In case you missed it — it’s hard to find even a hint of it at ESPN or Y! Sports — the inevitable has been made final in the premature retirement of Yao Ming.
This marks the end of an era for a great man, if not a great player, and one whose impact on NBA basketball goes far beyond his ability on the court.
That’s not to say that Yao wasn’t a superb basketball player, for this he certainly was. His footwork was exquisite, his touch pristine, his impact on the court as dominant as it was subtle. But his impact on the sport has and will continue to reach far beyond his ability as a player.
As a basketball player, he was very good. He was a 25-10 guy at his peak, and his size and strength, combined with his footwork and touch, made it extremely difficult to stop him in the post. If anything, he could be too selfless at times; with a mentality more akin to Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade — or perhaps a motivated Shaquille O’Neal? — he might have reached or even surpassed Shaq’s level of individual dominance, in a given moment. And perhaps there were times when he should have.
But Yao’s impact on the game of basketball approaches that of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people became NBA fans specifically because of Yao Ming. Basketball as a sport, and the NBA as a product, absolutely exploded in the most populous country in the world because of him. Today, he’s perhaps not even the most popular NBA athlete. That honor would probably go to Kobe Bryant, and for years several others have better higher jersey sales in China than Yao. But none of that was possible before Yao Ming. Bryant, LeBron James, and so many others who enjoy widespread (and very lucrative) fame in China do so thanks to Yao.
He’ll never be considered one of the Top 50 players of all time — probably not even close — and the farthest he got in the playoffs was the second round. His propensity for injury likely prevented him from fulfilling his tremendous potential, and that’s unfortunate. But his impact on the sport of basketball rivals basketball’s greatest, most influential players.
My favorite trivial, insignificant tidbit about Yao Ming — just a little thing that makes me chuckle — is the way he single-handedly debunked what I call the tennis ball effect theory. There was a time when many attempted to explain away Shaq’s free throw deficiencies by suggesting that his hands were so huge that the basketball became like a tennis ball to him, making it difficult for him to shoot it accurately. We don’t make that excuse anymore, do we? In fact, Yao effectively disproved all excuses for big men who struggle to shoot, showing that a 7-footer could in fact be expected to shoot the ball well. In essence, Yao reminded us that a 7-footer at this level can and should be expected to be not only big and strong, but also highly skilled.
Of course, my favorite thing about Yao is his attitude. He was a truly humble man and player. Not humble in the way that Derrick Rose is considered humble, because he puts on that demeanor publicly, graciously deflecting praise and crediting coaches and teammates when speaking with reporters or in front of a camera. Yao Ming brought with him a kind of humility that’s not seen in sports, anymore: he was truly modest, genuinely uncomfortable as an icon of adoration, honestly appreciative of his fortune, sincerely complimentary of his coaches, teammates, and opponents. He was a man who exhibited tremendous loyalty, respect and selflessness.
In a realm where the character traits and qualities that are glorified, and those that are bemoaned, are often (and understandably, given the context) the opposites of those we would look for in friends, value in coworkers and business associates, and attempt to instill in our children — this is, after all, a sport in which a lust for victory, an unflinching desire to destroy one’s opponent, “cold-bloodedness,” an obsessive nature, and a faith in oneself that goes far beyond conceit are all applauded, and where nice guys are seen as those who just aren’t mean enough to get it done — Yao Ming was the kind of man and player parents could be happy with as a role model for their children.
Of course, it’s possible that he really was too nice to achieve the ultimate success in sports. Perhaps it’s true that he wasn’t mean enough to get it done. Or perhaps the only short-coming of his NBA career, his inability to win a championship, had nothing to do with the exemplary quality of his character. Maybe it was simply bad fortune, the result of too many injuries, which cut short too many seasons and eventually his career. At 7’6″, he was the tallest player in the NBA, and it was part of his mystique. But it also put tremendous physical pressure on his feet, and the grind of an 82-game season followed by a long playoffs was often too much for his body to endure.
And that brings us here, to Yao Ming’s retirement due to recurring left foot injuries. He was, in fact, too big for this game, both physically and personally. He was larger than life in every way. And that may have prevented him from some degree of personal success as an athlete, but it has and will continue to translate into tremendous success, in a multitude of ways, for the NBA and basketball as a sport, worldwide. In keeping with the character of the man, Yao Ming can be far more proud of his accomplishments and his contributions to something larger than himself, than upset by his personal disappointments.