I remember the first time I saw Yao Ming play in person. It was an exhibition game where China was playing against Canada at GM Place, in Vancouver. Yao had already been selected as the first pick in the 2002 draft by Houston, and my friend Darren, whose basketball opinion I trust almost as much as my own, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. No one on Canada’s roster was taller than 6’7, yet Yao got pushed around like the US Government on Wall Street. While Yao put up pretty good stats, neither Darren or myself were impressed. We certainly didn’t think he’d be a bust, he simply had too much talent for that, but we both wondered whether he would ever become the player some envisioned.
Not only was this game the debut of Yao in North America, it was a return to basketball in Vancouver. Just over a year before, Michael Heisley, the devil incarnate, decided to rip the beloved Grizzlies from Vancouver’s loving arms and transport them to Memphis, where they would be placed in the “care” of mostly neglectful and uncaring fans.
Okay, maybe I’m still a little bitter a decade later.
The most ironic1 thing about this game was that, for me, Yao Ming was the reason that Michael Heisley moved the Grizzlies when he did. In less than a year, Heisley went from singing the Canadian National Anthem to try and show his desire to make things work in Vancouver, to packing up the office and moving it to one of of the poorer major cities in the US and the most dangerous one. Why the quick change of heart? Well, because the next season, Yao Ming was going to enter the NBA draft.
Even before Yao played a minute in the NBA, he was a global marketing force. So much so, that I think Heisley knew that if the Grizzlies ended up with the number one pick in 2002, then there’s no way he could have reasonably argued to the NBA that he couldn’t afford to keep the team in Vancouver, a city with the second highest chinese population in North America. Yao Ming was going to open the doors of China to the NBA, and the league would never be the same.
Yao was not only a phenomenon off the court, with a documentary widely released about his journey from China to the NBA, but on the court, as well. The impact on the court was not immediate, however. Yao struggled to adjust to the NBA, at first, but eventually started to find his footing. After Charles Barkley famously declared that Yao would be a bust and would never score 19 points in a game, Yao scored 20 points, perfect from the field, against the Lakers.
The player my friend and I saw struggle against inferior competition in Vancouver was nowhere to be seen for the rest of the season. Yao narrowly missed out on winning the Rookie of the Year Award, to Amare Stoudemire and ended up starting in the All-Star game the next year.
While he only missed 2 games in his first three seasons, in his fourth season he started to break down. Toe surgery kept him out for nearly half the season, but he still managed to have a career year, only to better that the next season, averaging 25 ppg and 9 rpg. Yes, 25 and 9. Those are Hall of Fame numbers. I can only think of a handful of centers in the last 30 years that have come close to those numbers. Throw in 1.6 blocks, and you’ve got a possible MVP candidate. Unfortunately, Yao never got fully healthy again.
It was too bad that Yao never really was able to reach his prime, in the NBA, before injuries forced him to retire. And while you can definitely say Yao’s size was a major reason, it was not the only reason. Yao was not tall like Shawn Bradley or Manute Bol. Unlike those guys, Yao didn’t look like he was simply stretched. He LOOKED normal. Unless you stood next to him.
What probably had the most harmful effect on Yao’s career was his home country. Yao was a hero in China and his exploits on the National team put them on the international map. Unfortunately, it also never allowed him to take a break. And it took a toll on Yao’s body. Being that big, while being a professional athlete, is hard enough on your body, but not being allowed to rest it during the offseason, because there was no offseason for Yao, was the clincher.
The NBA is poorer for it.
- Yao Ming not only was a symbol of screwing Vancouver basketball fans because the team would still be there if the Grizzlies had drafted him, but Yao was solely responsible for arch-enemy Steve Francis‘ All-Star appearance in 2004, when he averaged just 16 ppg, because of the flood of Chinese voters who voted for Francis simply because he was on the Houston Rockets. Francis never made the All-Star team again after being traded from Houston.