BEIJING – On his way out of the game, Yao Ming thrust his fist through the air, and soon made that long, wobbly walk to the Chinese bench. The end of a brilliant and historic night for basketball, the end of responsibility for Yao. His work is done. Let him rest.
“The game was a treasure,” Yao said, “and it will be a treasure for the rest of my life.”
Here was a surreal sight on Sunday night in these Olympic Games. Here was the embodiment of Yao Ming’s legacy: His heart, his determination, his immensity. He made possible a billion people worldwide watching a basketball game on television. He made possible these blistering ovations and rock-star treatment the U.S. players receive here. He made possible the hundreds of millions of dollars that David Stern can generate here.
And above all, Yao gave China its Olympic flag-bearer and iconic athlete to frame the most important engagement it’s ever had with the world.
“Yao built the bridge for all of us,” Kobe Bryant said.
To watch Yao limp and flail and double over to breathe was to understand the reasons with which his sense of obligation brought him back so soon from another broken foot, another surgery. For Yao, this is his life’s lot. For his own preservation, his own crack at a career undiminished, he needs to tell a most unrelenting Chinese sports machine that its days of running him into the ground are gone.
No more summers with the national team in non-Olympic years, no more of the treatment that’s breaking down his body. The sport’s never seen an athlete of his size who is so skilled, so agile. His lower body has crumbled under the burden, with two broken feet, a broken leg and an infected toe. It breaks your heart to watch what has happened to him. As much as anyone, his body needs rest and recovery. The pounding has taken a terrible toll on him.
“They will continue to pressure him,” one high-ranking international basketball official said of Chinese officials. “The one thing they do with all of their athletes is drive them into the ground with training. The strongest survive. If you don’t, they’ll find another to come and do it.
“I mean, they don’t do little things like block out good airline seats for them when they travel. They can all be in middle seats in coach for all they care, and that’s how Yao travels with them. Whatever happens with his injuries, they’re going to insist that he keeps playing for them.”
The Chinese government had monitored his birth because of the perfect physical and athletic genes of his parents, forever treating him as something of a science project. Yet there’s nothing robotic, nothing programmed, about him. He has such humanity, such a sense of grace and honor. Over time, you can slowly see him assimilating into more of a Western mindset. He has things on his mind. Yes, he has plenty of opinions. It just isn’t his culture’s way to share them.
Poor Yao. The Rockets traded for the tempestuous Ron Artest and Yao’s reaction was perfectly appropriate. What he wanted to know, he said, was if Artest was done pummeling fans in the stands. Essentially, it was his way of asking: Will this clown ever get it right? Fair question, but the surprising bite to his words created a reaction that immediately sent Yao scurrying to make public and private apologies.
Yao showed a little edge, and he needs to do it again. After these Games, he needs to use the leverage of his popularity, his earning power in China and tell the regime that he’s done with the grinding national team calendar. Tell them that they’ll see him in 2012 in London, and that if they leave him alone, maybe he’ll make it there as an elite player.
When Yao crumbled with a stress fracture, necessitating the fourth surgery on his lower body in the past two years, his old Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy pleaded that Yao – or someone close with a willingness to be the bad guy – has to learn the word “No.”
Still, Yao gives China its biggest star in these Olympics. Here, everything is about saving face, and the under-manned Chinese did that with a respectable showing. Yao missed seven of 10 shots and spent so much of his night crumpled over, holding his shorts, gasping for breath. He gave them one moment, though. Before the U.S. turned its Pool B game into a dunking line, Yao started it all. Of all things, he backed behind the three-point line and delivered the game’s first basket. Such a roar in this jammed building, such a poetic moment. After all, Yao has always defied range and reach.
“I felt honored to be there watching that,” U.S. point guard Chris Paul said. “It felt like a storybook when he hit that shot.’
So yes, everybody has made a killing on Yao Ming and he is tired and beaten and owed something here. Owed big. No one ever came to the NBA with his hype and pressure, with so many people openly pulling for him to be a flop. He was a mysterious figure out of the Far East and he felt like a threat. Now, everyone understands: The NBA needs Yao, the way China does. Only, he counted on them looking out for his best interests. They’ve bled him dry. His time, his turn now.
For once in his life, Yao needs it to be about him. He’s never going to lose face, but he could have his career cut far too short. Whatever’s happened, Yao must tell China’s government: Enough is enough – we’re even.