Yao and Then
Is Yao ready, or has his body gotten the best of him?
by Rudy Raya
After his season-long absence from the hardwood, Yao Ming made his return to the basketball on Tuesday while going through a shooting session for a group of media members at the team’s practice facility. Though he was severely winded in his post workout interviews, Yao’s mobility and moves around the basket seemed to be intact and ready for the upcoming season. With several pre-season games in China already scheduled for mid-October, could the Rockets be pushing Yao’s comeback a little prematurely?
Yao has always had even bigger expectations. Many figured his height alone would make him “The Great Wall of China,” figuratively, in basketball terms. And even now, after coming off of one of the worst injuries in NBA history to one of the biggest players in NBA history, expectations are for him to come back and pick up right where he left off. His impressive career averages bordering on 20 and 10 make his return to the NBA the biggest asset in Houston’s playoff push, but in all likelihood, Yao’s success won’t come overnight.
Throughout his seven years in the NBA, along with his looming size, Yao has been synonymous with automatic all-star bids, amazing commercials and, especially, injuries. When Yao went down in the 2009 playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers with what was first called a sprained ankle, the outlook on the rest of his career was extremely bleak. The hairline fracture diagnosis made it seem like his ankle was a jigsaw puzzle in a pool of Jell-O that some million-dollar doctors had to put back together.
The injury would require reconstructive foot surgery and an amazing amount of rehab just for him to walk again, let alone play professional basketball. The term “reconstructive surgery” is scary enough, bringing to mind images of drills, hammers and hard hats, but on the bright side, at least he would have a robot foot to match his robot voice. All jokes aside, recovering from an injury like that requires months of rehabilitation and would truly be Yao’s biggest test of strength and determination.
So instead of running up and down the court over the past season, Yao was learning to walk again. Taking baby steps — gigantic, size 18, bobbling baby steps — on his way back to becoming the dominant player that he once was.
During this mostly over-hyped and unsatisfying offseason that featured LeBron’s hour-long State of the Union Address, it would be easy to forget other players in the League. But before he went down, Yao was arguably the best center in the League. His 7-6 stature made him the Mount Everest of the NBA, and his skill set of post moves is something Dwight Howard could only dream of. Yao’s size alone is an impending force, and, with his added wingspan, he can basically throw down on his tippy toes. But who knows just how long his ankle will hold together under his huge frame until the nuts and bolts start popping off and exploding.
Yao has always been more of a fine wine and matured at his own pace. He’s notorious for taking things slow and steady such as his movements, his progression, his sentences, and now his recovery from this devastating injury. Even with his tortoise-like approach to the hare-quick game of NBA basketball, Yao has made the League and the game adjust to him, and this situation is no different.
An injury like this is unprecedented in the NBA and to lie out any sort of timetable is foolish. The balance between a player’s health and the success of his team has become so askew that health concerns are almost always of secondary importance. While the Rockets organization will make sure to limit the minutes and not rush their multi-million dollar investment, Yao needs to take full control of his career and be the one to determine how long it will take him to, literally, get his feet back under him; not his fans and definitely not his contract.
Though doctors have cleared Yao for his return, there is going to a be a great deal of rust that Yao will have to shake off before he can step foot back on the court. And the last thing the Rockets want is to bring him back too early like and have a situation like the Amar’e Stoudemire microfracture surgery from several years ago.
It’s Coach Rick Adelman and his coaching staff’s job to slowly wean Yao back into the Rocket’s gameplan and make sure that the soon-to-be 30-year-old big man is working at his own pace toward becoming the intimidating, superstar presence that they and NBA Store need him to be. Surprisingly, the 1.3 billion people in China don’t want to buy Chase Budinger jerseys.