The Large Man, the Great Wall, Big Guy, the Big Fella, His Hugeness, the Ming Train, Yaodre the Giant – all nicknames we will no longer utter in Houston or elsewhere for any purpose other than memory.
An odd thing about this particular universe, its relationship of space and time, is that we all collect memories like mp3s. Our hard drives fill until they fail or are corrupted. We hope and love to remember and hope to be remembered ourselves as fondly as we recall.
I am two months older than Yao Ming, and if you told me I had to retire from everything I love to do tomorrow, I’d probably cry, openly and desperately, and mostly what I would hope, after selfishly mourning my own loss, is that I’d have done enough to be remembered.
And sports is, we all know, as frivolous as anything, but its metaphors are also just as potent. Those individuals who commit themselves to becoming good and great at sports realize their opportunities are necessarily limited, in the way that all of our opportunities are limited, but even more strictly, which is why injuries in athletics can seem particularly tragic.
Yao Ming is not the first ever athlete to suffer a career ending injury. In professional basketball alone, the list of players who’ve had their careers prematurely cut short is nearly too long to count. And that’s not considering all those who didn’t even make it far enough for us to learn their names.
My hope is that Yao will be remembered as the truly great basketball talent that he is, a force on offense and defense with post moves and a soft touch that could make anyone forget, if that’s at all possible, that he’s the biggest human we’ve ever laid eyes on.
In January of 2008, a friend of mine who works for CBS graciously invited me to check out a Rockets game with him from his company’s seats. These weren’t floor seats but certainly closer than I’d ever been, about eight or so rows back if I remember correctly. The game was against the Hornets and a little more than two weeks before the team went on its 22 game win streak and six weeks before Yao went down with a stress fracture in his left foot, the first of his now infamous troubles with the injury. But on this night he was healthy, and even though the Rockets lost the game, Yao went for 30 and 16 with 4 blocks.
My first impressions as we sat down were simply how huge all the players were, how they dwarfed the court, made it look like the NERF basketball hoop I had hung on the back of my bedroom door as a kid, but especially Yao. He somehow managed to make these other giants look small. Even Tyson Chandler, who checked him most of night, reminded me of a ten year old trying to guard his teenaged brother.
And despite sharing the arena with the amazing dervish that is Chris Paul, on this night Yao Ming was, without question, the best player on the court. The offense ran through him (MacGrady was out at the time with a knee injury) on every play. Chandler played excellent defense all game, but it didn’t matter. If he didn’t get the position he wanted, Yao just shot over him or spun around him on the baseline for a layup or created contact and knocked down his free throws.
In the final seconds, with the Rockets down three, Luther Head got run off the three point line and then had his lay-up blocked at the rim by David West, and after an offensive rebound, Yao ended up attempting the game-tying three.
My first thought, of course, was “What in the hell is wrong with our offense that we’re setting up a play for Luther Head at the end of a game?” But as Yao took that shot, I do remember this: when it came off his hand, I fully expected it to go in.