If there’s ever a need for a Chinese neologism to express a frustrating state of affairs that doesn’t meet expectations, we’d put forth Yao Ming’s Left Foot (姚明左脚, as in ‘这个聚会太姚明左脚了’) as our suggestion. The foot, who’s status and health hundreds of millions of Chinese basketball devotees had clung to for years, will no longer be taking the shocks and pivots of a 7 foot 6 and 310 pound (141kg and 229cm) frame: Yao is reportedly retiring. The weight of an entire nation won’t burden his metatarsals and phalanges anymore.
Over the years since his 2002 selection as the number one pick in the NBA Draft, Yao’s Left Foot has borne witness to osteomyelitis in the big toe, a fractured foot bone four games before the end of the regular season, a stress fracture after the All-Star break, and a hairline fracture in the 2nd round of the playoffs against the Lakers (and lest we forget his broken right knee, which occurred when Yao was in the MVP conversation for posting a 27 point 10 rebound average). Another stress fracture in his left ankle this past season turned out to be one too many for his Left Foot to take, and the pretense of returning back to full strength could no longer be sustained. Yao has called a press conference for July 20th, the man is done.
Hardly an All-time Great
However, no one should be surprised. Yao has been out of the NBA more often than not these past six seasons, missing 292 out of 492 regular season games, which means that approximately 60 percent of his prime was spent parked on the bench (including the entirety of the 2009-2010 season), out of uniform, working constantly to rehab his toe/foot/knee/ankle. The psychic blow of Yao’s leaving is also lessened by his re-branding as Boss Yao (姚老板) after he purchased his old CBA team, the Shanghai Sharks, in 2009.
And so he’s finally admitting that his body quit on him, and we’re putting it in writing now that Yao will never belong in any discussion of the all-time greatest centers. His career scoring high was only 41 points, and his 19 point and 9 rebound game average over 8 seasons was substantial, if not spectacular. But certainly enough to justify the perennial All-Star selections that came his way during an era when talent in the center position dried up completely.
Yao never made an All-NBA First Team (he made the second and third team 5 times), was never selected as a regular season MVP, and never managed to get out of the second round in the playoffs. Hardly a bust as many were predicting (the combined careers of Manute Bol, Shawn Bradley and Gheorge Muresan cemented the status of centers over 7 feet 4 inches [223cm] as jokes during the 90’s, and who’d ever heard of a top pick coming from China?), Yao also could never claim to be the champion that the Houston Rockets and the Chinese National Team expected him to be (unless you count FIBA Asian Championships, which we don’t really).
Instead, the consensus is that Yao was the last pure center in the game at a time when big men were getting faster and more lithe, a franchise cornerstone who teased the Rockets year-in year-out with the prospect of deep playoff runs (if only Tracy McGrady wasn’t just as injury prone as Yao!), and was integral as a facilitator of cultural and monetary exchange between China and the NBA.
His Own Man
Yao was and is more than the sum of his post-up moves and inconsistent interior defensive stops, as has always been apparent. His basketball career was a fixture in the Chinese public commons, whereby security guards, college students, office slaves and waitresses were all granted a dog with real bark in the NBA fight, their collective longing for glory placed on his shoulders like he was the entire country’s only child.
Beyond the athletic prowess lies a figure of complexity and humor. The option for Yao to become a regular run-of-the-mill member of Chinese society was always going to be a physical impossibility: by the age of 10, Yao grew to be 5 feet 5 inches (165cm), an unsurprising state of affairs given that his 6 feet 7 inch (201cm) father and 6 feet 3 inch (190cm) mother were athletes introduced to each other by the state sports program (thus it might be said that Yao literally owes his life to official Chinese athletics).
However, rather than be an obedient servile member of the state athletic program that expects an athlete to heed all the wishes of coaches and handlers, while also forfeiting huge shares of earnings, Yao walked a fine line, in which he asserted that he wouldn’t be a pushover (Li Na does much the same, to even greater effect), and gave interviews in which he avoided sounding like a parrot. All the while, Yao never dishonored his national team commitments, and said that not being able to play in the Beijing Olympics for China would’ve been the nadir of his career.
Yao Always Puts The Nation First
In a 2003 profile by Peter Hessler, then with the New Yorker, Yao spoke of the challenges of competing in the state-funded system:
“In China, the goal has always been to glorify the country,” Yao said. “I’m not opposed to that. But I personally don’t believe that that should be the entire purpose of athletics. I also have personal reasons for playing. We shouldn’t entirely get rid of the nationalism, but I do think that the meaning of sport needs to change. I want people in China to know that part of why I play basketball is simply personal. In the eyes of Americans, if I fail then I fail. It’s just me. But for the Chinese if I fail then that means that thousands of other people fail along with me. They feel as if I’m representing them.”
