Even on the final play of his NBA career, 's own individual pain was hidden from plain view. The Houston Rockets were playing the Washington Wizards, and Yao had just taken a charge on a typically out-of-control drive by JaVale McGee. He didn't lay on the floor for several minutes. He didn't cause the crowd to gasp knowing they had seen the great Yao Ming for the final time.
Instead, two Rockets players helped him up and walked with him back to the bench. He took one step forward, then another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. On his eighth step, he felt a pain in his foot, and crunched his face up. The Wizards' feed had cut away by now, but the Rockets one caught a shot of it and freezed the frame for several seconds.
Looking back, it's eerie. At its most basic level, it's eerie because nobody knew at the time that Yao Ming would never play NBA basketball again. But it's also eerie because the whole sequence sums up the odd career Yao Ming had. For the first seven steps of his walk off the court, he was a pillar of stability, able to carry his 7'6'' body and, seemingly, so much expectations other people placed on him. It was only on that eighth step where the pain of carrying all that weight came through, and only the few fans watching on the Rockets feed on replay saw it. Even after that, he carried himself like a tower of force, walking off on his own power and not getting the chance to show anyone just how much pain he was in. The symbolism of Yao as a Great Wall had never felt so appropriate and inappropriate at the same time.
Yao Ming retired from the NBA on Friday, and left many NBA fans depressed with it. Mostly, the depression was over seeing a master of his craft depart too soon. When Yao did play, he was sublime, with the shooting touch of a guard, the passing instincts of a floor general and the footwork of a great post player. He was classy, he was humble and he was everything a franchise player should be. Sadly, injuries prevented that Yao from surfacing consistently, and any hopes that he would again be the purists' superstar were dashed. Much like with Bill Walton three decades earlier, we're forced to wonder what might have been had Yao's feet been able to support him.
But Yao's situation is a little more complicated than Walton's. Even to this day, Walton has carved out a legacy for himself in the annals of history. Being an NBA champion, as well as a humorous broadcaster, has a lot to do with that, but Walton's cult of personality even in his playing days was unique. Walton became more than a symbol of greatness erased. He became Bill Walton, to the point where the name itself means something.
Yao, on the other hand, will likely be known more for his status as a symbol. Yao's entire NBA career -- his entire life, really -- has been dictated by others. He's spent his entire life living up to what others wanted him to be, from birth until his retirement. But basketball is an individual's game, and it is that process where the individual rewrites the narrative that can be most rewarding. Watching Dirk Nowitzki flip that script from "Dirk Nowitzki is [insert stereotype here]" to "Dirk Nowitzki is Dirk Nowitzki" is one of the joys of following the sport. Once upon a time, Nowitzki was a symbol of something else. Now, he is a concept that is the subject of any comparison. It's a process that happens with many great players in this league over time.
Sadly, Yao's injuries prevented him from ever going from "symbol" to "concept." Making matters worse, Yao has always been the most symbolic symbol in the sport.
Yao Ming has, quite literally, been a symbol since he came out of the womb. He was born on September 12, 1980, as the son of Yao Zhiyuan, a longtime basketball center, and Fang Fendgi, once one of the rising young women's basketball stars in the country before she enlisted with Mao Zedong's most savage group of shock troops that carried out the worst acts in the Cultural Revolution. The marriage, like many among former athletes in China, was arranged, and the entire country awaited the birth of Yao. He emerged as the largest baby the country had ever seen and was on the fast track to eventual athletic success. As Brook Larmer described it in a Sports Illustrated excerpt from his book, Operation Yao Ming:
The medical staff at No. 6 Hospital surely had never seen a newborn quite like this: the enormous legs, the broad, squarish cranium, the hands and feet so fully formed that they seemed to belong to a three-year-old. At more than 11.2 pounds and 23 inches, the infant was nearly double the size of the average Chinese newborn.
