planned to use Yao as the linchpin for a new basketball dynasty in Houston, a link to their back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995 and the linear descendant to Moses Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon as dominant Houston centers.
But the dynasty and the championships never came. When paired in 2004 with the equally star-crossed Tracy McGrady, Yao became more infamous for the things he didn't achieve than for what he did. Yao and T-Mac never won a championship, in fact, never won a playoff series together. Yao won his only playoff series in 2009 when McGrady was shelved, defeating Portland in the first round, and two games later, suffered the broken bone in his foot that has led to this.
Without Yao returning, the Rockets will be starting over virtually from scratch. Without Yao, the NBA and the American sports scene will be a less interesting place.
One afternoon last summer, following a workout that was open to the media to gauge his progress in rehabbing the surgically repaired foot, a crowd gathered round Yao on the court when a photographer who was trying to get a better angle toppled off a folding chair and landed hard.
After checking to make sure the man was unhurt, a grinning Yao said, "You won't miss any games, right?"
Sometimes all you can do is remember the laughs.
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