Growing up, I knew this kid on my basketball team who would always try to correct me and tell me how Yao Ming’s name was pronounced. He used to say that since “Yao” was the name written on the back of his jersey, that meant it was his last name and therefore the orientation of his name was Ming Yao, and not Yao Ming. I want to state for the record right now that this is utterly false (source: I am of Chinese descent).
This is especially important to remember, as the Houston Rockets retired the Hall of Famer’s number 11 on Friday night during their match-up against the Chicago Bulls. Former teammates Shane Battier, Tracy McGrady, Steve Francis and Dikembe Mutombo were present, as Yao spoke to the sold-out Toyota Center, who enthusiastically chanted his name during parts of his speech.
This comes as no surprise; Yao deserves to be showered with praise for what he accomplished on and off the court. But personally, it is his character that resonates most strongly, a sentiment that is shared by his former coaches and peers. His journey to the NBA was never certain, and his career was cut short due to repeated foot and ankle injuries that lingered throughout his nine years in the league. Yet in the face of adversity, Yao simply put his head down and went to work.
Unlike college athletes, who could freely declare their intent to enter the NBA draft, Yao’s path was much different. In 2002, he was a member of the Shanghai Sharks, a professional basketball team in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), as well as the Chinese national team.
The CBA controlled Yao’s fate, and as part of their demands for his release to the NBA draft, he would have to return to China to play for the national team every summer, on top of a guarantee to be selected with the first overall pick of that year’s draft. Despite assurances from the Rockets, who won the rights to first overall pick, to meet the latter demand, the CBA did not officially give Yao permission to play in the United States until the morning of the draft.
And so, for the rest of his nine seasons in the NBA, Yao would report for training camp late September and played until April or early May. Barring injury, Yao would report for the national team program by June, where he trained and played in international tournaments until August.
It is hard to imagine Yao was given the appropriate amount of time to properly heal from lingering injuries. In an era where we pardon LeBron for taking nights off to rest, I have tremendous respect for Yao’s commitment to not only his NBA team, but also his national team.
Multiple stress fractures to his left foot and ankle marred his illustrious career. Near the end of the 2006 season, Yao suffered a Jones fracture to his left foot. It is the same injury that ended Kevin Durant’s season in 2014, and the one currently delaying the much-anticipated debut of the Sixers rookie Ben Simmons, who suffered the injury during training camp.
Bear with me for a moment as I go into further detail about the injury. The Jones fracture is a fracture in the fifth metatarsal, or put into simpler terms, one of the bones of the pinky toe. It is a common injury in the NBA due to the sport-specific repetitive jumping and cutting, and poses a significant problem for NBA big men due to their respective size and the increased stress induced on the bone.
Surgery consists of the insertion of screws to the intramedullary region (inside) of the bone, which acts to stabilize the metatarsal and promote healing. The main complication with a Jones fracture is the location of the injury, specifically that the area can potentially receive poor blood supply. Blood circulation is crucial towards the healing process, as it provides the necessary building blocks for the fracture to unionize.
It goes without saying that the utmost important therapeutic measure in all cases of Jones fractures is simply, rest. Yao was given a four-to-six month recovery timetable by his surgeons, however he accelerated the treatment and went on to compete for China at the FIBA World Championships in mid-August.
It is a testament to Yao’s character, sacrificing his own well-being to honour his commitment to the national team. In hindsight, however, I believe that decision ultimately lead to the cascade of injuries towards the end of his career.
His left foot never fully healed, and in late February of 2008, Yao suffered another stress fracture on the same foot. The Olympics were being held in Beijing that summer, and it came as a huge source of pride not just for Chinese athletes like Yao, but for the Chinese population alike. I can remember my dad rambling on and on about it for the months leading up to the Olympics, and exactly where I was sitting for the opening and closing ceremonies.
Therefore, the possibility of Yao missing the Olympic games would be nothing short of an utter heartbreak. However, Yao remained unwavering in his loyalty to his country. After successfully undergoing surgery that April, he completed his four-month rehab and rejoined the team in time for the opening ceremonies, where he was bestowed the honour of being China’s flag bearer.
He finally managed to stay healthy the following season, taking the Rockets to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Just as things were looking up, Yao sustained a season-ending injury during that series, and the Rockets lost in seven games to the eventual champions, the Los Angeles Lakers. Initially ruled a sprained ankle, further examination revealed a hairline fracture in his left foot, forcing Yao to miss the remainder of the playoffs, and ultimately the entire 2009-2010 NBA season.
After a 15-month absence, Yao returned to the Rockets for the start of the 2010-2011 season, his final NBA season. Another stress fracture (this time to his left ankle) would prematurely end his season, only this time, there was no comeback. Upon becoming a free agent in the summer of 2011, Yao announced his retirement from the game of basketball, ending an injury-riddled but extraordinary career.
At seven feet and six inches tall, Yao towered over his opponents, even making the great Shaquille O’Neal look like a mere boy by comparison. His sheer size made it nearly impossible to guard Yao in the post; he would back down his defender with ease, either using his strength to bully his way to the rim, or spin away and hit his patented fade-away (which was arguably more difficult to stop than Dirk Nowitzki’s). His footwork was unparalleled for his size, and I honestly don’t believe we will see a more agile and technically gifted player of his size again.
