The Evolution of Yao
No longer a novelty, Yao Ming has arrived as the first dominating supersized player in NBA history -- picking up a driver's license, some U2 CDs and a dry sense of humor along the way
Posted: Tuesday April 10, 2007 9:04AM; Updated: Monday April 16, 2007 4:54PM
It happened two nights before Christmas. Six minutes into a game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets center Yao Ming jumped to block a shot. As he did, teammate Chuck Hayes toppled toward him. Yao remembers a great weight bearing down on his right leg, then a sharp pain. He sank to the floor at Houston's Toyota Center, clutching his right knee.
With help, he hobbled off the court, hoping for the best -- perhaps he'd sit out one or two games, then return. All summer he'd said the same thing over and over to assistant coach Tom Thibodeau during their workouts: "Eighty-two games, I need to play 82 games." At the hospital, however, an MRI revealed the grim news: a bone fracture under the knee. Six weeks minimum.
Yao was crushed. Before the setback, he was finally being recognized not for what he represented but for his performance. No longer was he a curiosity, the Asian giant come to conquer America, to be paired in TV commercials with 2'8" Verne Troyer, as he had in an Apple ad in his rookie season of 2002-03. Nor, as had happened next, was he seen primarily as a symbol, a 7'6" totem of the exploding global sports economy and warming relations between East and West. Rather, for the first time, the most interesting thing about Yao Ming was the way he played basketball. He was averaging 27 points and nine rebounds and being mentioned as an MVP candidate. After Yao scored 36 points in a rout of the Mavericks in November, Dallas coach Avery Johnson marveled, "He was playing like we were not even on the floor."
Yao's ascendancy took many by surprise, as it seemed sudden, but it was not. In the U.S., where people are fascinated by six-day diets and overnight idols, consistency has no cult following. For Yao, whose work ethic may be unsurpassed in the NBA, his skill had accreted day by day, drill by drill, film session by film session, until he'd become a player unique not just in today's league but also in the history of the NBA. Not because of his nationality, as most assumed, but because he had evolved into the first truly dominating "supersized" player, that breed of NBA behemoth who is 7'4" or taller.
As such, Yao was the centerpiece of a grand experiment by the Rockets. Never before had there been a supersized player who wasn't a specialist or injury-prone. Mark Eaton (7'4") and Manute Bol (7'6") were one-dimensional, useful only as shot blockers. Shawn Bradley (7'6") couldn't adapt to the pace or the physicality of the league. Gheorghe Muresan (7'7") was skilled, but he played only three full seasons; the same was true for Ralph Sampson (7'4"). None of those players were asked to log 35 minutes a night and carry a team. But now, in his fifth season, Yao was doing just that. Finally comfortable with both American culture and the NBA game, he had reached the third step in his evolution. No longer a novelty or an emblem, he had become the best big man in the NBA.
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