This isn’t happening. Not now. Not with a 6 point lead in the 4th over the mighty Lakers. Not after 79 games of good health. I feel the emptiness; that exhaustion upon the sudden collapse of a prior hope. It had to happen now?
One of the most memorable minutes in Rockets history, still so chill-inducing in its remembrance, the tunnel scene was the defining moment of Yao Ming’s career. So real it seemed scripted – like some WWF plotline. One could almost feel Yao’s anguish as he fought Keith Jones, a panicked desperation overcoming his visage. Yao so very well knew that it was his moment and it was slipping away, grasped once more by the cruel clench of fate. Walk away from it he could not do – not after how far he had come.
In that first year, Yao would peer intently at his translator, the one link that helped him make sense of this brave new world. But from the start, the wit and wisdom in his words were evident. He was shy, but pregnant with a certain eagerness to please.
Yao did not just carry the hopes of a city, but those of an entire nation, enduring the challenge of learning the NBA game while facing the prospect of adapting to American culture. He epitomized selflessness, the ideal teammate, always the first to come and last to leave after practice, one of the greatest ambassadors the game has ever seen. He was, from the start, the model NBA player in every way, right down to a textbook shot, holding his hand perfectly behind the ball as is taught in the books.
Over the years, Yao made huge strides, growing, filling out into a monster.
But his game grew too. Early on, Yao was plagued by fouls, almost routinely picking up two in the first twelve. But now, he’s a wall – while not a great shotblocker, one of the game’s best goalkeepers, and the anchor of what has been one of the league’s best defenses for nearly a decade.
The offense was there from the start. In certain spots, Yao Ming has been unguardable. [61% last season on ‘inside’ shots].
Yao can score with either hand on either block, fadeaway in either direction and even face up for a shocking pump fake-and-drive against certain matchups. He is automatic from the free throw line. If facing single coverage, or allowed to shoot without taking a dribble, the result is almost always a sure hoop.
It’s been long forgotten, but when Yao first entered the league, hardly anyone expected dominance. The scouts called him a project, saying it could take some time. The pundits outright dismissed him.
I thought Yao’s ceiling was 13 and 8 – serviceability. I envisioned him spreading the floor from the high post while Francis and Mobley carried the load. Like a new-age Sabonis.
Naturally, 20 and 10–with glimpses of brilliance mixed in–came as quite the surprise. No one expected a post-game at the NBA level. At least not that fast.
In his overachievement, Yao only fueled expectations, feeding us to want more and forget for what so little we had originally asked. He became a victim of his own success. It didn’t matter that he was doing far more than any “giant” had done in league history. If he was the game’s best offensive center, it was asked, why did he struggle so often?
The underlying irony of the Yao saga is that the man’s greatest strength is also his tragic downfall. The gargantuan size that has made Yao the most lethal low post-scorer in basketball is also the cause of his many struggles and injuries.
Critics label Yao soft, scoffing that a man his size should rebound better and not so often be dunked upon and blocked.
Rather than shedding any actual insight, the charges really only expose the critics’ incomprehension of basic physics. In most respects, such great size is not an asset but rather a hindrance. At 7’6, it is difficult to even move, let alone chase rebounds and small guards in the air. The equation is not quite as simplistic as mere height conveying dominance.
But it’s chic to ridicule Yao because when he plays poorly, he literally appears it. For others, a tough night may entail missed shots and turnovers. But when Yao has poor outings, he falls down, and is blocked and stripped from behind. Struggles become exaggerated by the slow motion of his world; awkwardness conveys a greater sense of futility.
If Yao were soft, it is unlikely he would fair so well in his matchups against the biggest of bigs; he certainly would not manhandle Dwight Howard so thoroughly.