By Kevin Scheitrum, John Hareas and Brian Martin, NBA.com
Posted Jul 20 2011 6:24AM
In the end, it was the very thing that got him to the NBA -- that impossibly long frame stretched across seven-and-a-half feet of length and strength -- that failed him first.
The injuries started in his feet in 2006 and worked their way upward. To his knees. To his back. And after playing 244 games in his first three NBA seasons, Yao Ming played only 242 over the next five, until finally, his body forced him out of the game for good.
But when Yao announced his retirement from the NBA on Wednesday, it's important to remember that his legacy outgrew that 7-foot-6 frame long ago.
When he stepped to the podium in Shanghai, he closed the door on a career that spanned a decade and drew millions -- maybe billions -- worldwide to the game of basketball. At only 30 years old, he could have had a longer run had injuries not cut him down.
But he could have hardly meant more to the game.
And as we celebrate a career unlike any other, NBA.com caught up with people from every facet of Yao's NBA career, from teammates to opponents to worldwide ambassadors to reflect on the impact The Great Wall has had on the world of basketball.
Bill Walton, NBA legend: "Yao Ming has changed our world for the better. Yao Ming has given us a new and fresh perspective on how we view things. He has expanded the limits of our possibilities across the spectrum of life. He combines the best aspects of the human spirit, business and athletic participation in what truly matters most---health, family, home, hope and the dream for a better tomorrow."
Walton: "Against all odds, Yao Ming became a truly special and unique player who, without the benefit of great coaching, without the opportunity to play in an environment that would allow him to blossom, Yao Ming was able to build a game and a life for himself based on superb human values and personal characteristics that make us all very proud and more than a bit jealous."
Clyde Drexler, Basketball Hall of Famer: "Whenever he was on the floor, he gave the Rockets the best hope and opportunity to be the best team in the league. When you have a guy who is 7-6 and who can score in the low post like he could and can shoot the open jumpers, you always had a chance."
Shaquille O'Neal, NBA legend (to NBA TV): "One time he had me on the post, and he turned around to shoot a fadeaway, and I jumped as high as I could and he still had about three feet left. I was like 'dang this dude is tall.' And the first time I played against him I was like, 'OK, you know what, he's a big guy. You gotta take it to his head, and I went with a little oopsie-doop finger-roll, and he blocked my first three shots."
Bob Lanier, Basketball Hall of Famer and NBA Cares Ambassador: "I met him in the Green Room [at an NBA Cares event] and we got to know each other. I told him I'm Big Bob and while I'm standing next to him, I'm feeling rather small and I'm 6-11."
O'Neal: "He was very agile. He could play inside, he could play outside, and if he didn't have those injuries he could've been up there in the top five centers to ever play the game."
Drexler: "His presence will be missed. He had a wonderful career. He's a hard worker and just a great, great basketball player. He played a big part in the NBA's Asian popularity."
Walton: "His post-playing career will be far more successful and much more impactful than anything he's done to date -- by an incalculable margin."
Dikembe Mutombo: "I think Hakeem Olajuwon, the late Manute Bol and myself, coming out of Africa; and Vlade Divac, Hedo Turkoglu and the great players who came out of Europe -- Drazen Petrovic, too -- all people who came from international countries, I don't think any one of us was able to contribute to the level that Yao Ming did. We're talking about a guy who came from a country that has 1.2 billion people. I came from a country that's only got 65 million, and this guy comes from a country that has 1.2 billion. Can you imagine how many people are following him?"
Lanier: "He brought the game to new heights. It grew bigger than his size because of his journey from China to the U.S. He became a great ambassador to the zillions of people in China and the way he has carried himself as an Ambassador for his country and for the NBA, it's been absolutely incredible when you think about it. I think his game has prospered. People just love him -- fans of all ages and all genders."
Walton: "He has meant so much in every aspect of the business of sport and the culture of aspirational brilliance to what is possible and more importantly, what is next."
Mutombo: "I don't think our game would have grown as fast as it did if we didn't see the rise of the young Yao Ming in the NBA. We are going to miss him. His legacy will be great because he has opened a lot of doors to the NBA and allowed the young Asian players to believe in themselves that they can succeed in the NBA."
Drexler: "Yao's presence solidified Houston as an international city. Houston has always been welcoming to all people from all over the world and it kind of gives a feel of a New York or San Francisco where it's an international city and Yao had a lot to do with that.
