Originally published in SLAM 69
The 6th Man: They couldn’t be more different. Yao Ming, the 7-5, 22-year-old rookie center is steady and deliberate, performing his shockingly complete array of post moves with all the flair of an assembly-line robot. Some of this is due to it being his first year in a new country, some is due to his being exhausted from playing competitive basketball continuously for over a year, some is probably just due to his being a rookie. He still gets stripped sometimes, still makes some simple mistakes, but that will pass.
And then there’s Steve Francis, the 6-3, 26-year-old veteran point guard. Steve plays the game like he has a severe case of streetball Tourette’s (thanks, Ryan)—he can’t seem to dribble the ball more than three or four feet before compulsively going through his legs or behind his back, or putting a Rafer-esque skip in his step.
So different, but so similar. Don’t forget that Yao Ming’s stunning success in a new country comes in part because Steve Francis refused to go to one. (You remember Steve got drafted by Vancouver, right?) And while Yao appeared everywhere through the first half of his rookie season—TV commercials, nationally televised games, magazine covers—Steve was nowhere to be found. Funny, considering the one-time No. 2 pick, finally freed from the paralyzing headaches that plagued him all last season, was putting up MVP-type numbers. But the emergence of Yao seemed to cause a strange case of tunnel vision amongst basketball folk when it came to coverage. All this for a guy who may not even end up being Rookie of the Year.
It’s cool, though. If all those other publications want to focus on the big guy instead of the big picture, that’s their problem. After all, that’s why we’re here. And when the Rockets win a championship someday, when Yao Ming is the Last Real Center Alive, when the Dynasty becomes a reality, when the Franchise leads the franchise all the way to the rings, you can remember where you saw it first.
P.S. A big, huge, 7-5 (or is he 7-6?) thanks to Team Yao and Nelson at the Rockets for all their help in getting this thing done.