Yao Ming is retiring from the NBA, ending a snakebitten but illustrious nine-year career with the Houston Rockets. No top overall pick came into the NBA with higher expectations or more question marks; as the first foreign-born No. 1 pick with no college experience in NBA history (see correction at bottom), let alone just the second Chinese-born player to hit the league, Yao faced huge skepticism from all corners of American media.
But the raw tools were something amazing: 7'6, strong base and core, impeccable court vision for a pivot, a jarringly some stroke and all the personality you could ask for in a star. He was almost the big man version of LeBron James, who'd be the following year's top pick: a perfect vision of a basketball player that just needed some fortune and refinement.
Refinement came; Yao entered the NBA as an 80 percent free throw shooter. After three years, he was up at 85 percent consistently, and finished his career at No. 2 all-time in free throw percentage among 7-footers ... behind Dirk Nowitzki. That's what seemed to mark Yao's career: he was a great player that got better. He developed a deadly mid-range "jumper" -- he didn't actually jump on these because, well, he's 7'6 -- and improved his post moves to the point where it's obvious he would have been effective even if he weren't five inches taller than every competitor (or seven or eight inches taller than most combatants).
But fortune? Fortune as in dollar bills came, sure; Yao made almost $100 million in salary in the NBA, plus major endorsements in the United States with Pepsi, Visa and, of course, Nike. He makes a mint in China, too. But fortune as in good luck, that's harder to find in the wane of Yao's NBA career.
Yao will be remembered as a player for his size, skill and heart, but also for that snakebitten fate, for being a disappointment through no fault of his own.
Given that Shaq, for a time a true rival for Yao and one of the best centers ever, also retired this summer, it makes for an interesting comparison.
Shaq lasted a full 10 seasons longer than Yao, even more if you rule out Yao's past two years. And while O'Neal is a no-questions-asked first-ballot Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, Yao will get by more on his "contributions to the game" than his NBA career (though he would certainly deserve legit consideration for his performance on the court; five All-NBA berths in effectively seven full seasons don't lie).
Yao will be considered a disappointment because of injuries, which came not because he didn't care enough about basketball, but perhaps because he gave too much to the game. Never mind the rigors of the NBA season -- look at all the minutes of practice, training and play Yao gave China over the years. He spent every summer representing China in international competition -- the Asian Games, the World Championships, the Olympics -- right up through 2008, the pinnacle of China's sporting modernity, the Beijing Olympics. All of that extra work on Yao's feet, ankles and knees -- as well as the shorter-than-was-probably-optimal recovery between a spring 2008 foot fracture and the '08 Olympics -- almost assuredly contributed to the early end of Yao's career.
Shaq will be seen by many as a disappointment in that he could have been the greatest big man (or player, maybe) ever ... but had healthy distractions from the game, like a movie career. When Shaq announced his retirement, I wrote that his offseason focus on the entertainment industry kept Shaq inconsistent later in his career; it's no secret that O'Neal felt that he could play himself into shape and considered his offseason away from the team as "his team." Shaq did it his way, though, and no one can fault him for that. It just ends up leaving the taste of disappointment hanging around. What could have been?
That's the question we'll always ask about Yao: what could have been? But unlike Shaq, no one will ever question whether Yao gave enough of himself to the game. If anything, he gave too much.
Correction: This story originally claimed that Yao was the first foreign-born No. 1 overall pick. The story has been corrected.