by Adam Sweeney / @adamsweeney

You don’t understand Yao Ming. Admit it. You don’t understand where he came from as a rookie from Shanghai. You don’t get how hard he has worked to transcend cultures and basketball philosophies, and you certainly can’t begin to grasp the pain he has endured to recover from foot surgery. All you need to understand is this. Yao MinYao Mingg, when healthy, is the best center in the NBA and the Houston Rockets’ title hopes rest on the success or failure of his return.

Critics of Yao Ming say that he is a finesse player, lacking the killer instinct it takes to carry a team to a deep playoff run. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In Game 1 of the 2009 playoff battle against the Los Angeles Lakers, Yao came back from an injury to score 8 points in the final minutes of the game on way to a 100-92 win in L.A. The career-threatening injury Yao is recovering from? He got that by playing through pain in Game 3 of that playoff series. Don’t get it twisted. Just because Yao doesn’t mug for the camera every time he dunks doesn’t mean he isn’t hungry.

There was another humble big man out of Houston who struggled to win a title early in his career, ultimately climbing the highest peak when he found a harmony with his clutch teammates. That man is Hakeem Olajuwon, fitting because Yao is the most skilled big man to play in the Association since “The Dream.” What he does at his size is in complete contradiction with the laws of physics. Let’s go the tape for an example:

To understand the importance of Yao Ming, we have to strip away the YouTube and ESPN highlight mentality we’ve so eagerly grown attached to. You’ll never catch Yao on an AND 1 Mixtape or popping his jersey. At some point we decided that was a bad thing. But, like yin to yang, Yao has merged the selfless culture of China with the individualistic nature of the NBA, and somehow he never leans too far in one direction. And still we want more. We want him to be like us, assuming that is the correct form of existence. But to ask Yao not to involve his teammates and play selfishly is like asking Ron Artest not give shout outs to Queensbridge. Both players’ cultures are so deeply ingrained in them that it has become second nature.

The impact Yao has on basketball is just as heavy off the court as on it. In a sport where image is everything, most fans immediately jump to the names LeBron and Kobe as the most recognizable faces in the sport. Wrong again. You can keep the states of Ohio or Florida, LeBron. Los Angeles loves Kobe. That’s nothing. Yao has introduced the NBA to China, a country whose population is well over a billion people. In an ever-growing international sport that increasingly continues to blur the lines of sport and business, Yao Ming is every bit as important of a brand name as whatever other NBA star that you want to throw out.

How great Yao Ming is can be somewhat qualified by how high he ranks on the list, even as he recovers from foot surgery that will limit him to 24 minutes a game, according to head coach Rick Adelman. That has been the one true downside to Yao’s career, the eternal what if. What could have been a Hall of Fame career has been unmercifully cut short nearly every season. I’ve said it before. Yao Ming’s greatest opponent is his own body. That said, he will go down as one of the most gifted basketball players ever.

That’s not to say you can’t disagree about where Yao Ming belongs in the ranks of centers in the NBA. This is America, a land founded on a platform of democracy, after all. Just keep in mind that players you will offer in opposition, like Dwight Howard, have been dominated by Yao. In their match-ups, Howard averages 12.2 points and 9.8 rebounds against Yao, while the “Shanghai Slammer” puts up 23 and 10 on average versus “Superman.” And if you’re about wins, as you should be, the Rockets are 7-2 all time when the two centers meet. In our country, we call that scoreboard.

Most NBA fans have underestimated Yao Ming his entire career. Charles Barkley bet that Yao wouldn’t score 19 points in a game his rookie season. Yao proved him wrong and Barkley ended up kissing his ass, from a certain point of view.

Still, critics will continue to doubt Yao as long as he plays. That’s OK. Yao Ming isn’t concerned with your opinion of him. He doesn’t care how many Twitter followers he has. What matter to him is dedication to his sport and how he can help the players and people inside his circle succeed. They, in return, love him for it. Yao plays the game the only way he knows how to; the right way. You can continue to doubt Yao Ming. He’s already beaten the odds by becoming a superstar in the NBA. That may seem foreign to you but it’s the world that Yao lives in every day. You just got lost in the translation.

SLAMonline TOP 50 PLAYERSOVERALL RANKPOSITION RANK
PlayerTeamPosition2010200920102009
Ray AllenCelticsSG50361110
Gilbert ArenasWizardsSG4934109
Lamar OdomLakersPF48331410
John WallWizardsPG47NR13NR
OJ MayoGrizzliesSG4646912
Al HorfordHawksC45NR6NR
Jason KiddMavsPG44451210
Joakim NoahBullsC43NR5NR
LaMarcus AldridgeBlazersPF42391312
David WestHornetsPF4131128
Monta EllisWarriorsSG40NR8NR
Andrew BogutBucksC39NR4NR
Yao MingRocketsC38NR3NR

Notes
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’10-11 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jeremy Bauman, Maurice Bobb, Erildas Budraitis, Sean Ceglinsky, Ben Collins, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Manny Maduakolam, Eddie Maisonet, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Charles Peach, Branden Peters, Quinn Peterson, David Schnur, Todd Spehr, Kyle Stack, Adam Sweeney, Dennis Tarwood, Tracy Weissenberg, Lang Whitaker, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.