In sad but not surprising news, Yao Ming has been reported to be retiring from basketball. The news first came out earlier this month but has not yet been officially confirmed, however the 7 foot 6 center will hold a press conference this Wednesday (July 20). This has been a long way coming as over the past six years his body has been breaking down steadily to the point that he missed the entire 2010 season and only played 5 games last season. Far better writing has been published on paying tribute to Yao such as here and here, so I won’t spend too much time talking about him. Much has been written about his great talent, his humility, his humor and basically how much he meant to China, to Chinese-Americans and his teammates and fans. I largely agree with all of these platitudes, though I didn’t really follow his career because I stopped watching the NBA when Patrick Ewing left the Knicks and they fell into decline.
But I also have my special memory of Yao and it wasn’t a particular game or season. My Hong Kong-born father is passionate about two things in particular- he really likes the NBA and he really hates the Communists and by extension mainland China. So in 2002 when he learned that his favorite team (he’s been a Rockets fan since their glory days with Hakeem Olajuwon) was going to pick a Chinese player as their number one draft pick, he was annoyed and refused to be ecstatic. “Why do I care? I don’t!” he would say whenever I proudly reminded him that his team would have a guy from mainland China. To be honest, my dad wasn’t so hardhearted that he didn’t care about seeing Chinese guys playing in the NBA; there was one time when he recounted with amusement seeing Yao Ming and Wang Zhizhi go head to head in a game on TV. It was, and still is, rare to see Chinese in the NBA, and to have two Chinese playing in the same court was kind of cool.
Fast-forward a few years and not only is my dad still a Rockets fan, he’s taken Yao Ming to heart. I don’t know how much dad likes Yao, but I know he enjoys watching him play and will be seriously disappointed when Yao leaves for good. Of course, Yao’s devotion to his country probably played a role in his constant injuries as every year he returned to undergo heavy national team training and played in all major tournaments China participated. Most notably, he rushed back from surgery on a fractured foot to play for China in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which didn’t turn out so good but saw him again serve his country well on and off the court. In the end, Yao’s potential wasn’t matched by his physical health but he was certainly successful. It’s unfortunate that besides his country maybe asking too much of him, he’s always been made to serve other interests bigger than himself. For instance, he’s become such a league symbol that quite a few pieces about his retirement have focused on the NBA’s possible drop in popularity in China. I think that the fact that many Americans, whether it be fans or NBA teammates and opponents, have embraced him and that instead of becoming a punchline or a failure, he became admired and loved, goes far beyond anything that he accomplished or could have on the court.