Saturday, July 9, 2011

Giant's End

So the word on the nets tonight is that Yao Ming has decided to retire after nine years, and as we sum up a career of unfulfilled promise... well, I can only remember the first time he stepped on an NBA court.

I was working at a start up in Northern California at the time. As with most places in NoCal that have an Internet start-up involved with them, we had a large contingent of Asian tech... and they could not have been more excited to see Yao's debut against the mighty mighty Lakers, and the most imposing player on the planet at the time, Shaquille O'Neal.

And then Yao dunked on him. Twice. On the first two Rocket possessions.

You couldn't imagine happier people, really. Guys who didn't know the NBA from a hole in the ground were high-fiving each other without irony. And it didn't seem to matter very much that the Lakers soon took control, that Yao had quick foul trouble, that Kobe Bryant ended the game without drama, and that in the nine years that Yao intermittently wore the laundry, there was no higher point than the first two minutes. It was all about the promise.

The thing about Yao was that for a 7'-6" guy with a seemingly solid base, he wasn't what you'd expect. The blocked shots came with time, and it's impossible for a man who plays near the hoop and is that tall not to have them... but he wasn't all that dominant on that end. Mostly because the lateral quickness was never that great, and he always cared a little too much about that end, so multiple ticky-tack hand fouls a game happened. Offensively, he had as complete a game as you could hope for an oversized player, but the passing was never as featured as it could be. He got hockey assists, secondary set ups. His best game was in the mid-range, with a fairly deadly baseline jumper, and could finish with either hand... but not with the authority you'd expect. Basically, he was a taller and better Zydrunas Ilgauskas, at least when he was on the floor.

But that, of course, wasn't the story. The story was the constant heartache and tragedy in his constant injuries, and as time went by, the seeming inevitability of the whole thing. With each injury, he seemed more frail, more diminished, more temporary, more of a tease. Every year, his draft stock would fall in the fantasy leagues, and every year, people would reach for him anyway, hoping against hope that this would be the year where you'd get a 20/10 guy with good shooting percentages at center. And those teams would fall, as would the Rockets, when Yao broke down, as he inevitably would.

There's a reason why men who look like Yao -- and that group includes Bill Walton, Arvydas Sabonis, Ilgauskas, and to a much lesser extent, Georghe Mursean and Shawn Bradley -- don't last and don't dominate. And that's because while this is a game of height, it's more a game of length. 94 feet from end to end, 150 to 200 times a night. If you aren't built to run, you aren't built to last. And very, very tall men like this just aren't. Never have been, never will. Which will not, of course, stop the next team from drafting the next Yao, since there will always be that promise.

I hope that he can recover, prosper, thrive, and have a good second act. But that too isn't likely. The candle that burns, and all that.

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