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The Evolution of Yao (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday April 10, 2007 9:04AM; Updated: Monday April 16, 2007 4:54PM
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Originally a finesse player, Yao has worked hard in the weight room to become a more physical presence inside.
Originally a finesse player, Yao has worked hard in the weight room to become a more physical presence inside.
Greg Nelson/SI

And then the injury. Yao spent the night with his leg immobilized, despondent. He wondered whether his career would be defined by what could have been. Members of the Rockets' staff, which had invested so much in Yao, worried too. How would he respond? He'd already been through two rehabs in the previous year. In April 2006 he'd broken a bone in his left foot, requiring surgery. Four months earlier, he had undergone surgery to clean out an infection in his left big toe that required doctors to shear off part of the bone. Though only 26, he already had the worn, creased feet of someone 20 years older.

But when Yao began his rehab five days later, he had ceased brooding, deeming it unproductive. (This is how Yao thinks.) He started by lifting weights, working with Anthony Falsone, a onetime Rockets strength coach who became Yao's personal trainer in 2005. Falsone is a short, energetic man with a shaved head, the kind of guy who shows off his biceps by declaring, "Welcome to the gun show!" As Falsone maintained Yao's strength, Thibodeau worked on Yao's basketball touch, overseeing him as he shot baskets from a chair. By early February, Yao was running again, weeks ahead of schedule.

On a cool morning in the second week of the month, Yao arrived at the Toyota Center in downtown Houston at nine for his workout. Though he doesn't look bulky, Yao is far and away the strongest player on the Rockets. (He can bench 310 pounds.) This is a contrast from when he joined the team: During one of his first workouts, as he did incline presses with 45-pound dumbbells, Yao watched then teammate Jason Collier hefting 100-pounders. He turned to Falsone and asked if he'd ever be able to do that. Says Falsone, "This year, we bought 120-pound dumbbells just for Yao."

What makes Yao's increased strength more remarkable is that he has developed it without adding weight. When he entered the league, he was 300 pounds; today he is 302. This is by design. The Rockets want him to stay around 300 pounds to limit the stress on his joints, in hopes he will not be hobbled like his outsized predecessors. "Most guys gain three or four pounds a year, which doesn't sound like much, but after 10 years it adds up," says Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy. "Not Yao. No player I've been around works harder."


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