While you were asleep last night, Yao Ming officially retired, which, if history serves as a guide, won’t keep him from being voted onto the All-Star team next season, even if the NBA doesn’t play next year. If he accomplished nothing else as an NBA player (and we’ll get to that question in a bit) it’s fair to say he proved that homerism isn’t just the province of fans in the Western hemisphere. China loved Yao, even though, in the decade when China damn near took over the world, Yao is going to be remembered as an all-time Could’ve player. He appeared in all of 28 playoff games, and although he was a good-to-dominant center when he was actually, you know, playing center, his NBA obit is going to list him as the player one-fifth of the world’s population hoped each year would do more.
Most of what Yao and the NBA said around his retirement was exactly as formal and complimentary you’d expect. I thought Maggie Rauch of China Sports Today managed to capture a better sense of Yao’s exit with just a few live tweets from the news conference in Beijing:
Yao’s own version of The Decision begins in a few minutes. Prediction: It’ll be more humble than Lebron’s.
Yao officially announces his basketball career is over. Why does this seem so SERIOUS and SAD?
Yao met the world’s insane on-court expectations, but not for long enough. Off-court he far exceeded expectations with his humor and grace.
Even @ Yao retirement presser, absolute idiotic ?s: People have said there are lots of similarities between u and KungFu panda. What u say?
Just ask your nearest James Dean poster: One of the greatest parts of fading away too early is that people can ascribe nearly anything to the gap you leave. Yao as Kung Fu Panda? Why the hell not? You have to hand it to Yao that nearly everyone who followed him from No. 1 NBA draft pick to world icon was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. The lads over at ESPN.com’s roundball roundtable were dead-on when they said he could have been a top-10 center ever, a Hall of Famer and an MVP if he’d stayed healthy. And if a frog had wings.
Over at Grantland last week Jay Caspian Kang wrote, with more certainty, about Yao as a culturally transformational dude:
Where but in sports can a foreigner come over and instantly become one of the most recognizable faces in the country? Every aspect of Yao’s American career — the process that took him from being an unwanted curiosity to becoming one of the most beloved players in the league — was broadcast on a massive, corporatized scale, but only the worst cynic could have questioned Yao’s authenticity, his earnestness. What we grew to love about Dirk, we also loved about Yao — both men came to the United States amidst skepticism and uncertainty. Both took on the sentimental values of American sport. Unlike Ichiro, whose pursuit of excellence always carried a lonely, abstracted air (I’ve always thought Ichiro could have gone to any team in any city with any number of teammates and have had the exact same career), Yao engaged America.
America might’ve returned the favor more fully had Yao played more in May and June. Yao might be in the top five of NBA marketing players ever, but did he really impact basketball at its highest level? Yao’s reign as one of the top centers in the NBA (an indisputable fact when he was even marginally healthy) came at a time when the NBA center all but disappeared from view. His injuries mounted, and the biggest Chinese person any of us had ever seen gradually shrank from view like a candle on its last nib of wick. Two-and-a-half yards tall and wouldn’t you know, it was his two feet that betrayed him. If you ignore the financial boon of having an international celebrity on their roster, did his career justify a top pick? (Granted, the 2002 draft was possibly the least-consequential of the decade, given Jay Williams’ quasi-Len Biasing himself on time delay, and a lottery littered with the likes of Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Jared Jeffries, Melvin Ely and Chris Wilcox. It really was that bad: Mike Dunleavy Jr. went third, and if it weren’t for Amar’e at No. 9, you’d be tempted to say he was the right pick at that slot.)
But with just one playoff series victory to his name in a 10-year career, Yao is going in the same file with Tracy McGrady, Elton Brand, Joe Johnson, Antawn Jamison and Rashard Lewis as 2000s-era unfulfilled stats guys. He was a great ambassador for the league, as well as a fine and decent person. Still, it would have been nice to see Yao actually hoop a bit more. There may never be another like him again, but if there is, I’m pretty sure small forwards everywhere will be quite happy to take him baseline.