July 11th, 2011
10:13 AM ET

Yao Ming's lost legacy

He entered the NBA with a promise like few others. Yao Ming brought a rare combination of talent and the ability to unlock a massive new market for the sport. Nine years later, reports say Yao is set to retire. And despite his best efforts, the sad truth is his career wasn’t what it could have been.

Yao could have been the NBA’s next great center. The NBA has a long history of dominant big men leading their teams to the title, from George Mikan in the 50s, to Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Shaquille O’Neal. Yao was drafted at the height of Shaq's dominance in 2002, but he had the tools to take him on.

Shaq’s strength and weight made him an unstoppable force in front of the basket. But Yao’s ability to shoot from further out forced Shaq to leave his comfort zone and chase him; physically moving a seven foot tall obstacle from the hoop. And Yao was a full four inches taller. In their eagerly awaited first meeting, Yao demonstrated his height advantage by blocking Shaq twice in the first few minutes. The Rockets won that game, and Yao had arrived.

But success didn’t quite follow.

The Rockets were respectable enough, making the playoffs five times in his nine years. But they were expected to be better than respectable; when Yao was paired with Tracy McGrady, Houston fans hoped their dynamic duo could challenge the NBA's elite. Instead, Yao's Rockets advanced to the second round just once, losing four times in the first round.

Injuries undoubtedly held Yao back. It felt like every time he'd elevate his game, another injury would strike him down. In the last two seasons, he played just five games out of  a possible 164.

And when he returned, it was to a different NBA. A combination of rule tweaks plus a simple lack of talented big men shifted basketball's focus away from centers to smaller, faster guys. Yao's rare set of skills were still valuable, but not nearly as important as they would have been in previous years.

Despite the setbacks, Yao remained popular. Thanks in part to votes from China, Yao often led NBA All-Star voting. His humor and ability to defuse potential controversies - like his response to Shaq's "ching chong" comments - won him fans in the U.S. And then there was his Apple ad.

But players aren't defined by their media savvy; their legacy rests on what they win on the court. And injuries robbed Yao of his chance to show what he could really do.

There is a sad coincidence here:  Should he indeed retire this summer, Yao Ming will leave the NBA at the same time as the man he was supposed to supplant at the game's summit. Shaquille O’Neal retired in June after 19 years in the league. Yao Ming lasted just nine.

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Filed under: China • General • Sport
soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. WinchLock

    It is a shame to see him go. I have to agree with you, he had a lot of potential, but it never came to fruition.

    July 11, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Reply
  2. Wuggins

    Yao represented what all NBA players should aspire to. A selfless, talented athlete always gracious and always playing as hard as he could.

    July 11, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  3. Ed

    wow, such a downer article for someone who broke barriers and played in the NBA for 9 years. I think he did great things for the game, way better than a lot of the hoodlum/gangster image of some players, and he inspired an entire generation of Chinese players. Well done, Yao!

    July 11, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Reply
  4. saulright

    'Yao could have been was the NBA’s next great center.' It sounds like the writer was arguing within himself on this one..

    July 11, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  5. Ken

    What kind of Journalism is this? He has a nice restaurant.

    July 11, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Reply
  6. mike

    This is so true. We will never know what could have been. He was fun to watch but every time he was ready to break out, he would get hurt. There was a lot of positive and he accomplished alot. However, we will never what it could have been?

    July 11, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Reply
  7. ATLien


    July 11, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Reply
  8. Bart

    He also, came out strongly against shark fin soup, which is considered a delicacy of the rich in China, which is also putting sharks on the verge of extinction. His position was not popular in China. Always liked him, but this made me like him and respect him even more.

    July 11, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Reply
  9. Design Owl

    "Yao Ming lasted just nine."

    I think it is premature to suggest he is done and will retire unless you have an inside source. Yao is a fighter and a very determined individual. I can't imagine his injuries being any worst than Greg Oden's who also will be back when he can. Just call me Mr. Optimistic!

    July 11, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Reply
  10. Dj Andre Mack

    Well said!!! Can't argue with anything you said. Only comment would be that "Stuff happens".....Yao isn't the only player to fall short of his FULL potential! Stuff happens. 🙁

    July 11, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Reply
  11. chirpie

    One other issue the article didn't bring up was his having to play back in China from time to time. Almost zero off season couldn't have helped his injuries.

