The inevitable storyline that comes with an abrupt end to an NBA player’s career has been rewritten for so many players in the past, yet it’s a little more heartbreaking this time knowing that this script casts Yao Ming as the fallen conqueror.
At a time when he’s supposed to be the dominant player in the NBA, injuries robbed Yao Ming of that opportunity. But while lamenting on the ‘what-ifs’ and the ‘what-could-have-beens’ would’ve been a great exercise in revisionism, it’s important to look at his career in perspective.
As good as he was on the court, Yao Ming will forever be remembered not for his skills in basketball, but for the responsibilities that came with being a seminal figure of the game.
Yao was more than just a basketball novelty. For all the blemished history attached to players of his size, this man was an exception to that rule. He could ball with the best of ‘em. He didn’t belong to the same cast of giants that became more famous for movies like My Giant (that’s you, Gheorghe Muresan) or getting dunked on by just about everybody in the league (we’re looking at you Shawn Bradley).
In his prime, Yao Ming was about as dominant a center as the league had ever seen. His stats will understate that fact, but nobody could guard Yao when he was at his dominant peak. The man, regrettably, just couldn’t stay healthy.
But more than his accomplishments on the court, Yao was a once-in-a-generation person who gave so much while getting so little in return. Sure, he’s beloved all over the world and he’s parlayed a remarkable but shortened career into millions of dollars, but all of it came with too big a price, even for the broad shoulders of his 7’6” frame.
It’s hard enough that you have an entire country on your shoulders, their eyes carefully watching your every move. Carrying that big a burden without even a hint of apprehension and playing by their rules for years without any reprieve?
Try walking in the man’s shoes for a day and you still wouldn’t come close to imagining what he went through for 17 years. But he did everything that was asked of him without even batting an eyelash because - to a fault - that’s the kind of man he is.
NEXT: An entire country upon his shoulders