As is common in China, Yao was shuttled away to train to become a professional athlete at a young age. When he was eight years old, he stood 5'7'', and an official courted him to go to a sports academy. His mother wanted him to get an education, which was impossible at these academies, and resisted, but eventually was talked into letting Yao go. Yao was told he needed to learn how to play basketball, and despite hating it, he did it without protest. When Yao was 13, he was 6'7'' and had no choice but to move to the Shanghai Sports Technology Institute, where he was permanently separated from his parents. He was then molded into a really good basketball player for the next eight years, eventually adapting to life as a center because he had no choice.
All those years of training eventually made Yao good enough to be drafted No. 1 overall, but even here, he was caught in the middle of a crossfire involving conflicting interests. His country nearly didn't allow him to go to the NBA, in part because of a marketing snafu between Nike, who had discovered him a few years earlier, and a company in China that had pressured Yao's mother into going over Nike's head to sign a deal allowing them to represent Yao. Eventually, it all worked out, but this was Yao's burden as he entered the league. Much like a son who inherits his father's business by default because of a tragedy, Yao was made into China's great big hope by others and had no choice but to play along.
Coming to Houston, a whole new set of challenges awaited. Yao needed to learn the language and the culture, and he needed to prove he was more than a curiosity. He struggled to pick up the speed of the pro game initially, as Shaquille O'Neal in particular took glee in dunking on him. Yao did not understand why Shaq felt the need to rub it in his face, and his confusion of the American player affected his play early on. At home, his mother had moved in, but had also become suffocating, stuck in a land she did not understand in a suburb of Houston to which she did not adjust well. Still, despite all this, Yao became a key player and one of the NBA's best centers. Like his entire life, he rolled with the punches quite well.
But then injuries began to strike, and matters were made worse because of Yao's devotion to his national team. If Yao was afforded any shred of individualism, he would have turned down playing those summers to get healthy. But that was not how his culture worked, and so he played willingly, out of a sense of duty and pride more than anything. Those experiences created two interesting phenomenons. Yao's play in the NBA was better than ever, but it was also much less frequent. He played at an MVP level in stages in 2006, 2007 and 2008, but missed 25, 34 and 27 games in those three years. Despite this, he fulfilled his duty and represented his country at the Beijing Olympic Games. He then had a relatively healthy year in which his team was better than ever, but then he fell awkwardly in Game 3 of a second-round series against the Lakers and was never the same.
The Rockets did everything to try to get him back to his old self. They hired specialists. They worked with him for hours every day, going through the same process each time. They made sure to hire people at the top of their fields to make Yao right. While the rest of the Rockets went through training camp, Yao had as many as four people massaging his body to make him right. The Rockets even crafted a careful plan to only play him half the game, a unique situation that could have easily thrown off the entire rhythm of the team.
Alas, it did not work, and after the spill in Washington, that was the end. Friday's news just made it official. It was only a matter of when, not if, Yao Ming would end his career too soon.
Ultimately, the tragedy of Yao Ming is that he was always operating based on others' expectations of him. Growing up, he was the Great Athletic Hope of China. Once he reached the NBA, he was the Great Curiosity. Eventually, once he exhibited some professional success, he was the Great Ambassador for the game and the Great Diplomat for his country. Even at the end of his career, he was the Great Experiment, with the Rockets turning him into that in their attempt to keep his brittle body available for the long run.
Had Yao stayed healthy, though, the hope is he could have eventually been known simply as Yao Ming. Whether he would have embraced that process like any other professional player is an open question, of course. Ultimately, Yao was fine with operating based on others' expectations. He was willing to work hard to stay a pro, but there's certainly a feeling of relief washing over him knowing that he doesn't have to carry such a heavy burden anymore. Indeed, when Sam Amick (then of Fanhouse) talked to him during his recovery from injury last summer, Yao specified that one day, the pain would be too much.
"I'm going to still try hard to get back," he said then. "But I know if one day is the day, then that's the day. It's just a matter of time."
That day has arrived, and Yao is probably happier about it than we are. Given his cultural background, it's worth wondering whether he ever could have really carved out a legacy independent of symbolism. He probably wouldn't have cared if he's remembered more for his presence off the court than his play on it.
But as a fan of basketball, I care. Given all he did for the game, it would have been appropriate to see him get the chance to go from symbol to concept like so many of his peers.