The NBA’s Biggest What Could Have Been

The NBA’s Biggest What Could Have Been Ming will reportedly announce his retirement on July 20th, the victim of chronic foot problems that have limited him to just five games over the past two years. Just 30, Ming averaged 19.0 ppg and 9.2 rpg in his nine seasons with the Houston Rockets. So ends the career of one of the NBA’s more talented and enigmatic big men.

Yao burst on to the scene as the first overall pick of the 2002 NBA draft, taken by the Houston Rockets. Yao began his career with the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association leading the Sharks to the title in 2001 averaging 38.9 ppg and 20.2 rpg during the playoffs shooting 76.6 % from the field. Yao was 21-21 from the field one game of the finals.

Yao is the son of two professional basketball players, his father 6’7″, his mother 6’3′. Yao was 11 pounds at birth, twice the average birth-weight of an average Chinese. Ming took up basketball at age nine and was already 5’5″ at age 10. Yao joined the Sharks at age 13 and played 10 hours a day honing his skills with the Shaghai junior team.

Standing  7’6″, many viewed Ming as a curiosity and commentators Dick Vitale, Bill Simmons, and Charles Barkley all predicted that Ming would be a complete bust. Barkley went so far as to say that if Yao scored 20 points in an NBA game that he would kiss Kenny Smith’s ass. Yao went scoreless in his first NBA game against the Pacers and averaged just 4.0 ppg and 14 mpg in his first seven starts. Ming then scored 20 points against the Lakers on November 17th, and Barkley was forced to make good by kissing a donkey’s buttock on the set of TNT.

Yao went on to average 13.5 ppg and 8.2 rpg in his rookie season finishing second to Amare Stoudamire in Rookie of the Year voting. Ming was a unanimous All Rookie first team selection. In his highly anticiapted first meeting with Shaquille O’Neal, Ming scored 10 points, with 10 rebounds, and 6 blocks and sealed the deal on an OT win with a late dunk. Shaq scored 31 with 10 boards in the loss.

Yao was voted an All-Star eight times and was all NBA five times. While the Rockets consistently made the playeoffs with Yao, they never advanced past the second round and Ming sustained several of the injuries that would eventually end his career in the post-season.  In the 2008-2009 playoffs, Ming would suffer a hairline fracture of his ankle in Game III of the Rocket’s series vs the Lakers, a series that Houston would lose in seven games.

Ming had a distinguished International career leading the Chinese to three-straight FIBA Asian Championships. Yao participated in three Olympics taking the Chinese to the quarterfinals in 2004 and 2008. Yao carried the Chinese flag in the 2004 Athen’s opening ceremony and brought the Olympic Flame into Tianenmen Square during the Bejing torch relay.

Is Yao Ming a Hall of Famer ???

Probably not as a player. Had his career lasted another five years, his HOF credentials would have made his a slam dunk. As of now, he’ll probably have to settle for a Thurman Munson/Terrell Davis legacy of careers cut short much too early.

As a pioneer or life contributor, Yao Ming is a HOFer without question. While not the first Chinese national to play in the NBA (Wang Zhizhi), his effect on opening up the NBA to China was profound. China is now the NBA’s second largest market and with a rabid fan base that made Yao the all-time leading All-Star vote getter surpassing Michael Jordan.

Yao has invested well and has even bought his old club the Shanghai Sharks. He’ll continue on as an Asian sports icon and will most certainly act as a good will ambassador here in the US. One can only imagine what might have been.