“I always put the nation’s benefit first and my own personal benefit second,” Yao said. “But I won’t simply forget my own interests. In this instance (when Yao sued Coca-Cola after China’s basketball governing body allowed them to use his image without consulting him), I think that the lawsuit is good for my interests, and it’s also good for other athletes. If this sort of situation comes up in the future for another athlete, I don’t want people to say, ‘Well, Yao Ming didn’t sue, so why should you?’ ”
It is precisely the attitude of self-assertion that Chinese athletes will need if they’re going to get anywhere in the sporting world at large. Subservience, obedience, taking the safest path of least resistance…these are fine for an athlete outside of their competitive arena. But within it, none of these rules can apply if any athlete is going to impose their will on a game. Yao visibly saying “You can’t fucking stop me” after a made basket against the Clippers should’ve been taken as an encouraging sign, rather than as an unfortunate byproduct of his working in an American league full of alley-ooping showboaters. When it comes to kicking ass on the court, traditional Chinese values might as well take a long scenic hike.
There of course needs to be structure in organized team sports, and coaches need to be listened to for any sort of championship success. However, China’s most popular foreign athlete, Kobe Bryant (who we’ve always thought resonated with the public due to his spoiled only child-like behavior being justified by multiple championship rings), succeeds precisely due to his uncowed and at times flippant sense of one’s own superiority that fuels his desire to get better every year. The same attitude of defiance is what gives someone like 5 feet 10 inch (178cm) Nate Robinson the reckless notion that they can block 7 feet 6 inch (229cm) Yao Ming’s shot.
The Height of Paradox
Yao never went off the rails, and still managed to retain his humility while trying to redefine the role of a Chinese athlete, a product of a large bureaucracy who tried to keep his own identity: merely one of several paradoxes that surrounded him. Bear with us: when Bruce Lee fought 7 feet 2 inch (218 cm) Laker legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game of Death, it was a case of a physically slight Chinese protagonist going against a towering nemesis. Bruce Lee of course wins the duel, and the audience exults over the triumph of speed and technique over size.
What relating could be done with Yao then, beside his Chinese roots? Despite Yao’s game having a great deal of finesse for someone his size, his is still a relatively plodding vernacular of movement. Most boys don’t pretend to be Yao when they’re in the playground or in the gym, preferring to envision themselves as Kobe (who’s had the highest-selling jersey in China for years), or even Allen Iverson, fearless players who are closer to Bruce Lee’s size going to the hole against larger players like Yao. His game and stature are simply less relatable than that of a guard or a small forward for the casual fan, especially at a time when basketball is becoming a faster game that favors guards rather than big men.
Despite his injuries and ultimate lack of playoff success, Yao will always have a seat at the table because he brought credibility to the term ‘Chinese basketball player’ (which some others have lately been trying to squander…we’re looking directly at you, Yi Jianlian and Sun Yue). In his rookie season, he overcame doubts concerning his skill, with Sir Charles Barkley announcing that he would kiss former Rocket Kenny Smith’s ass if Yao ever scored 19 points in a game, and weathered racially-tinged psych-outs from Shaquille O’Neal, situations that he handled with deftness and reserve.
A live video feed of Yao at home in Shanghai with his parents on Draft day in 2002, accessorized with a Rockets cap, looking gangly and in serious need of weight training while trying to awkwardly high-five his parents: this was America and the world’s first introduction to Yao, and his prospects for getting laid looked terrible.
The fact that he eventually overcame the congenital dorkiness of that day and gained recognition from basketball’s greatest after widespread initial doubt about his game, and the fact that he returned time and time again after injuries that would’ve broken the spirit of lesser men, should be reason enough why Yao Ming deserves the utmost respect.
Riding Off Into The Hongkou Sunset
So don’t feel bad for Yao, he could do without the pity. Even though no such thing as the Ming Dynasty ever really happened in the NBA (though there’ve been plenty of cracks about Yao’s bones being made of porcelain), Yao can still say that he got to compete in and at times dominate a sport he loved at the highest level, is financially set for generations, and made his prominent mark on early 21st century Sino-US relations. And there’s always that China’s Got Talent judging gig too.
He’s retiring not because he’s lost his skills, or because he couldn’t hang with the best athletes in the world, but simply because his Left Foot gave way yet again. Consider that Yao had it infinitely better than Jay Williams, the point guard from Duke picked after Yao at number 2 in the same draft. Williams played one year for the Chicago Bulls before injuring himself during the offseason in a motorcycle accident, and never played in the NBA again.
Yao retires as someone who gave everything he could to the game, was constantly involved in charity work, and never bent over for anyone.
A class act, as they say in these sorts of sports obituaries for athletes who have to hang it up, who can’t do it anymore. At centerrr…Number eeeleven…From Shanghaiiiiii, China…
A giant amongst men, in every single sense of the word.