How long was Yao Ming going to last? That was the question about the seven-foot-six center long before he broke his foot for the first time in the NBA. When Yao joined the league nine summers ago, picked first overall in the 2002 draft by the Houston Rockets, he was the man who would bring the entire Chinese market with him to Texas, a force that would effectively "globalize" a professional sports league. He was on billboards and magazine covers draped in Chinese red and gold.
But his size — and his stature, in all the senses of the word — made him vulnerable to both injury and expectations. At seven-foot-six, he couldn't help but be some kind of NBA player (see: Gheorghe Muresan, Manute Bol, Shawn Bradley), if his body could stay healthy in the grueling league.
The looming size of that body distracted us, at first, from considering what he could do with it. Yao did not start off great. He started off like a project. In the first game of his career, against the Pacers on October 30, 2002, he had zero points, two turnovers and three fouls in 11 minutes of play. He sold tickets and jerseys, but his early output was erratic. In November, Charles Barkley told Kenny Smith that he would kiss his ass on television if Yao scored more than 19 points in a game that year.
The next week, Yao scored 20 against the Lakers, with Samaki Walker filling in for an injured Shaquille O'Neal.
How good could he be? "Somewhere between Shawn Bradley and Shaquille O'Neal," Harvey Araton had written just two games into the Rocket's career, "lies the future of Yao Ming."
Placing Yao on a career timeline that only included other big men – and placing him in the same breath as Bradley – was an unfair thing to do from the very start. He had virtuosic footwork and a smooth shot, if anyone cared to look. He had come to the league directly from the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), where he'd averaged 32 points and 19 boards a game and shot 72 percent from the floor in his final year.
He'd left China a hero, of course, having been a member of the "Walking Great Wall" in the 2000 Olympics and having finally helped the Shanghai Sharks to a CBA title. In the 2001-02 playoffs, when his Sharks finally took down the dynastic Bayi Rockets, Yao somehow upped his offensive output (to nearly 40 and 20 a game) and shot 21-for-21 from the field in one game in the finals. He was 21 years old, and he'd already broken his foot twice.
Over the next nine seasons, through his body-related setbacks, Yao showed something that went far beyond potential. His size would exact a constant physical toll — "It's tiring," he said, just a game into his NBA career — made worse by his constant national and professional obligations. Yet when he was healthy, he was great. Where other super-giants seemed confused by their own limbs, Yao had a precise ability to move and position his immense frame. It's possible, in basketball, to teach and to learn near-perfect footwork, and when you are five-foot-five at 10 years old in China, a lot of people are going to make sure that you do learn it.
Yao had that, and he had well-rehearsed rhythm to his movement. Nothing he did ever looked clumsy. It's difficult to find video evidence of a Yao Ming post play that includes a traveling violation, and still he rarely had to put the ball on the floor. This is something that can only be said of a basketball player who knows his body well: each step looked calculated and yet fundamentally natural, all at the same time.
With his back to the basket, Yao had a turn-around, fadeaway jumper that nearly rivaled Dirk's (if primarily because he has six inches on the German – look for his shot over Nowitzki at the dramatic 1:50 mark in this video, courtesy NBA multimedia). He certainly had the prettier release. Yao and Nowitzki shared the ability to create space for themselves, but Yao did so with six more inches and with more finesse. Part of the wonder of watching him was the feeling that you weren't even sure he was really enjoying himself, or if he had merely accepted his body for what it was and our expectations for what they'd become.
On NBA TV yesterday, Shaq – who memorably had his first four shots blocked by Yao in their first meeting – was asked what made Yao so special. He didn't hesitate: "One time when he had me on the post," Shaq recalled, "he turned around to shoot a fadeaway, and I jumped as high as I could. He still had about three feet left."
Shaq, as we all tend to do, cited Yao's height ("I was like, damn, this dude is tall!") as the advantage, and it would be silly to try and argue that it wasn't the most vital part of his game. But it's also a disservice to someone whose game went so far beyond his height to remember him as just another notably big big man – "somewhere between" Bradley and O'Neal. Neither of those guys could shoot from outside the key or from the charity stripe like he did (Yao shot 83% from the free-throw line in his career; Dirk is the only seven-footer to have a better line than that).
And neither of those guys were billed as the selling point for a league that, ultimately, didn't need him as some sort of global symbol as much as they thought they did. In the Feb. 10, 2003 issue of Sports Illustrated, Jack McCallum wrote:
Yes, in the eternal search for the It Guy, Yao is now, and as far as the NBA is concerned, he arrived none too soon. According to an SI poll, NBA fans' interest in the league is down, and though media hype might tell you otherwise, it is not high school hotshots such as LeBron James who are most likely to lead a revival. It is players like Yao.
Eight years later, that league has (and honestly, at Yao's arrival, already had) developed a firm international identity, but the revival of interest has had much more to do with players like James than it has had to do with Yao Ming. We are now, after all, allegedly in the midst of a small-ball revolution. Yao was great for the league because he brought in a new market, he sold out games and jerseys, and he was liked across, well, the globe. Many people are even giving him credit for "globalizing" the game of basketball. That's an honor, if an overblown one. But it's also not even his essential legacy: Yao was great for the game because he was a great player who happened to be very tall and who happened to be from China. It's for that reason — not that he was a demographically useful, unnaturally tall It Guy — that it would have been a pleasure to see him play a few more years.