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Fran Blinebury

Yao Ming
Yao, talking with reporters Tuesday in Houston, was an eight-time All-Star.
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Nostalgia runs deep in Yao's bittersweet return to Houston

Posted Mar 21 2012 2:45PM

HOUSTON -- The two equipment managers walked along with arms filled by about a half-dozen extra-extra-long crutches and enough jumbo plastic boots to immobilize an army marching to a cadence of: "Fee-fi-fo-fum!"

It was both a comical and bittersweet sight as Yao Ming soon followed them down the hallway.

For the first time since he announced his premature retirement from the NBA last summer, Yao returned to his adopted hometown without so much as a limp.

"Good enough for walking, but not good enough for playing basketball games," he said of his achy-breaky feet.

The crowd that had crammed into the Toyota Center to see the Rockets take on Kobe Bryant and the Lakers was, of course, well aware that the 7-foot-6 mountain of championship potential was no longer a part of the hopes or plans, considering he hadn't set foot onto any court in well over a year. But there was still something quite jarring about seeing him sitting in the front row at courtside wearing a tan sport coat and jeans and chatting with ex-Rockets star Robert Horry -- Yao was quite literally the biggest fan in the house -- that made it all final.

Blink and they age before your eyes, these athletic heroes whose feats live on in eternal youth. It's been nearly 17-years since Horry was fearlessly draining 3-pointers to help the Rockets go back-to-back for their pair of Clutch City NBA titles. And almost a decade since Yao came to Houston as what was supposed to be a cross-cultural, next-generation link to more championships.

Tomorrow becomes yesterday in a heartbeat.

"Not just coming to this building," Yao said. "As soon as I drive my car on the highway I feel the emotion. Everything feels familiar. The last 10 years. Today I walked in with a different (identity).

"I feel pleased that I can have a career playing in Houston. It's been a great team I played with, great fans ... I grew my family here and I also grew myself mentally from a young boy. Basically this city is full of my experience and my emotion."

That emotion ran from jubilation to frustration, from glee to glum. His was a career that will be remembered more for promise than for proof, a budding every-night dream that always seemed to evaporate in the harsh light of morning.

He arrived in Texas in 2002 as towering and iconic as the durable Great Wall of China, yet over the course of his NBA career Yao and his image became as fragile as a piece of jade pottery. 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 for the Western Conference 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 Clippers for 32 points, after one turnaround jumper, he 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 towering symbol of a powerful emerging China in the 21st century, as big a pitchman 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.

The league used Yao as a key to unlock the vast Chinese market. China used Yao as an ambassador for its burgeoning influence in the global market. The depth of his country's affinity for the NBA has remained impressive even without the favorite son in uniform, though one team has suddenly become conspicuously absent from China's consciousness.

"Honestly, during my time living (back) in China, I haven't seen a Rockets live game yet," Yao said. "This is my first time watching them this season. That is not my fault. The TV station does not get a live [Rockets] game."

Quite a difference from a few years ago when no less than seven of his Rockets teammates had lucrative Chinese shoe contracts simply because they were his teammates. Or the night when Yao lined up against his countryman Yi Jianlian, then playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, the regular-season game attracted more viewers in China than the Super Bowl in the U.S. It was supposed to be the dawning of a new era as the floodgates from Asia opened. But Yi is, at best, an NBA journeyman and there is no other singular talent such as Yao on the horizon.

For the Rockets, Yao was going to be the solid gold link in the chain to a glorious heritage of great post men, 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 led to a premature ending that could not have been imagined when he became world renowned as the top prize in the NBA lottery.

At just 31, a time when he should be in the prime of his basketball career, Yao is transitioning to a different phase of his life, attending Jiaotong University in his hometown of Shanghai to study history, economics and management. In November, he released the first-ever bottles of his new Yao Ming-branded wine, a 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, currently available only in China. In January he became a politician, a member of an advisory body to the Shanghai legislature. He is the owner of the Shanghai Sharks, his old team in the Chinese Basketball Association.

Yet he misses the game.

"A lot. A lot," Yao said.

A game and those fragile feet that had carried him so far dropped him off short of the fulfillment of a championship.

"We had this chance before," he said. "We missed it. There's no if. We just need to face ourselves and say we did our best and walk away."

A door opened at the other end of the hallway and a player in a purple uniform turned and gave him a wave.

"Who was that?" Yao asked.

"Metta World Peace," someone told him.


"You knew him as Ron Artest."

Yao Ming shook his head and grinned.

"Things change," he said.

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

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