Yao Ming -- God Dammit
Limp away, old friend
"An MRI performed today on Rockets center Yao Ming revealed a stress fracture of the Medial Malleolus in his left ankle. The fracture, which is related to his previous injury of the Tarsal Navicular bone, presented itself during the course of his current rehabilitation program. There is no timetable for his return at this time." -- Email from the Rockets Media Relations Department, 1:46 PM this afternoon
My first car was a 1974 Plymouth Gold Duster. It was dogshit brown with a snakeskin pattern on the roof, and I paid $250 for it, which was about $200 too much. (For the record, my friends always found great humor in the fact that I paid $253 for the stereo -- partly because even in 1986, a $253 stereo is a garbage stereo, and partly because it was three dollars more than the rest of the car was apparently worth.)
Anyway, the car was an unabashed piece of shit. I drove it for maybe a month before the alternator started acting up. $500 later it would get fixed. Then two months later the radiator would fuck up (and at the worst possible time, right in the middle of Main Street in afternoon drive). $850, and we're good to go. When month seven rolled around and the transmission inevitably dropped, a decision had to be made.
The decision was easy. R.I.P. 1974 Plymouth Gold Duster. Well, today, after years of fix after not-so-quick fix, the transmission dropped on Yao Ming's feet.
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Because as feet go, Yao Ming's feet are two 1974 Plymouth Gold Dusters. Just when you think one problem is fixed, another problem rears its ugly head. Eventually, you realize they just can't get the job done.
The Rockets wouldn't comment any further on the injury, Yao's timetable for return, or odds that a return is even a possibility. And maybe they don't need to. The words from that press release that bring home the cold reality that maybe this is it for the big man -- "The fracture, which is related to his previous injury of the Tarsal Navicular bone..."
This isn't an injury born from some fluky hit on his ankle, or some awkward torque on an aborted turnaround jumper. No, this fracture is just the next step in the tragic collapse of Yao Ming's feet, the direct descendant of the fracture that sidelined Yao for the entire 2009-2010 season.
There are two ways to assess the latest chapter in Yao's depressing medical history. The first one is the human part. While it's hard to get worked up personally over any professional athlete's plight (It's sports, injuries are part of what you sign up for), Yao was a little different. The combination of an incredibly engaging, "gentle giant" persona with the fact that we all understood that Yao was dealing with a different kind of pressure to play for his nation during the NBA offseason, a pressure that led directly to a colossal workload that led to the news we got today, humanized Yao more than other athletes.
We watched him at his best, we watched him succumb to injuries (again and again and again), and we watched him work his ass off to get back up every time. The contrast provided by Tracy McGrady (the bizarro Yao in terms of handling his injury and rehab business) only galvanized our respect for him.
In short, this sucks for Yao, and any Rockets fan who can see where this is all headed probably feels a little sad today.
Then there is the cold, unforgiving business side of it, which is this -- the Rockets are closer to at least having clarity. Since the end of the 2004-2005 season, Yao has played in 242 of a possible 425 games. The only season in that timeframe when he came close to playing a full schedule was 2008-2009 (77 games), and even in that year he ultimately didn't make it through the second round of the playoffs.
Upon his return this season, Rick Adelman had to manage Yao's minutes and usage meticulously, somehow trying to balance a 24-minutes-per-game hard target for Yao with the ultimate goal of...you know...actually winning NBA games. It was awkward, it was clumsy, it was far too topical, and it was only made worse by the fact that Yao appeared winded after two trips up the floor and was running like he had been watching Gheorghe Muresan videos.
This is not meant to pile on Yao, this is just fact -- the "Is it worth the trouble?" test on Yao was teetering dangerously close to, if not already past, "NO" already. And this is before you take into account that a full season of relative health would put the Rockets in a spot where they almost certainly would have to give Yao a multi-year deal after this season.
When you marry Yao for multiple years, sure you get the great teammate, his turnaround jump shot, his massive size. But you also get the ticking time bomb that are his feet.
This may or may not be it for Yao, but it should be enough for the Rockets to say "We just can't do this anymore."
There is still a business to run. Businesses need clarity to run efficiently. The Rockets are one step closer to clarity. Unfortunately, it's probably at the expense of Yao Ming's Houston Rocket career. Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the "Sean & John Show" and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.