From an economic standpoint, Yao brought in more Asians to the state of Texas and the city of Houston probably more than any person in the history of the NBA -- and that would be an understatement."
Mutombo: "We love his contribution, not just by him bringing China to us, but in bringing all the countries around China to us. With that, he made us better understand Chinese culture and people as well."
Drexler: "As a result of Yao's presence on the Rockets, fans learned more about China and Asian history and probably even made some trips to China."
Lanier: "The NBA is super-popular in China and a large part is that the doors were open for international competition and because Yao was such a great ambassador at the right time."
Mutombo: "I don't think there's any other place in the world where basketball is as popular as it is in China."
Lanier: "I've worked with Yao in the community on two separate occasions. Once in Houston for a reading event and the other time at his grammar school in China.
When we worked together in Houston, he basically had just arrived in the U.S. and we were doing this reading event at a school and I was asking people how well he can speak English and will he be able to participate.
Someone at the event told me that Yao doesn't really want to say anything, that he wants to only turn the pages."
Mutombo: "I've been shocked and even a little surprised in the way Yao has opened up himself. Maybe we just didn't know him well."
Lanier: "I quickly found out that he understood English enough where he could translate. So, I asked him before the event, 'Big Fella, the kids didn't come here to hear me, they came here to listen to you. If you're comfortable, I can start the reading then you can take over and read to them. When you feel uncomfortable, you can nudge me and I'll take over.'
So that's how we went into the event. We entered the room where the kids were and Yao was phenomenal. He read to the kids, he was engaging, he answered their questions. He was beaming and the kids were beaming.
That was my first experience working with Yao and I immediately thought, 'He gets it. He knows how to connect with people.'"
Mutombo: "We're now close friends. As much as I've spent him with him in the past, almost eight years now -- I've known him since I came to Houston in 2004 -- every year I'm learning something new about him and his personality."
Walton: "From his early days on the grand stage at the Sydney Olympics to this new transitional period, Yao Ming has always conducted himself with remarkable class, dignity, professionalism and thoughtful kindness. We all have so much to learn from his graceful presence, compassionate soul and visionary leadership."
Mutombo: "He's [also] a really funny guy. He's someone who has a great sense of humor. You admire his friendship, the more that he knows you, because it gives him a chance to open up about his life. He's a very respectful human being, not just to himself, but to the people who are close to him.
My family and his family have grown so close. I have taken him in as my youngest brother, or as he says, 'I am not your brother. You are my uncle. I'm your nephew because you're the same age as my father.'
I love that. That tells you something about Yao Ming. He's full of personality. Every time I see him I have tears in my eyes because I have to laugh so much. I spent a week in Greece with him laughing 24 hours a day. My wife asked me why I laugh so much with Yao Ming, and I said you just have no idea. I love that young man."
Lanier: "Yao's a difference maker and that comes from inside. He was rooted the right way."
Mutombo: "He wants to embrace the causes affecting people around the world, many of them in China itself. He wants to go into Africa to work on different issues that are facing young people today. [He's concerned with] young people's education in China and different parts of Asia, in Special Olympics around the world. To see Yao in the international space, I gave him even more respect than I did before."
Drexler: "He is a great ambassador for his country and he's also one of the nicest human beings I've been around. We're going to miss the Great Wall."
Mutombo: "I'm glad our friendship wasn't just on the basketball court. We were able to learn about each other and find we have the same common ground, and talk about the different issues in the world today.
I don't know if a lot has to do with the fact that we came into the NBA from different countries outside of America, so we have a different view of the world than some of our friends do."
Mutombo: "This young man, even though he's leaving the game of basketball, he's not leaving behind those who admire him and love him so much and gave him all the support."
Walton: "[He is] truly an iconic figure and personality for the ages, our world is a better place because of Yao Ming; and he's just getting started."
Lanier: "People admire the way Yao has carried himself around his parents and others -- always very respectful. Those kinds of really positive images help set the tone for people to raise him to another level and want to emulate him and want their kids to be like that."
Mutombo: "We should be thankful that we were lucky enough to have a young man like Yao Ming in our lives."
Walton: "Thank you, Yao Ming. Good luck, health, family, fortune and future. And hopefully one day we can begin to repay you for all the joy, happiness, pride and satisfaction that you have brought to each and every one of us."