What happened to Yao Ming?

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Yao Ming accomplished an incredible amount, making an indelible mark in his brief career. He also left a legacy only partially fulfilled.

Once upon a time, giants roamed the Earth. And back then, they were considered fundamental tokens, the absolute truth of winning and dominance. In fact, in the big world of basketball, the biggest men became the ultimate rulers, the be-all and end-all of the great orange equation. The Folktale of Russell. The Myth of Wilt. The Legend of Kareem. There is no shortage of stories painting colossus-men conquering courts in hoop’s lore. Those fancy tales weren’t only a thing of the far past, though. Their tallness expanded into the last years of the 19th century, crossed the new-millennium mark, and reached into today.

The introduction of the 3-point line in 1980 was the point guard’s saving grace — only no one realized back then. Before then, you had to be big, or you had to go home — literally. Maybe that’s why even the most famed guards of the past were nicknamed in a way that made them feel “bigger” — i.e., Oscar “The Big O” Robertson — or were literally “Magic” (Earvin Johnson famously stood at 6-foot-9, gigantic for a point guard).

That’s why even from Y2K to the early 2010s every team that won a championship featured a prominent big man; the bigger the better— David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Ben Wallace, Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Tyson Chandler. And those who fell short at that time or before — Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Dwight Howard — still had massive roles in the NBA’s championship tectonics.

Considering this reality, it’s easy to understand why Houston used their No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft to select a mountain of a man in Yao Ming — the impossibly tall 7-foot-6 Chinese import.

However, despite — or perhaps because of — his mythic size, some natural concerns were raised. Only Manute Bol (7–foot-7), Gheorghe Muresan (7–foot-7), and Shawn Bradley (7–foot-6) had played meaningful minutes in the NBA while measuring at least the same height as Yao in vertical units, and none of them had come at Ming’s can’t-get-more-expensive price — Bol was a 97th-overall pick, Muresan went 30th, and although Bradley was drafted second-overall by Philadelphia in 1993 after averaging 14 points and 7 rebounds per game at BYU; but even he — the only white player who was worthy enough to be abducted by the Monstars in Space Jam for his skills — fell short of Yao’s allure and draft position. Even with such a notable height advantage, Bradley (the closest comparable to Yao in that they shared eras) only won the blocks title once (2001) and never became a true centerpiece for Philadelphia, New Jersey, or Dallas during his 11-year, too-many-missed-games, career.

But Yao had something Bradley never did: an international passport. Yao Ming became the first person of interest to go play ball in the USA coming from Asia. He was a draw if only because of his uniqueness. He was more than a player, plain and simple. And Houston banked on his whole international aura and narrative as much as — if not more than — his basketball height.

While the Rockets were determined to make Yao their No. 1 pick in 2001, the Chinese government turned into a serious foe. Ming had to fulfill his commitments with the Chinese team he was part of at the time and the leaders of the Asian country threatened with attaching a “come-back” clause, allowing China to claim and bring him back to his native land at any point if there was an international incident between the Asian and Americans.

Ming didn’t have it easy getting into rhythm. He missed his first summer in America by staying true to the Chinese national basketball team, thus not preparing properly for the upcoming NBA season. He didn’t score a single point in his first professional game donning Houston’s threads and could only get a bucket in his Texas debut a few days after.

That doesn’t sound very good, right? Neither does the fact that Yao would go on to miss ample time due to injuries over his eight-year American trip. Ming was shy, didn’t want to “showboat” by dunking on opponents — or dunking, full stop — yet he was always a beloved figure in NBA circles. But was that about the player, or about the man?

Oct 30, 2010; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets center Yao Ming (11) shoots over Denver Nuggets power forward Al Harrington (7) during the third quarter at the Toyota Center. The Nuggets won 107-94. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

We like rooting for underdogs, Cinderellas, weirdos, the odd men of our times, and those who bend the rules and get to places they shouldn’t have ever dreamed of reaching. But the Houston Rockets, as a business operation, saw the potential of Yao in the appeal and attraction he would generate as the rarest of currencies in the NBA landscape.

The story has repeated itself multiple times in history: the aforementioned Manute Bol was paired with Muggsy Bogues — a tiny 5-foot-3 player from Maryland — creating a bizarre image before the arrival of Ming, and the likes of Sim Bhullar and Tacko Fall would go on to become NBA players after Yao waved goodbye to the league while being massively acclaimed by fans all over the world if only because of their monstrous appearance — Bhullar was a 7–foot-5 center with Indian roots and Fall carried the “tallest player in US college basketball” tag with him — and not much because of their hooping abilities.

It is fascinating how Yao Ming, injuries and all, was a perennial All-Star — he only missed on it in 2010 when he was out for the season— throughout his entire career and how China and Asia as a whole rooted for him and propelled his character to the highest of levels from day one until his retirement in 2011. Power to the people.

At his best, Yao was a dominant force. In 2009, facing the Lakers in the Western Conference Semifinals, the “basketball giant made in China” went on to drop 28 points and grab 10 boards while shooting 9-for-17 from the floor and hitting all of the 10 freebies the Lake Show had awarded him. Four years earlier, also in the postseason and this time aiming at Texas-foe Dallas, Yao got Houston the W with a seemingly-impossible 33–8 game in which he put 13 of the 14 shots he took from the field through the hoop and, again, went a perfect 7-for-7 from the charity stripe. Oh, don’t think he ever fell asleep in the lower-stakes regular-season games: facing Phoenix in 2005 he had one of his most prodigious performances with a 27–22 line including five blocks to spare. Effortless greatness, if you please.

In a sad final season, Yao only played five games for Houston before suffering a fracture in his left ankle that forced him to call it quits that August. Even more impressive and serendipitous, though, was the idea of another Asian taking over the representation of the continent in the States in such an unexpected and under-the-radar way that no one even noticed until they didn’t have a choice but to sit back, and watch it all happen…

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