A eulogy of sorts

When he arrived, so much came with him. John Wall may have had the two years of buzz-turned-hysteria, and LeBron had already scheduled his coronation long before he ever took step on an NBA floor; Yao Ming, though, brought it all with him: hopes, hearts, expectations, burdens, a myth. While some knew, particularly Les Alexander and Carrol Dawson, many doubted the lean freak that jutted out of the Earth like a monument to all that China had already achieved and could accomplish. Too skinny, too tall, too foreign, too Chinese, too soft. The universe hadn’t yet conspired to bring him to his knees, but the American media figured it would try all the same. Though few were larger, they and he both knew that he had huge shoes to fill in the Rockets’ tradition of brilliant pivots like Malone, Sampson and Olajuwon; history weighs on a man, even one as gigantic as he, and if the Rockets’ litany of great bigs didn’t provide enough history for Yao, his native country certainly did. In a land where historical dramas still function as standard fare in popular entertainment, Yao has always been keenly aware of what he represented to a country that needed and wanted his representation: greatness and grandness. In his time in this league, he has done his best to oblige us all.

There were more than a few rough spots through his first years here, trying to fit his still-developing game with the combo-guard-stylings of Steve Francis, who, try as he might, could never be the facilitator Yao’s skill both demanded and deserved. Francis gave way to the man who will be most closely associated with our memories of the large one, Tracy McGrady, basketball’s other tragic gift to Houston. They not only spelled promise; their marriage screamed rings and redemption and caused a whole lot of season tickets to be sold. When McGrady was dealt in the 2004 offseason, no one could have predicted that that summer would be the peak of their time together, the moment when optimism could not have possibly been higher. Not to say their talents had trouble fitting together on the court; though McGrady came in as the league’s leading scorer, his vision, an attribute for which no one will ever give Tracy his proper due, and Yao’s stature allowed for flickers of greatness, promising visions of the reemergence of Clutch City. Though that first run came to an abrupt end when the Dallas Mavericks decimated Houston in the conclusion of a seven-game battle by an embarrassing 40-point margin of defeat, the first round would not long be enough to contain two forces of natures so powerful, so unique (alas…).

1813924 lg A eulogy of sorts

The very next year, Yao Ming had what will likely be his greatest statistical season as a pro, posting 25 points, 9 rebounds and a superstar-like 25.6 PER, all as everything crumbled around him. His team took an ill-advised shot at Stromile Swift as the Rockets’ other pillar in McGrady literally broke his back, sending yelps of pain throughout a fanbase and a city. All of this occurred before the big fella himself began the cycle, going down after only 57 games played. Little did we know what the cycle was or how right everyone would be about these two broken deities, damned to careers where their brilliance could only be seen for months at a time before one or the other was forced to watch helplessly as the other’s burden grew too heavy for one man to carry. Yao’s absences became their own myths: the time Mutombo’s body forgot his age and averaged 20 rebounds for a month, the Streak, the seven-game war with the Lakers. All were magical, no doubt, but they always represented the consolation prizes for not knowing better. Before long, the general consensus knew what us blessed few witnesses couldn’t handle or allow ourselves to believe: that it was over before it had begun.

Giants should not have to be forced to sit in chairs and shoot jump shots or limp around battling the very reasonable depression that goes along with being robbed of doing the thing your body seems to have been so perfectly suited to do (or, as it has turned out, so ill-suited), but he did. He did because he cared. He cared about the fans and his family and his country and everyone, knowing he wanted to inspire them, yes, but he cared about his responsibilities and saw his talent as a promise gone unfulfilled. When he talked earlier this summer about how other men his age were peaking as he fought his own body for control, it became obvious that he would not give up on his skill even as his most ardent supporters/fools had. His good had always been evident in his charity work, teamwork and general magnanimity, and his resilience could be seen in both his effort and patience. Yao was the machine of perfection for whom China had always hoped, even if it was not necessarily on the basketball court. So he waited and waited and practiced and waited, until he could make his return. The real one that would remind us all why we believed again. And after five games, like that, he is not here to continue his fight. He haunts the team, the fans and himself once again.

Do not let disappointment cloud the truth, though. The hopes only rose so high because he showed so much, because he was so much more than any giant before him. I declined writing about his infinite skills in this column only because after yesterday’s dagger to the collective heart of basketball fans, writing about his gifts feels like describing the features of a lost love’s face. In him resided an endless pool of greatness, of grandness. He should be remembered for that and his fight to retain them more so than his likely (remember, this man’s career is not literally over just yet) abrupt end. Because if China and the rest of us wanted a warrior that reminded us all of how far that country, the world and basketball have come, Yao Ming was just that. I just hope he knows that we know he can still be more.

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