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Fran Blinebury

Despite foot injuries, Yao stood tall

Posted Jul 8 2011 8:37PM

HOUSTON -- Open the doors and raise the roof.

Yao Ming belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Not just for the size of his 7-foot-6 frame, but for his stature in taking the game global.

Not only for the baskets that he scored, but for the relationships that he built.

Not merely for the slam dunks he hammered down on the court, but for the planks of understanding he tap-tap-tapped together between East and West during nine often eye-opening years in the NBA.

Almost from the moment he arrived in Houston as the No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft, Yao was a cultural and corporate giant whose reach extended to both sides of the Pacific. He blended the introspective, whatever-is-best-for-the-community attitude of China into the brash, look-at-me American society and did it seamlessly.

Yao grew from the timid, tentative stranger in a strange land who did not score in his first NBA game and spoke to the U.S. media through an interpreter into a confident, dominant post player who came 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 his 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 never bristled at the criticism, but laughed at and appreciated all of the jokes.

Following one game later in that rookie season, somewhere on the road, Yao was conducting his customary post-game interview session through his interpreter, an earnest fellow named Colin Pine. Each time I asked a question, Pine would repeat it in Mandarin to Yao and then translate Yao's answers back for me.

Finally, when I asked about one play near the end of the game, Yao simply answered me directly in near-flawless English. The dutiful Pine immediately repeated the answer.

When I told Pine, "Thanks, but I don't need help translating English," Yao exploded into laughter and nearly fell out of his chair.

In his travels throughout the league, Yao made everyone he came into contact with feel comfortable, which isn't always easy when your perspective on life is 7 1/2 feet off the ground. He did it with a virtually unparalleled work ethic that earned the respect of teammates and coaches and with a down-to-earth attitude that was warm and embracing.

During a trip to his hometown of Shanghai for a preseason game, Yao was almost giddy as he took a minivan full of friends on a personal tour of his roots. The small group, which included then-coach Jeff Van Gundy, strolled through the courtyard of the apartment building where Yao grew up and visited his primary school, where he learned to read and write and took his first shot attempt at the basket in the playground.

"Another airball," cracked wiseguy Van Gundy when Yao tried to re-create the youthful attempt.

"Hey, coach," Yao replied wryly, "have you ever carried your country's flag in the Olympics?"

His verbal shots could be as deft as his jumper, but always accompanied by an open smile.

Personally, Yao was less the forbidding Great Wall of China and more China's Welcome Mat.

Of all his predecessors who have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame as "contributors" to the game, few have contributed the effect in sheer numbers as Yao, who brought the fervent attention of the most populous nation on the planet to the NBA, allowing commissioner David Stern's vision of a global footprint to take a step closer to reality. When Yao and fellow countryman Yi Jianlian squared off for the first time in their NBA careers on Nov. 9, 2007, more than 200 million people watched the game on TV in China, an audience larger than the Super Bowl.

When the 2008 Olympics went to Beijing, Yao was China's unofficial ambassador to the world, the touchstone to an ancient society who had rubbed elbows with Shaq and Kobe and Hollywood celebrities. His was the face that his government and his fellow citizens wanted to put forward as the symbol of the nascent century.

It is both cruel and ironic that the only place that China's best-ever basketball player could not live up to the greatest expectations was on the court. His is a career that will be remembered more for promise than for proof, budding potential that never came to bloom.

But it is inaccurate and unwise to say Yao never stood tallest. During the stretch from 2006-08, he was most deserving of the starting center spot for the Western Conference in the NBA All-Star Game. During the season before Dwight Howard's ascendance and with Shaquille O'Neal in decline, Yao was the best center in basketball.

Yao could never deliver on the next Rockets championship dynasty due to injuries, a man whose head scraped the clouds brought down at ground level by his feet. Having missed just two games due to injury in his first three seasons, a series of fractures to his feet and ankles kept Yao out of 250 games over the past six years. He played in only five games since the spring of 2009.

It took Dirk Nowitzki 13 years of perseverance to finally get to raise that championship trophy and now Yao will never get that chance. That doesn't mean he shouldn't get his due.

In more ways than one, the NBA is already a smaller place without him. But by opening its door to Yao Ming, the Hall of Fame will only grow.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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