• Print
Friday January 23, 2009 2:41 PM

Yao Ming's All-Star Honor


Rockets center reflects upon seventh straight starting nod

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com Staff Writer

Indianapolis - Yao Ming is stumped by a question – but not for the reason you would expect. He’s just been asked for his reaction to being named an All-Star starter for the seventh consecutive season, and if that honor continues to carry the same impact it did when he was an unassuming rookie still trying to find his bearings within a new culture, country and professional basketball league.

But the historical implications don’t faze him in the slightest. He’s fixated on something else.

“Wow, seven years?” he asks incredulously. “I’ve been in this league seven years already? Time is flying. I’m really that old?”

Yes. And no. He is 28 now, of course – old enough to find himself in the middle of his seventh year in the NBA. Yet he’s not exactly a grizzled vet, either. After all, we’re talking about a quick-witted prankster who loves video games and collects Transformers. In other words: There’s still plenty of youthful exuberance to spare.

But few players – heck, few humans in general – do reflection quite like Yao. Nearly every answer which spills forth from his mouth is preceded by a long pause and heavy sigh. And there is much to contemplate today.

Nearly one year ago, Yao was felled by a broken foot which not only prematurely ended his season with the Rockets, but also seriously jeopardized his ability to participate in the Beijing Olympics. It was his third serious injury in three years, meaning you no longer needed to lean in close to hear the whispers – they had become full-fledged shouts by that point. The words “injury-prone” were tossed around so liberally, they might as well have been tattooed on his chest, a scarlet letter lumping him in with all the other oversized giants of the game who never could manage to stay healthy. Suddenly, the remainder of his career seemed cast in shadow.

But the clarity which comes with time has washed away much of the despair surrounding that dreary February day. Yao not only recovered in time to represent his country with pride at the Olympics, but has returned to play in 42 of Houston’s first 43 games this season. And perhaps “play” is understating things a bit. Yao is excelling this season, as indicated by the fact that his field goal percentage, free throw percentage and scoring rate per 40 minutes are all appreciably higher than they were a year ago.

So needless to say, this year’s All-Star starting nod is not quite like all the others. It carries far greater significance due to the events of the past 11 months.

“[I’ve come] a long way,” acknowledges Yao. “The All-Star game is kind of like the thing that proves I’m back and back to the level I should be at after the injury. It also gives me a lot of confidence in myself.

“It’s like when you’re little and you did something good, your mom will give you extra candy or a couple dollars to go buy something you like. It’s kind of like that.”

Yao’s selection adds to the record he holds for most consecutive (7) All-Star starts by a Rockets player in franchise history. It also puts him just one appearance shy of the overall club record (8) held by Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon. But even the contemplative Yao can’t put into words what it means to approach “The Dream.”

“Olajuwon is like the sky of Houston basketball,” he says. “He’s untouchable.”

Of that, there is no doubt. But Yao is back to building his own legacy and that alone is cause for celebration given what he’s been through. He’s been helped, in part, by a plan to limit his minutes and practice time, and by a roster as deep as any in the NBA.

“The way we play is different now,” he says. “I feel it’s much easier. We have a team who can relieve my pressure. I’m really enjoying the game right now.

“Playing fewer minutes has helped my health – it limits my injury. Overall, if this way works, let’s keep it.”

Yao laughs while delivering the last line, fully aware that there’s no reason to mess with a good thing. Then he raises his massive frame and begins making his way back to the bus. There are teammates to needle and games to be played.

Old? He's just getting started.

And 1’s: Yao’s favorite All-Star game? He says it was his first one, hands down. “First of all, I never imagined I can be there and could not imagine being a starter. To play on the same court as Michael Jordan at the All-Star game… I mean, isn’t that amazing? That’s a moment I’ll never forget."

Got a question for Rockets.com? Send it to Jason Friedman.