Thursday, July 29, 2010

Yao can see the end of the line

By John McMullen

Philadelphia, PA - Your average human being doesn't stand 7-foot-6 and weigh 310 pounds.

In basketball, size among the skilled is the holy grail -- the only thing you can't teach. But, like anything else, there are pros and cons to having a talented big man that looks down at the rest of us.

Nearly 15 months ago, the Houston Rockets were battling the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals. Yao Ming dominated, scoring 28 points, including eight in the final four minutes, to lift Houston to an impressive 100-92 win.

Of course the Lakers responded, but their path to what would be the first of back-to-back championships was made much easier when Yao was diagnosed with a sprained ankle after Game 3 of that set.

A follow-up test revealed a hairline fracture in the big man's left foot, and he was ruled out for the remainder of the playoffs. At the time, Yao downplayed the injury and a conservative treatment plan was drawn up, calling for him to cease all physical training and to use a walking boot in order to immobilize the foot and promote healing.

The prognosis had the foot healing over the summer but the fracture failed to respond and Yao underwent surgery, putting the playing career of the Rockets' cornerstone in jeopardy.

For now, the Rockets are expecting Yao to be back for the 2010-11 campaign but the seven-time All-Star caused quite a stir in his native China on Tuesday, intimating he would in fact have to consider retiring if the foot fails to recover.

"If the foot injury does not heal next season I might choose to call it quits," Yao, who is entering the last year of his contract, said in an interview with Chinese state media.

The big man had already indicated that his days playing for the Chinese National team were probably behind him.

"The foot injury will not allow me to play so many games anymore," Yao said. "Like I said before, I will quit the national team and the sport one day. It's what happens to every athlete."

It's Yao's prodigious size that makes leg injuries a far more serious subject, Other talented big men like Sam Bowie, Bill Walton and another former Rocket, Ralph Sampson, had careers cut short by a seemingly never-ending series of leg injuries. Meanwhile, current Portland pivot Greg Oden may be heading in a similar direction.

Yao, an eight-year NBA veteran, has now had three different fractures of the left foot and a hairline crack of the right leg. He has had five-consecutive seasons interrupted or ended by some kind of injury.

The Shanghai native did return to the floor in late May and has been going through full-contact workouts at Toyota Center, buoying the Rockets' spirits. Meanwhile, Houston general manager Daryl Morey continues to indicate Yao is indeed on pace to start training camp healthy and on time.

"Yao is on schedule to be available the first day of training camp," Morey told a Houston newspaper on Tuesday. "He's continued to make positive strides in his rehab work and all medical reports so far have been positive. He's been working consistently four to five days a week, and we expect him to be there when we open camp on September 25th."

A healthy Yao instantly turns the Rockets back into a Western Conference contender. In fact, a starting lineup featuring the Chinese star along with Luis Scola, Trevor Ariza, Aaron Brooks and Kevin Martin projects as one of the NBA's best.

But, projections are just that -- an estimate of future possibilities based on current events that remain fluid.
And no projection to my knowledge has ever taken into account the doubt that has crept into the mind of a 7-foot-6, oft-injured former All-Star.

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