Jeff Van Gundy is already concerned. Hours after news leaked of Yao Ming’s retirement from the NBA, Van Gundy predicts Yao’s play on the court might eventually be forgotten, that the original difficult transition Yao made look so easy would be downplayed and that his contribution to the league would be categorized in terms of global dollars and not his influence on the Houston Rockets.
“People are saying he was pretty good,” says Van Gundy, who coached Yao after his rookie season in Houston for four seasons.1 “No, he was dominant. He could play. You could make the case he didn’t do it for long enough to be considered an all-time great. But this guy was dominant when he played. In his age group, he was the best center,” Van Gundy then pauses and offers the one qualifier as large as Yao that will ultimately follow him into retirement: “When healthy.”
“People forget what kind of pressure he was on when he came over here, not totally comfortable with the language to start off with and being the first pick in the draft,” Van Gundy continues. “People hoped he would fail. Some of the then-Rocket players wanted to trade the pick for Lamar Odom. The guy was under enormous pressure. He handled every bit of it with grace and wisdom, and he handled it flawlessly.”
It is easy to forget the circumstances that surrounded Yao’s entry in the NBA. He did not participate in training camp as a rookie and instead fulfilled commitments to China’s national team. He had to be coaxed into dunking because he did not want to show up his opponents. He went scoreless in his NBA debut. Eventually, the world and the NBA became accustomed to Yao scoring with a deft touch, with either hand, from either side of the basket, from enough angles to fill up the pages of a geometry book. The fans he won over with this multifaceted offensive arsenal and gentle demeanor also became accustomed to Yao’s injuries, his frail feet, and, through the years, the cruel reality that a body seemingly tailor-made to play center could not withstand the rigors of the position. Yao played in just 250 regular-season games over the past six seasons. As the injuries piled, he spent less and less time around the team’s training facility, already distancing himself from the game and the inevitable realization that he would soon be forced to leave it behind. “He was in and out,” says Shane Battier, a former teammate. “It was tough for him to be around. Knowing Yao, I think he felt he let his team down when he couldn’t stay healthy. Which was absurd.”
We are left to contemplate the career of a once-in-a-generation player who played only about 70 games in four seasons. While sifting through it, here are a few things to consider.
He connected the NBA to China in a way no other player could
While recalling the Rockets preseason trips to China, Battier says, “You understand what the Beatles felt like in Liverpool. It was hysteria. By sheer volume of people, he has to be the most recognizable person in the entire world. It was a lot of fun, and Yao did an unbelievable job with the pressures of 1.2 billion people behind him. It’s something I’ll tell my grandkids about.”
The NBA had long targeted China as a fertile ground to expand the game’s global interest. NBA commissioner David Stern appointed the league’s first Beijing-based employee in 1990. Players began traveling there to host clinics in 1997. Still, the full potential of the league’s popularity there went untapped until Yao’s 2002 debut. It is difficult imagining Stern manufacturing a better ambassador than Yao. “The NBA got really lucky with Yao Ming, there’s no question about that,” says Clayton Dube, an expert on economic and political change in China and the associate director of the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute. Dube added that Yao’s arrival came at an opportune time, along with the increasing influence of the Internet (allowing fans in China to vote for All-Star teams) and the rise of satellite television. “What’s striking to me is the powerful impact Yao made here in America,” he says. “That shouldn’t be overlooked. He just really exemplified all that could be good in a person. That made a big difference.”
Yao drove television ratings in China and fostered several international business sponsorships. Eventually, Shaquille O’Neal, Jose Calderon, Baron Davis, and others signed deals with China-based companies. Yao should have earned a commission on those deals.
“Jordan definitely was popular in China, and LeBron definitely is now, too,” says Steven W. Lewis of the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Houston’s Rice University. “The difference is Yao can speak in Chinese.” Lewis briefly consulted with the Rockets on how to market Yao before he arrived. He imagines it will be difficult for the NBA to sustain as deep a relationship with fans in China now that the Yao has retired from play. “The level of the NBA’s penetration in China is already significant,” Dube says. “But I would expect a fallout, now that you won’t have the default, ‘How are the Houston Rockets doing?’ perspective.”
Yao was not just tall, he was good
Despite his well-documented and extensive injuries, Yao scored the most points of any center between 2002 and 2009. The Lakers might have been out one of their championships had Yao stayed healthy in 2009. Shortly after Yao guided the Rockets to what would be his only playoff win in a series against the Portland Trail Blazers, he dominated the opening game of a second series against the Lakers with 28 points and 10 rebounds (Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum had a combined 24 points). In the third game of the series, team officials diagnosed Yao with a sprained ankle. Further tests revealed a fracture. He would play in only five more games the rest of his career. “This guy was a great worker and he refined his game so much in the low post,” Van Gundy says. “This guy’s preparation to play was second to none than anybody I’ve ever coached.”
When asked if Yao should be in the Hall of Fame, Van Gundy, who does not hide his bias, said, “Without question. I don’t care if you do it as a player or as a contributor or make up a new category for what he goes in as.”