What makes Yao’s offensive game so remarkably unique was how he could consistently hit the 15-foot jumper. A career 43% from 10-16 feet, Yao’s deft shooting touch meant he could pressure any team’s defence in a multitude of ways. It made every defender tasked to guard Yao question how they could stop him. If you gave him too much space, he would hit that mid-range jumper in your face. If you tried to take that space away, he would impose his size and back you down into the post, where his technical abilities would shine.
There was simply no way to stop Yao Ming, and when he was healthy, there were very few players on the planet who could dominate a game like he could.
Yao was not merely defined on offence by his height. Rather, what was so impressive about him was how he excelled in other facets of the game you would not necessarily expect from a center. He could handle the basketball (this play alone is proof). His underrated passing ability meant he could easily work his way out of double-teams to find his open teammates. He was a career 83% from the free throw line, which meant that the then-relevant hack-a-Shaq strategy could not be applied to slow down Yao.
Defensively, Yao was what you expected from someone his size. He was a terrific shot-blocker, but he wouldn’t rely on his length to get blocks. Instead, he would rely on his keen defensive acumen, always being conscious of the match-ups while being able to make the correct rotations on the defensive end. He didn’t do anything flashy, but he was defensively sound, which is more than you can ask for given what he brought on the other end of the court.
There are so many aspects about Yao’s skill-set that transcended the era. Nowadays, it isn’t uncommon to see a seven-footer roaming beyond the three-point line (in fact that has become a very sought after asset). There is no doubt in my mind that had Yao kept his health, he would have developed a three-point proficiency similar to what we have seen in Brook Lopez this season. How on earth would you have stopped Yao then? He wouldn’t have to batter his way into the post like he did early in his career, which would have reduced the wear and tear on his body, possibly prolonging his NBA career.
Personally, Yao Ming is one of the top 10 greatest centers of all-time. Though marred with injuries, whenever Yao stepped on the court, he was an immediate threat. He imposed his will offensively, finishing his career averaging 19 points and 9.2 rebounds a game, shooting 52.4% field goal percentage and 83.3% from the line. His offensive game was multi-dimensional, and while he could score in a variety of ways, he did it with the efficiency unlike few other centers at the time.
Even Shaquille O’Neal, who is regarded as one of the greatest offensive centers of all-time had a lower career true shooting percentage than Yao (Shaq at .586 compared to Yao’s .596 on a very similar usage percentage see “Advanced”). While that difference may not seem incredibly significant, consider this: Yao ranks 24th all time in that category, ahead of other all-time greats like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and David Robinson. Shaq remains tied for 35th.
Yao’s impact on the game of basketball goes beyond the court. He is the sole reason why basketball is now a staple in Chinese culture. He helped bridge the NBA’s gap between America and Asia, making it possible for the NBA to reach out to new audiences across the world. It explains how Yao was voted as a starter of the All-Star game in eight of his nine seasons (and remember, he missed the entire 2009-2010 season), while surpassing Michael Jordan for the most All-Star votes for the 2005 All-Star game, amassing 2,558,278 total votes that year.
Yao was larger than life off the court. Youth in China weren’t wearing the names of Bryant, or James on their backs, rather proudly supporting the man who would carry their nation solely on his back. From the dawn of his NBA career, 1.3 billion eyes looked on, analyzing every move he made, the injuries, the good and the bad. For his entire career, Yao carried himself in a manner that epitomized the diligence and work ethic that embodies the Chinese culture. He challenged every adversity with those same qualities, and went about it in a way that earned the respect from all his peers, like that of Tim Duncan.
Earning that respect did not come without its own adversities. Yao was, and remains the most prolific Asian NBA player of all time. He entered the league with great skepticism, and in an era where basketball was still dominated by the center position. He got drafted to a Rockets team that had a legacy of all-time great centers in Moses Malone, Elvin Hayes, Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon. He was the first international player to be selected first overall, without having played in college prior.
Every critic said he would be a bust; some likened him to LaRue Martin, and for those of who don’t know him, well, that’s sort of the point. Finally, there was the mountain of injuries he had to come back from. All of this could understandably take a toll on any NBA player, let alone one who was living under a microscope in two completely different continents.
But Yao approached every obstacle with the same quiet demeanor. He wasn’t much for talking, though language barrier didn’t help. What he stood for was his dedication to his teammates, to his organization, to his country, and to the game of basketball. And for all that, he was well-deserving of the honour he received Friday night.
So, to those who had their doubts, past and present, I say this: put some respect on the man’s name. If not, you had better expect to catch me outside.
- Begly, J.P., Guss, M., Ramme, A.J., Karia, R., & Meislin, R.J. (2016). Return to play and performance after Jones fracture in National Basketball Association athletes. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, 8(4), 342-346.
- Bucher, R., & Ming, Y. (2005). Yao: A Life in Two Worlds. New York City, NY: Miramax Books.
- Hunt, K.J., & Anderson, R.B. (2011). Treatment of Jones fracture nonunions and refractures in the elite athlete. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 39(9), 1948-1954.