    July 11, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  12. Al

    you cant play with bad feet.THat simple

    July 11, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  13. Ron

    He was a good guy and he got a chance few do. He's a success, but yeah he could have been better.

    It wasn't in cards though.

    July 11, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  14. TechJunkie69

    Shaq got to rest his body each offseason, China didn't let Yao rest. They had him playing basketball year round. It's a shame that he has to retire so early, and with more downtime he wouldn't have had to.

    July 11, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  15. wmskadder

    Sad story due in part because Yao was a "good guy". No alterior motives to his character. He played the game because he loved it, and there were no personal distractions other than his injury. He had a positive impact of the game on and off the floor. He made his countryman proud. He showed that you can pactually play sports and retain your principles of integrity, honesty, and good morales.
    HIs down fall wasn't greed, it wasn't self absortion of ones self, nor did he need to be the center of attention. He was the flip side of James. If only there were more like him. Sad that it takes someone from another country to show us here in USA what a decent human being looks and acts like. A person with self respect, who respects the opportunity he was given, an appreciation of what the game has given to him, appreciation of fan support. Not some self indulgent me, me, me self promoting jerk. Take note James, then you just might get the love back that you so desperately want.

    July 11, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Reply
    • Joao

      But I would venture that a 7′ 1″ big man (still tlpney tall) with his shooting touch, basketball IQ, and improved quickness would have been able to still average that, if not more. You know what would have been scary: a 7 footer with Yao’s skills who could really move around the court… and was able to actually stay on it. Yea, I think that pretty much sums up the last great Rockets center before Yao . . . Hakeem The Dream.

      March 5, 2012 at 3:59 am | Reply
  16. Bubba

    Really tall people tend to have bad backs and sore feet. There's a break-even point beyond which height is a handicap.

    July 11, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Reply
  17. seething grump

    i would rather yao took two or three years off to heal, practice and rest, than retire to pasture. better to have a late career than no career.

    July 11, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Reply
  18. Asar

    He sucked. End of debate.

    July 11, 2011 at 7:31 pm | Reply
  19. Lone Knick Fan

    I am glad to see him go. Thi sloser is voted in every Alll Star game and never played in the season. Just like the rest of cheap stuff "Made in China".

    July 11, 2011 at 11:21 pm | Reply
  20. duke still the king

    yeah but Shwaq was in the league 10 years too long and had to rely on Kobe to prove his worth. Yao > Shakkkk any day.

    July 12, 2011 at 12:48 am | Reply
  21. Michael Martin

    To the angry asians that are commenting against the author of the article:

    He was a great player, I suppose. I remember being 12 years old when he entered the NBA and there was SO much hype around this guy. You would think that he would totally dominate the sport. But he didn't.

    Everything the author said was valid. Get over it! Yao Ming's NBA career is dead, gone, zilch- he's Michael Jackson baby.

    July 12, 2011 at 1:22 am | Reply
  22. Lee

    Yao contributed to the spread of NBA in China, and he is one of the best player with personal charisma

    July 12, 2011 at 2:59 am | Reply
  23. AIwant

    Yao I love you,no matter which way you choose!!!!!

    July 12, 2011 at 3:14 am | Reply
  24. HT

    well actually Yao's injury has made him unavailable for long.
    Maybe to our sadness ,but his retirement is a relief for his ankle.
    Wish him good luck, he is my favorite

    July 12, 2011 at 4:32 am | Reply
  25. Timothy Masenda


    July 12, 2011 at 7:43 am | Reply
  26. Asatha

    Yao was a pretty good player when he wasn't injured. Notice a lot of people on here either overrate or underrate his career. But hey, he was for the most part above league average for a center, and managed to stay in the NBA for about six full seasons. Most guys don't even stay in the league enough for a cup of joe. I say forget about the woulda coulda shouldas. He was what he was. Leave it at that.

    July 12, 2011 at 8:43 am | Reply
  27. watuazi

    to michael martin, all the hype came from y0ur western media.

    July 17, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Reply
  28. Hghdg

    this is a great example of a perosn who really appreciate the human life, not only suspend his games in the NBA, also help to his country after this terrible disaster.

    September 9, 2012 at 1:09 am | Reply

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