All too often, we are witness to professional athletes who try to hang around their respective sports a little longer than they should. We all recognize the greatness of players like Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, and Rickey Henderson. Yet, as great as those players were, it was certainly tough to watch them toward the tail end of their illustrious careers. I never liked watching Jordan play with the Wizards, nor Rice with the Raiders and Seahawks, and especially not Henderson trying to break back into the big leagues at the age of 40. However, those players should consider themselves lucky as they were able to play the sport they loved well beyond their prime. Unfortunately for Yao Ming (Yahoo Sports and the Houston Chronicle are reporting Ming’s retirement today), it appears he will join the list of professional athletes whose careers have been shortened due to injury. Ming will apparently join the tragic list of players such as Bo Jackson (hip), Bernard King (leg injury), and Kirby Puckett (glaucoma), just to name a few. All these players were at the top of their respective sports at one point, only to have their talented careers ended prematurely due to injury.
Aside from LeBron James, Yao Ming might have been the most publicized, and hyped for that matter, player to enter the NBA Draft the last decade. He was already a cultural phenomenon in his native land of Shanghai, China where he had led the Shanghai Sharks of the CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) to their first title in 2002. The Houston Rockets would select Ming with the first overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft. Although Ming enjoyed immense success the last couple seasons in the CBA, many critics saw him as more of a project who would need some time to adjust to the speed of the NBA game. Any doubts that Ming could play in the NBA were quickly laid to rest following his rookie campaign as the big man averaged 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds.
Ming’s career, as well as his popularity, continued to grow during his time with the Houston Rockets. The more I watched Ming, the more I was convinced that he would eventually deliver a championship back to the city of Houston. He was such a dynamic big man, who worked tirelessly to improve his game. When the Rockets acquired Tracy McGrady from the Magic back in 2004, I was even more convinced that a championship was just a foregone conclusion for the Rockets franchise. I mean, come on, you have to admit that the Rockets had put together a potentially dynamic tandem for years to come once they paired McGrady with Ming. Dominant centers and athletic scoring guards are usually a recipe for success (just ask the Lakers). Unfortunately for the Rockets, McGrady (back) ended up being just as injury prone as Ming. McGrady would miss more than 170 games during his 6 year stint with the Rockets and Ming missed more than 160 games during his 8 year career.
During the 2006 season, Ming had developed into arguably the best big man in the NBA. He was averaging 26.8 PPG, 9.7 RPG, and 2.3 BPG through 27 games before breaking his knee in a game (block attempt) against the Los Angeles Clippers on December 23rd. Yao would return later that season and finish the regular season averaging 25.1 PPG, the highest of his NBA career. Ming and the Rockets were eventually eliminated by the Utah Jazz in seven games that season. From a statistical standpoint, the 2006-07 season would end up being the most productive of Ming’s eight year NBA career.
Ming continued to battle injuries the next three seasons with the Rockets. This past season, Ming only appeared in five games (ankle injury) for the Rockets and it became increasingly apparent that he might not ever be the same player that he once was. I must say that I was a little bit shocked to hear the Ming had decided to retire from the game of basketball today. I still held out hope that Ming would somehow return to the game he loved and flourish for years to come. I feel somewhat saddened that we only got to see a glimpse of Ming’s talent. Eight years in the NBA isn’t nearly enough time for someone as gifted on the basketball court as Ming. Unfortunately, much like Bo, Bernard, and Kirby, Yao Ming might always be remembered for “what could have been”.
A Look Back at the Brief but Dominant Career of Yao Ming