There will never be another Yao
He was hard to miss, impossible actually, and everywhere he went his height put him a good two to three heads above all around him. But there is a difference between looking down at your fellow man and looking down on your fellow man and no one has ever understood that better than Yao Ming. His class both on and off the basketball court has endeared him to millions globally for nearly 10 years. But thanks to a series of crippling injuries, he's been relegated to little more than a forgotten figure lately and the news that Yao will announce his retirement this week is more of a relief than a surprise. His NBA career has been on hold for a while after playing only five games this past season because of recurring stress fractures in his ankle that left one with the distinct feeling it could all be over for Yao at the tender age of 30. And now it appears it is.
Hard to believe it was a scant nine years ago when Yao made his debut with the Houston Rockets. The first pick in the 2002 NBA draft, his selection was a source of great derision by many in basketball and the media who thought he was too slow and robotic to compete at such a lofty level. I saw Yao playing at 17 with the Shanghai Sharks and watched his game and personality mature over the next few years. Sure he had otherworldly height, but he also possessed an innate feel for the game and a soft shooting touch so rare in big men. He had been gawked at almost since the day he was born and if it was cause for some kind of complex, you would never know. He seemed more comfortable in his skin than any man of his size had a right to be and as his English improved he became less guarded and more accommodating, despite the lingering presence of Chinese basketball officials and shoe reps.
I figured he would make an immediate impact in the NBA but he struggled mightily in the first part of the season and was openly mocked by opposing players and media members. But eventually he became more assertive and was soon a force both on and off the court. Everywhere he went his games became an event with North American and overseas Chinese fans showing their sporting pride like never before. By the time his rookie season finished, Yao was arguably the most visible athlete in the world.
Here in Hong Kong the residue of Sars still lingered and an appearance from Yao and China's national team to play an exhibition game that summer went a long way to allaying fears of overseas visitors. The reception was pure pandemonium and when I asked Yao how he could stand living in the fishbowl, he shrugged and said it wasn't so bad. 'I'm used to it,' he added and then he laughed and made a few jokes. He was the same guy he had been a few years ago when I last saw him. Not a thing about him had changed. Amazing. The next night he played the entire game against the Melbourne Tigers and did the same thing two nights later in Jinjiang, and two nights after that as well and all this after playing 82 games with the Rockets. It was pretty clear then that no one could hold up to that kind of rigorous schedule. But the Chinese sports administrators and their propaganda machine viewed him as basically an indentured servant and they were going to squeeze every possible drop of golden sweat out of Yao. And so they brought him back every year for meaningless national team duties, relentlessly exhausting him.
When Yao debuted in the NBA it was a time of great anxiety in the west over the increasing economic and military might of China. He was the perfect antidote to the drab and humourless suits in the politburo. He had an effortless charm and is perhaps the wittiest athlete I have ever met, which is no small feat considering his wit was articulated in a second language. But what endeared Yao to Americans almost immediately was his earnest and respectful personality. Amid a legion of overpaid, over-pampered and misbehaving athletes, there was almost no chance that a mug shot of Yao being booked by the police would be appearing online. Since the moment he became a public figure, Yao has always done the right thing, despite being one of the most scrutinised people in the world. To me that's cause for celebration, not consternation. I can be as cynical as the next person and I often believe that if something is too good to be true it probably is. But not this guy.
There will never be another Yao Ming and there does not need to be. He has broken the mould and smashed stereotypes for all that follow. But it would have been nice if he were just allowed to be a basketball player, to let his body heal properly in the off-season and perhaps get a shot at that elusive championship. If Yao had been born in New Jersey, instead of Shanghai, he may still be playing because carrying the burden of 1.3 billion people tends to weigh a fellow down. He certainly deserves a rest. Sadly, it's going to be a lot longer than it should.