Yao returns to Houston, reflects on Rockets legacy

Fran Blinebury

One thought keeps running through Yao Ming’s mind every time he thinks of the Rockets retiring his jersey.

“It just happened too soon,” Yao said.

Yao was back at a podium at Toyota Center for first time since his premature retirement in 2011 due to a debilitating series of foot injuries.

The No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft played just seven full seasons of the nine he was with the Rockets, averaging 19 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocked and was voted to the All-Star team eight times.

Inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in September, the 7-6 center will have his No. 11 jersey officially retired by the Rockets on Feb. 2 during halftime of the game vs. Atlanta.

“It’s something I couldn’t have dreamed of,” Yao said. “I appreciate everything Houston did for me, the opportunity to come over here and play. Honestly from my first day to my last day I cannot think to make it any different.”

The Rockets have previously retired the numbers of Calvin Murphy (23), Rudy Tomjanovich (45), Hakeem Olajuwon (34), Clyde Drexler (22) and Moses Malone (24). They also have a banner honoring former assistant coach and general manager Carroll Dawson hanging from the rafters.

“I said it before, but so many nights when I walked through that court or play on that court that I look up to those jerseys and know that those jerseys are spirit of the team of Houston,” Yao said. “Those jersey are honored and those jerseys are motivation …I would be honored to continue with them. I hope my career here is something that meets the expectation of basketball fans.”

Yao, 36, returned to Houston as owner of the Shanghai Sharks, the first team from the Chinese Basketball Association to play a game against an NBA team in the United States.

“I said to (Rockets general manager) Daryl (Morey) that maybe coach (Mike) D’Antoni could use four players against us,” said Yao. “Obviously the NBA represents the best basketball in the world. We are very fortunate to be here. It is a test for us to see the measurement.

“For players to walk into stadium and play in front over over 10,000 fans, that is a different experience. Hopefully that gives them a big thrill. I remember my first time I walk into NBA stadium. It is not always comfortable to play at the next level.

“Feel the air. I remember the air that day when running into the stadium first time playing for the Rockets. There was something that has really stayed a long time in my memory.”

There were other mileposts.

“The first game in Houston,” Yao said. “A very warm welcome at the airport. The was something that really surprised me and almost made me cry. That first night that (teammates) Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley introduced me at the Compaq Center.

“Also when we made the playoffs for the first time, playing with Tracy McGrady and Dikembe (Mutombo) and Shane (Battier) and all those guys. Playing hard on the court, making jokes, laughing in locker room. Those are experiences that will stay with me for a lifetime.”

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

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.