Yao's inability to remain healthy has a sadly familiar feeling to it
Yao Ming has been sidelined for rest of playoffs with hairline fracture to foot
Yao has seen three of his last four seasons with Rockets cut short by an injury
Chronic injuries to stars have short-circuited long-term futures of many teams
The best book ever written about the game and business of professional basketball, possibly the best book ever written about sports, is entitled The Breaks of the Game.
Right there, that should tell us plenty about the role injuries play in all this, how significant they can be not only to an athlete, a family and his loved ones but to the franchises that literally bank on their well-being and, to borrow a popular term these days, sustainability. Meanwhile, everything about their livelihoods -- physical force, fatigue, stress, physiology, aging -- conspires against them. General managers plan, God laughs.
In The Breaks of the Game, that celebrated book about the Portland Trail Blazers' grim 1979-80 season, the late David Halberstam writes at length about center Bill Walton, transcendent as the NBA's Most Valuable Player and anchor of Portland's championship team three years earlier. Walton already was already gone to San Diego, his last game with the Blazers way back in April 1978, his career diminished and in jeopardy by a series of foot and ankle problems. The bottom came in a playoff game against Seattle when Walton suffered yet played on a broken left foot, finally calling time himself to limp off.
"That began a terrible time," Halberstam wrote. "The worst had happened, he had played and been hurt ... He felt very isolated, no longer a part of the team, which was struggling badly against Seattle. He did not show up on the bench for the remaining games ... All Walton really wanted was to take his family and get away from Portland."
Everything got away from Portland at that point. The defending NBA champs lost their Western Conference semifinal series in six games. The Blazers wouldn't win another playoff series for five years. They finished fourth, fourth, third, fifth and fourth in the Pacific Division, as other members of the championship squad -- one of the purest and most joyful in NBA annals, in terms of true team play -- moved on through age, trades or injuries of their own. Walton missed the entire '78-79 season, signed with the Clippers as a free agent, then played in only 14 games over the next three seasons and in 169 of a possible 492 in his six years with them. A second franchise undone.
There have been plenty, too many. Trajectories deflected, blueprints trashed, dreams dashed when great -- or at least potentially great -- athletes get grounded by injuries and ailments. You could assemble an impressive roster of talented NBA players with every ingredient one could possibly want, from skills to desire to attitude, in a championships-caliber performer. But if they didn't have durability, that is, the stamina and good fortune to withstand the rigors of 82 regular-season games and another dozen or two, you couldn't even contend for a title, much less win one.
Yao probably won't take much solace in knowing that he wouldn't crack the starting lineup of such an All-Injured team. Here's just one possible version:
There it is, the best NBA team medicine couldn't fix. It's a squad no one ever wants to be a part of, a lineup held together by gauze and tape, with way too much time spent in warm-up suits and street clothes. Sadly, it's not even very exclusive, with one of the deepest (and most worn) benches ever, manned by star-crossed and disappointed fellows such as Sam Bowie, Brad Daugherty, Clark Kellogg, Shaun Livingston, Jonathan Bender, Danny Manning, Geoff Petrie, Andrew Toney and so many others that no one could quibble if you nominated two, three or more units interchangeable with the first. We've compiled semi-exhaustive lists before.
Odds are good that, as they say about the best coaches, you could take yours and beat ours or take ours and beat yours -- except neither side would be able to keep five on the floor. The trainer's room, meanwhile, would be SRO.
"I was introduced to the travails of foot and ankle injuries with one Doug Collins and one Andrew Toney," said Pat Williams, former general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic. "In my opinion, those are two absolute Hall of Famers whose careers were absolutely destroyed by ... let's call it faulty feet."
Collins was a No. 1 draft pick, a three-time All-Star and a member of Philadelphia's '77 Finals team that lost to Walton's Blazers until he was derailed by a foot injury; he played 12 games in '80-81 and was done before he turned 30. Toney eased that loss for a while, averaging 17.5 points for the Sixers through his first five NBA seasons until stress fractures in both feet cut short his career.
Williams later had to cope with serious injuries to Hardaway and Hill in Orlando, spoiling the Magic's first run at a championship and undercutting a second before it began. "The fragile nature of athletics means you can have everything in place, and it's still out of your control," he said. "Particularly now, because of the size and length of contracts. For years, Grant's salary was about 25 percent of our cap, he was injured and there was nothing we could do about it."
That's the predicament in which Houston finds itself now. Yao, who has failed to finish three of the past four seasons because of injuries, was paid $15 million this season and is due $16.38 million next season. He is on the books for $17.68 million for '10-11, a hefty price to pay if his ailments remain chronic. But the alternative is even scarier; the All-Star center can opt out of this deal before that season and sign a maximum contract for another $100 million or so (CBA details pending). A daunting possibility for a franchise that already has sagged under the injury absences of scoring star Tracy McGrady.
"I don't want to go that far," Yao told the Houston Chronicle, when asked about career implications of his latest setback, a hairline fracture in his left foot. "I think about next season and playing in the future. All I can do is the right training, the right rehab, and play the game the best I can and stay with it."
The Rockets' medical staff is taking the same approach, though team physician Dr. Tom Clanton told the Chronicle: "No one else in the world is doing what he is doing. There is a risk. We have to manage that."
The pounding on Yao's feet and the 7-foot-5 player's sheer size seem to pose extra challenges to any attempts at longevity. That's why folks in Portland get so nervous, too, when connecting the dots from Walton to Bowie to Greg Oden, whose first two NBA seasons have been undermined by injuries. Then again, Hill, Toney, Collins and so many others were shorter, lean, supremely conditioned, seemingly built for basketball.
What feet and ankles are in this sport, elbows and shoulders are to baseball pitchers. "I think they're directly linked to [thoroughbred] horses' ankles," Williams said. "It's just one of the reasons the late Chuck Daly came into my office one day and said, 'Ours is a suffering business.'"
Daly: Chasing dreams
Speaking of Daly, Williams, a prolific author and motivational speaker in his latest professional incarnation, has a special tale in a book full of them, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inside Basketball. Written in collaboration with Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen for the inspirational series, the story on page 236 was contributed by Daly, the longtime NBA coach who died at age 78 Saturday after his bout with pancreatic cancer.
In it, Daly tells of attending the 1963 Finals Four in Louisville as a high school basketball coach from Punxsutawney, Pa., getting into Freedom Hall on a scalped ticket. His seat? Last row behind the basket, in the nosebleed section. That spring, his efforts to land a college position paid off big-time; Daly was hired as an assistant on Duke coach Vic Bubas' staff. The Blue Devils got all the way to the Final Four in Kansas City before losing to UCLA for the first of John Wooden's 10 NCAA titles.
"I went from the worst seat in the house to the best," Daly shared. "If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone."
Like so many others, Williams will attend Daly's funeral Thursday in Jupiter, Fla., for what he expects to be "a celebration of basketball."
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