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The Big Man Is Back

February 05, 2013 5:34 pm EST

Yao Ming returns to Houston, reflects upon his Rockets career

HOUSTON - Yao Ming won’t even allow himself to contemplate what it would mean to see his No. 11 jersey hang in the Toyota Center rafters, keeping company with the likes of those worn by Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone and the rest of the Rockets’ all-time greats.

Such humility is not surprising, of course, given that Yao spent every second of his NBA career serving as a walking, talking monument to modesty. But let us not forget that the man also spent the vast majority of that time operating as one of the best big men of his generation as well. Yao was named an All-Star nine times during his illustrious, game-changing tenure in the league while posting career averages of 19 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game.

In other words, Yao’s day is going to come. His place is secure. It’s only a matter of when. Until that moment, however, he is doing his best to avoid envisioning what that evening will be like.

“I haven’t (thought) about that yet,” said Yao while making a surprise visit to Toyota Center Tuesday morning. “I don’t know how many times I’ve played on this court, but every time I look up to those jerseys – Rudy (Tomjanovich), Calvin Murphy, Hakeem and Moses – those names are like a mark for all those young athletes who go after them. I just feel like it should be a great honor for those players to leave their jerseys up there. I cannot think about if I can. I’m way behind them.”

Yao returned to Houston two days ago and will be in town through next week’s All-Star extravaganza. He will certainly be involved in the weekend’s events in some way, though he admits he’s not yet sure what form that will take. He did say, however, that he’s very excited to reconnect with one of his favorite teammates, Dikembe Mutombo, while doing social work during that weekend. Community service, in fact, has been a big part of Yao’s life since he retired from NBA basketball back in 2011. The 32-year-old has been heavily involved in animal conservation efforts while simultaneously serving as an owner of the CBA’s Shanghai Sharks and an economics student at Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University.

“I’m a rookie again,” Yao deadpanned in response to a question about his scholastic endeavors. “I know a lot of players here go to school first before they play (professionally). I reversed it. I had to go back to school after my playing career. But that’s a way to keep me busy and keep me running. I love school, I love my classmates and I really appreciate my professor giving me a very patient teaching there.”

Even though he must frequently watch from afar, Yao says he still keeps close tabs on the Rockets. He lauded James Harden’s ability to carry the team this season, calling him a “fantastic player” and he also took time to praise Jeremy Lin for the way Houston’s young point guard has handled the pressure that comes with being an international phenomenon – a condition about which Yao Ming knows all too well.

“I think he did great,” Yao said of Lin. “After last year, people put a lot of pressure on him either on the court or off the court. I think he handled it all well. I think the Rockets are being built as a very young, talented team so far and nobody expected that we can be above .500 and I think part of that job is done by him.”