HOUSTON — It’s about a week before the start of the 2008 Olympics and I’m sitting at the dinner table enjoying all of the food that my native Chinese companions have ordered up for us in the private room at the top of the hotel in downtown Nanjing.
I’ve sampled some spicy duck, delicious chicken and many tasty dishes with vegetables I’ve never seen before, and quite frankly, I’m getting a little cocky, because they’ve told me I’m using my chopsticks better than any foreigner they’ve ever seen.
So the Lazy Susan spins around and I don’t think twice about sampling more of the local cuisine by dipping into the bowl of brown broth and pulling out a slice of something.
Just as I lift it up and have it partly into my mouth, Yao Ming says, “I’ll wait until you swallow it.”
That causes me to gulp it down and ask, “What was it?”
Yao smiles. “Insides.”
I frown. “Insides of what?”
Yao shrugs. “Insides of something.”
I frown again. “You mean, you eat this and you don’t know what it is?”
Yao cackles. “Are you kidding? A lot of Chinese food is horrible. I wouldn’t touch that stuff.”
Sometimes you remember the laughs to avoid the touch of sadness.
It was a joyous celebration Friday night to see Yao’s No. 11 jersey retired by the Rockets and raised to the rafters of the Toyota Center. Fans who were on hand back in 2002 at the Compaq Center to watch his historic NBA debut stood and cheered along with those young enough to only know him from YouTube videos.
The halftime ceremony was attended by former Rockets stars Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, Shane Battier, Steve Francis and NBA commissioner Adam Silver. Accompanying Yao were were his wife Ye Li, daughter Yao Qinlei (Amy), mother Fang Fengdi and father Yao Zhiyuan.
“I remember the first time I watched (an) NBA game, randomly saw a shot the cameras gave on those retired jerseys,” Yao said. “After I read stories, I know that the highest honor a player can reach for himself and an accomplishment for the team. Today I think I’ll always ask myself what is the story behind it.
“I hope people see the jersey there and remember the story, not only about myself, but also my teammates, my opponents. We created the story together, just like the other jerseys created the story for (us).”
This was a storybook night when even a 7-foot-6 giant could somehow get swallowed up in the festivity as he joined icons Olajuwon, Rudy Tomjanovich, Calvin Murphy, Clyde Drexler and Moses Malone as the sixth player in history honored by the franchise.
The night was chosen to coincide with the hopeful Chinese New Year celebration, televised live in his home country and so, despite a certain football game in Houston on Sunday, the raising of Yao’s jersey will be the most-viewed sports-related event in the world this weekend.
Yet there was a tinge of Auld Lang Syne regret for what could have been, if not for a debilitating series of broken bones and foot surgeries that cut Yao’s career short after playing just seven full seasons — nine total — in the NBA and forced him to retire in 2011.
“It’s really sad for me personally, the city of Houston and all of our fans that his career was cut so short,” said Rockets owner Leslie Alexander. “Because I think if he had stayed on we would have won a couple of championships, which is what we were all looking for.”
At 30, Yao was still a young man for an average citizen when he retired, but too old to continue pursuing a kid’s dream with a body that kept breaking down. His is a career that will be remembered more for promise than for proof, budding potential that never came to full bloom on the court.
He arrived in Houston as towering, iconic and as durable as the Great Wall of China, yet over the course of his NBA career Yao’s image became fragile like a Ming vase. 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 Western Conference starting center spot 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 L.A. Clippers for 32 points and after one turnaround jumper defiantly shouted, “You try to (bleeping) stop me!”
And then he was gone, literally limping off just when Yao should have been hitting his stride.
Yet at the same time his image off the court was always healthy and grew stronger. Yao was the symbol of an emerging China in the 21st century. He was seen as the bridge across the Pacific, bringing together two vastly different cultures on the common grounds of sports and capitalism.
“I would say looking back I wasn’t expecting where I am today,” Yao said. “I just wanted to play basketball. When drafted by NBA and come over and play here against and with the best players in the world, I just want to be deserved to play on this court.”
On the court and in the locker room, Yao was always known as a tireless worker and an excellent teammate.
The Rockets had planned to use Yao as the linchpin for a new basketball dynasty in Houston, a link to their back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995 and the linear descendant to Malone and Olajuwon as dominant Houston centers. Coincidentally, he played his first home game in Houston on Nov. 2, 2002, the very night Olajuwon’s jersey was retired.
However, the dynasty and the championships never came. When paired in 2004 with the equally star-crossed Tracy McGrady, 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 eventually to the early end.
“It’s an honor and privilege to be here not only today, but my career in Houston as a Rocket player,” Yao said. “Thinking back the years I spent here, the entire team, organization, the city of Houston, I feel so welcome here, so family here. When you feel so good about that time, it flies. It is hard to imagine that 15 years passes.”
He was thoughtful, introspective and had a devilish sense of humor that he turned on coaches, teammates, even reporters.
About six weeks into his rookie season, when Yao was still using his interpreter for all interviews, I stood in front of his locker and asked him a question. This time without batting an eye, Yao responded in flawless English. But out of reflex, interpreter Colin Pine repeated the answer, also in English. When I informed Pine that I didn’t need help understanding my native tongue, Yao threw back his head roared with glee.
Nearly 15 years later, Yao thanked the crowd one more time and let everyone into the yearning that remains.
“I wish I could have a 10-day contract,” he said wistfully.
Sometimes you just remember the laughs.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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