Yao could have dominated the NBA from around 2007 to 2014
Think about it. The best perimeter players Yao played with were Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley, and Tracy McGrady. Francis’ career sputtered fast, and he last played professionally in China (his popularity there no doubt aided by being a former teammate of Yao), Mobley’s current career plans included opening a medical marijuana dispensary, and McGrady, despite his early brilliance, was always a phenomenally gifted scorer whose poor work habits tanked his great potential. In Yao’s third season, the last that would see him play in at least 80 games, the Rockets cycled through 23 players because of injuries. Still, with Yao and McGrady healthy, they finished 51-31. Imagine if Yao could have been paired with any number of dominant wing players. When healthy, Yao had no peer. Dwight Howard is by far the best remaining center, but in nine head-to-head matchups, Yao’s Rockets went 7-2 against Howard’s Orlando Magic. In the meetings, Yao averaged 23.6 points and 10.4 rebounds to Howard’s 12.2 and 9.8 rebounds.
His retirement highlights the plight of the dominant NBA center. Yao and O’Neal, two global icons, retired within the span of four weeks. Back in Yao’s rookie season, the two got off to a rocky start when O’Neal made racially insensitive remarks. But they represented the last of a dying breed, and Yao gained O’Neal’s respect; if you doubt it, check their respective Twitter feeds. While Yao offers no hints of his own future on his page, his third-most recent tweet wishes O’Neal a happy retirement: “He was a great champion and player. I wish him success and happiness.” One of O’Neal’s most recent messages is a video of him discussing Yao’s retirement. “Let’s go on vacation boy, me and you,” he says.
Their retirements only underscore the lack of quality options for teams at center, a position that used to be the conduit coaches ran game plans through. Before the 2004-05 season, the NBA tightened the enforcement of banning hand and forearm checking by perimeter defenders, a decision that sparked a renaissance among point guards and marginalized big men throughout the league. “Everybody is playing on the perimeter,” Van Gundy says. “In the NBA, the post player is able to get clubbed, beaten on legally, where on the perimeter, you can’t touch anybody. It’s just natural that the game has gravitated there.” Howard is the best of what’s left — with a significant gulf between him and the likes of Andrew Bynum, Brook Lopez, Andrew Bogut, and Nene.
Out of all the great centers who ever played, Yao is the only one who never even played in a conference finals
Scroll through the list of great centers: Mikan, Wilt, Kareem, Russell, Shaq, Moses Malone, Hakeem, Patrick Ewing. All of them played for a championship. Heck, even Arvydas Sabonis played in a couple of conference championships. Which leads us to the strongest and most legitimate strike against Yao’s legacy on the court. “He didn’t have that deep playoff run,” Battier says. “It’s tough to have an enduring legacy without that. At his height, he was one of the most dominating players in the game. When he was healthy and in form, he couldn’t be stopped. That’s how I’ll always remember him. I don’t know if history will be as kind.”
Someone apparently put a curse on the 2002 draft class
Yao, the first overall pick, lasted only 486 games. The Chicago Bulls chose Duke’s Jay Williams second only to see his career end with a motorcycle crash after his rookie season. Mike Dunleavy Jr. (third overall to Golden State) and Drew Gooden (fourth to the Memphis Grizzlies) carved sustainable careers, but ones utterly unworthy of their high selections. They were followed by Nikoloz Tskitishvili, one of the all-time great busts, and Dajuan Wagner, who had his career derailed by a colitis condition. (You can’t make this stuff up.) Beyond Yao, Amar’e Stoudemire (ninth), Caron Butler (10th), and Carlos Boozer (35th) are the only players from their class to make an All-Star team. Luis Scola, Yao’s former running mate, was the third-to-last-pick that year and is now arguably the second-most productive draftee of that class.
Yao was one of the NBA’s funniest personalities
Once, before members of the Rockets took a drug test, Yao gazed around the room, smiled, and asked his teammates: “Why am I the only one not nervous?”
Yao’s quick wit was legendary among his teammates and the media. His longest running joke concerned his hearing: Yao is partially deaf in his left ear, the result of an allergic reaction to medicine as a child. No one could blame him for using his hearing to as an excuse to ignore the constant gawkers that a man who stands 7-foot-6 draws. But, remembers Battier, “He always did a great job of pretending he didn’t hear you, especially when he missed an assignment. Yao wasn’t as deaf as he made himself out to be.”
“He always heard me when I said, ‘Yao get Dikembe,’” Van Gundy says, laughing. “But when I talked pick-and-roll defense, then the language barrier became much more dramatic.” The fact that Yao could use humor so quickly after arriving in the United States was in many ways his secret weapon, one he often used to buy time or deflect attention from the questions that he did not want to answer. Jonathan Feigen, the Rockets beat writer for the Houston Chronicle, once asked Yao the topics of a team meeting early in his NBA career. Yao, Feigen said, leaned toward him and whispered (in English), “I don’t know. I don’t understand English.”2
Yao has already shown interests in areas outside of the NBA
He owns the Yao Restaurant & Bar in Houston and the Shanghai Sharks, the Chinese basketball club with which he honed his skills. He is also contemplating attending college. “Yao doesn’t want our pity,” Van Gundy says. “I feel bad for him. But Yao has so much to offer than just playing basketball. If he doesn’t want to do that, he’ll contribute in other areas. He can do what he wants. I feel badly for him, that his career was cut short because of injury, but this is not a guy who’s not going to be able to find himself outside of the game.”
Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland. Follow him on Twitter at @jpdabrams.