The Tragedy of Yao’s Left Foot

I think it’s fair to suggest that no other seven foot, six inch man (2.25m) weighing 310 lb. (140.6 kg) has played as much basketball as Yao Ming has played over the last six years. In addition to his paid obligations as a starting center on an NBA team which plays 82 games, a handful of exhibition games and (alas) only a handful of playoff games, as well as daily practices and a grueling training camp – Yao’s leisure time is dominated by his patriotic obligation to practice and play with the Chinese National team, which maintains a similarly grueling schedule of exhibitions and international tournaments. From the standpoint of physical workload, it comes down to this: Yao Ming hasn’t had a summer off in ten years – a situation pretty much unparalleled in professional basketball.

Yao has never indicated which of his obligations – the national team, or the Rockets – is more important to him. But, there are fleeting hints that his body, if not his mind, is starting to rebel against the national team’s demands. Last summer, according to various media reports, he arrived late to national team practices so as to allow his body some extra rest after the grueling 2006-07 NBA season (he also needed time for his wedding, and Special Olympics promotions). China’s national sports authorities were not sympathetic. As the AP reported the story:

The Houston Rockets‘ star was faulted for taking too much time off to recover from his last NBA season. The government’s All-China Sports Federation also said he spent too much time planning his wedding and making appearances for the Special Olympics and 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

“No matter how lofty public welfare activities are, they can’t be allowed to take first place in a player’s life,” the China Sports Daily, a federation-owned newspaper, said in an article appearing Tuesday.

“No matter how sweet personal life is, it can’t be compared to the exultation of capturing glory for one’s nation,” the article said.

[I blogged about this dust-up here.]

There’s more than ample evidence that Yao needed the rest (not to mention the wedding). Indeed, anybody who has followed the Houston Rockets and Yao over the last half-decade knows that – by the end of the season, and by the end of most games – Yao is fatigued. Coaches and rivals have noticed, too: In 2006, Flip Saunders, coach of the Detroit Pistons publicly stated that his strategy for beating Houston was to wear down Yao because “Yao gets tired in the fourth quarter.

It’s probably not a trade secret that Yao likes to hear discussed in the open. It’s also something that he can’t do much about. Fact is, even if Yaowanted to jettison his national team obligations, he wouldn’t for fear of being labeled an “ungrateful traitor” – the term that China’s state-owned media applied to Wang Zhizhi, the country’s first NBA player, after he decided that he wanted to spend a summer working out with the Clippers instead of playing for the national team in the 2002 World Championships. And unlike Yao, Wang wasn’t the premiere Chinese athlete heading into the most important sporting event in Chinese sports history. In this case, like so many others in Chinese sport and society, the needs of the collective trump those of a talented individual. And like so many of those other instances, the results are tragic for both.

Yao is an extraordinary, singular talent, but he’s also injury-prone, and in that sense he’s not much different than the many towering, lumbering NBA centers who preceded him. Quite simply, men of towering stature don’t hold-up well, NBA season after NBA season (nevermind national team play). Nevertheless, before today, Yao could not have been said to have had a season ending injury, much less one that was quite likely caused by something as simple, and preventable, as over-use. But that’s precisely what has happened: Yao Ming has a stress fracture in his left foot, and there’s really no way to spin this as anything but the result of “repetitive strain during sub-maximal activity.”

That is to say, Yao Ming has been playing too much basketball for his towering – but ultimately, fragile – frame.

China’s national sports authorities have never made a secret of their belief that professional sports leagues – such as the NBA – exist primarily to elevate the skills of Chinese players for international competition. Last year, during the stalemate over Yi Jianlian’s eventual contract with the Milwaukee Bucks, Chinese officials demanded that Yi receive guaranteed playing time in advance of the Olympics. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that – if those officials believed that he could have improved his skills in China – they would have denied permission for him to join the NBA draft, much less the Bucks. But since that choice doesn’t exist, they’ve chosen the best of all possible worlds (from their point of view): play Yi (and Yao) maximally in both countries, nevermind the wear and tear. Perhaps Yi, with his comparatively slight frame, will be able to thrive, without injury, while continuing to play for both the Bucks and the national team. But I think – as of today – it’s indisputably clear that Yao, now in his late twenties, cannot.

The tragedy in this – for both China and the Houston Rockets – is that Yao’s laudable efforts to please both masters has resulted in an injury that will disappoint both. The Rockets are in the midst of their best run of Yao’s NBA career, and I think it unlikely that they’ll be able to repeat it. Likewise, China’s Olympic basketball team was not expected to win in Beijing, but it surely expected to place well, and Yao’s (presumably) superb play was the key. Now it’s not even clear that Yao will play in the Olympics. But if he does manage to appear, he’ll be doing it with all of the rust that accompanies rehab from a major injury, and his team and country will suffer for it.

I have no idea what would bring Yao greater satisfaction: an Olympic gold medal, or an NBA championship ring. But so long as he pursues both, it’s likely that he’ll possess neither. Compare him, for example, to Shaquille O’Neal, the NBA player who most closely approximates Yao’s girth and game. Like Yao, O’Neal is an oft-injured giant. But, unlike Yao, O’Neal has benefited from coaches and a schedule that allows his body to recover from the NBA season and playoffs (during his years with the Lakers, O’Neal always managed to get a mid-season, ahem, injury providing his beat-up body with some extra rest in advance of the playoffs). Among other reasons, this is one factor in why O’Neal has four NBA championship rings. It is also why he won his only Olympic gold medal at the age of 24; after the 96 Olympics he has spent his summers recuperating, and only now – at age 36 – is he showing true signs of decline and chronic injury. Without similar rest, Yao Ming can expect to decline much earlier.

Sadly, Yao’s national team obligations might only end at retirement. If that’s the case – and I’d say it’s more likely than not – he’ll retire without the rings or the medals that his extraordinary skills and character so richly deserve. For China, and for Yao, that’ll be a tragedy of talent spent, and opportunity lost. But perhaps, just maybe, it’s a tragedy that can be averted by a sober assessment of the risks that contributed to this injury, and a clear-eyed recognition that national honor is also served by Yao’s first NBA championship ring.

2 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Yao’s Left Foot

  1. I saw Yao’s press conference on ESPN, he seemed genuinely emotional at the thought of not being able to play in Beijing this summer.

    I totally agree about the ‘big man’ syndrome. Yao’s missed an average of 25-30 games a year over the last three years, and once these big guys get hurt, the slide is quick, especially when it comes to problems of the foot and ankle. The career of 7’4″ Rik Smits (The Dunking Dutchman) is a cautionary tale worth remembering.

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