Carl Landry’s Rise and Yao’s fall — the view from China

by March 12, 2008

By Alan Paul

I’ve been watching Carl Landry’s emergence with the Rockets with special interest. He was one of 10 Junior College players I selected to profile a few years ago for Slam’s then annual roundup of the country’ best JUCO players. It was always a tough job because the number of people who closely follow the JUCO scene is somewhat limited and with a few notable exceptions, they always seemed to have widely diverging and very regional perspectives; a Texas expert might not know anything about Cali players.

Every year, I tracked down as many players and coaches as I could find to talk to, to help form my list and also to write the story.

Landry always stayed in my mind because he was one of the guys I caught up with and I really enjoyed speaking with him. It seemed to me that he embodied everything I hoped to find in a JUCO player, having struggled through the adversity of not qualifying out of high school then coming out of the two-year juco experience sounding optimistic, articulate and appreciative of being featured.

I also spoke to his JC coach Dan Sparks and it was clear that he had genuinely warm feelings for the kid. I was pulling for him and have kept my eye on him ever since. I have done this with all the guys I covered in these stories and a few have done okay, but by playing a key role on one of the hottest teams in the history of the NBA, Landry is, of course at the top of the list.

My original little story on Landry follows at the bottom of this post, but first some thoughts from China on Yao’s injury, which gave Landry his increased opportunity but is being viewed as a national crisis here in China. People here love the Rockets to be sure but their fate is not the cause of concern – it’s all about Yao’s ability to play in the Olympics, which is now in doubt.

Think about the difference between this and the way that Kobe Bryant’s decision to postpone surgery on his finger was treated in the U.S.; how quickly did anyone mention the threat to Kobe’s participating in the Olympics? It is clearly an issue, but was far from the top of anyone’s agenda. Had Yao faced a similar option of surgery now, threatening the Rockets season, or post-season, threatening the Olympics, there would have been a massive uproar in China is he had even contemplated not making the Olympics a priority.
The huge headline in the state-run China Daily newspaper read Chinese still hopeful Yao Ming will compete at the Olympics. The story began as such:

BEIJING – Yao Ming’s season-ending injury has China thinking the once-unthinkable: The host nation’s biggest, boldest and glitziest star might miss the Beijing Olympics.

While doctors say he should still make the Games, healing is expected to take until around June – perilously close to the Olympics’ August 8 opening ceremony.

When we heard about Yao’s injury, we felt shocked and concerned just like all the basketball fans in China,” Bai Ximin, manager of the national men’s team told a packed news conference.

“We can totally understand how he feels right now and we hope he’ll remain positive and optimistic while receiving treatment,” Bai said.

Yao’s injury dominated coverage in leading newspaper Titan Sports, which offered a hopeful note.

“The only thing offering Yao Ming any solace at this time is that his injury will not force him to miss the Beijing Olympics of his dreams,” Titan said.

Doctors blamed the injury on accumulated stress on the bone, rather than any single incident. Titan said the true cause was the Rockets’ failure to provide a reliable substitute for Yao, forcing him into too much game time.

“In fact, exhaustion was really the major reason behind Yao Ming’s injury,” the paper said.

Titan is the publisher of the Chinese language Slam and their basketball reporters are friends of mine. I thought it was really interesting that they were blaming the injury on the
Rockets overworking him, while the perspective from the U.s. as far as I can tell from my copious online reading is the opposite: he is suffering from working so hard every summer with the Chinese National Team.

The whole country seemed to exhale a huge sigh of relief when it was reported last week that Yao had successful surgery on his foot. As China Daily reported,

Yao is key to China’s hopes of a medal in the Olympic basketball tournament at the August 8-24 Games and a leading candidate to perform the prestigious role of lighting the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony.

“I am very relieved that everything went well with my surgery today,” Yao was quoted as saying.

“I look forward to getting better and starting my physical rehab as soon as the doctors say I can. I would like to thank everyone for their kind wishes during this time and I look forward to the day that I can rejoin my Rockets teammates on the bench.”

6-8, PF, Vincennes (IN) College

Like many JC players, Carl Landry didn’t have the grades coming out of high school to play D1 ball. He’s just happy that he decided to attend Vincennes College rather than sit out a season as a D1 partial qualifier. “I thank God I made this decision,” says Landry. “I learned faster on and off the court and I really grew up. You only have two years at a JC and they expect you to help right away. Coach [Dan] sparks showed a lot of confidence in me from the start and I ran with it.”
As a frosh, Landry averaged 14 ppg and 7.4 rpg and this season he went for 19 and 9. He hopes to continue his improvement at Purdue.
“He’s got great hands, is a great finisher and pop it from outside consistently,” says Sparks.
Landry, a Milwaukee native, says that his versatility is his biggest strength. “If a bigger player is on me, I can step out and if it’s a smaller guy, I can take him to the post,” he says. “Going into this year, I felt my game was there but I wanted to improve my confidence and leadership and figured everything else would fall into place and it did. Now I just need to keep working hard and develop my jumpshot a little more. Then everything else will fall right where it should be.”