HP Big Man Eulogy #2: Yao Ming a threat no more

Why do we always have to meet this way?

Yao Ming has a stress fracture in his ankle. That means he’s out for the month/year/career/millennium/Willennium/whatever.

And another absurdly talented and young big man goes down. Yao Ming is a veteran by NBA standards but he’s only 30 years old. Even though 30 is when you start getting up there in NBA years, it’s still young enough to matter on a grand scale in the NBA – especially when you’re 7’6” with one of the best touches around the basket these eyes have seen.

We all thought he was going to be a stiff. He was a slow, lumbering, Chinese freak coming into a league of quicker, more athletic American born players that were going to eat him alive. Charles Barkley was going to kiss Kenny Smith’s donkey (still amazing Kenny Smith has a donkey, even if only for a studio show stunt) if he ever scored 19 points in a game. He did and Chuck did.

In fact, over the first five years of Yao’s career, he improved in a way none of us really expected. I never thought he was going to be bad, but I also never thought he was going to be a guy I thought could lead his team to a title. But as he turned 26 years old and showed so much improvement in every aspect of his game, I was convinced that he and Tracy McGrady could get it done in some way. But injuries happened to T-Mac and even worse happened to Yao too.

In the first three seasons of Yao’s stay in the NBA, he played two full seasons and missed just two games in the other season. The next three seasons Yao missed 86 of the 246 regular season games. And so his career went.

Tons of potential. Immeasurable skill that could dominate basketball games. Brittle extremities that kept him from being truly great.

He’s not the only one. I gushed and eulogized over Greg Oden over the last two years. Zyndrunas Ilgauskas had similar problems. Danny Manning’s body failed him constantly. Sam Bowie became a running joke. Ralph Sampson never got to be Ralph Sampson. Bill Walton is a fused together, walking tragedy of basketball proportions. This happens to big men. It happens to everyone really. Injuries are a part of sports. Sometimes the great ones can’t stay on the court and get a chance to prove just how great they are.

But Yao sort of teased us too. That’s the really hard thing about his story. Greg Oden just hasn’t been able to stay on the court. He had a couple of nice glimpses in which he showed a world of potential. Yao Ming showed us glimpses of substance, then was too injured to stay on the court, then came back for (in retrospect) one last hurrah.

In the 2008-09 season, he played 77 games. And it wasn’t like the experiment of this season in which they limited his minutes and shut him down on back-to-backs. He played 77 games and averaged 33.6 minutes per game that season. And he posed as a big threat to the Lakers’ big title hopes in the second round.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you the Rockets win that second round series against the Lakers if Yao his healthy for seven games instead of just the three he played. The series went seven because the Lakers could coast and still come out the victor. But the threat was there and most god-fearing, non-Kobe slurping Laker fans over the age of 17 know this to be true.

Unfortunately, that’s all Yao has ever been: a threat. He threatened to be a force in this league. He threatened to be a franchise player. He threatened to be the best center in the NBA.

Now he’s out for the rest of probably this year, next year and the rest of the years. He hasn’t necessarily moved on. He’s just in another holding pattern we’re all used to seeing with him. He’s been neutralized by his bad wheels once again.

In his own words, “I haven’t died. Right now I’m drinking a beer and eating fried chicken. What were you expecting, a funeral?”

Let’s hope he can be a threat to NBA frontcourts again, instead of just a threat to Buffalo Wild Wings.

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