I never saw it coming.
Standing next to Yao Ming’s locker Sunday night, I saw the big man grimace as he slid his injured left foot into a tub of ice. He was obviously in pain, but he’d also just put in another 36 minutes at the office. He said his ankle was giving him some trouble, but he never gave any indication it could be something more sinister. Besides, at this point in the season, nearly every player is nursing an assortment of aches and pains. Bags of ice are just as ubiquitous an accessory as the iPhones and other gadgets athletes can’t live without.
Now we know. Stress fracture. Season over. Championship dreams erased. The good vibes and great hope of 48 hours ago might as well be from another lifetime.
The avalanche of questions is already upon us. Are the playoffs still possible? Can the Rockets recover? Do they have to change their identity midstream? Is that even possible? There are no easy answers. But unfortunately, those aren’t even the truly difficult questions.
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Ask Rockets fans what scares them the most right now and I guarantee you they’ll mention the future. The Bill Walton comparisons have already begun. And while that is beyond premature, it’s hard to stem the swelling skepticism that this franchise is built on the backs of two of the game’s more fragile superstars. To be sure, this injury promises to test the faith and fortitude of everyone associated with the Houston Rockets, from owner Les Alexander to the fan in the nosebleeds.
But not to be overlooked is the opportunity for this team to prove, once and for all, that it does indeed have the heart of a champion—even if it no longer possesses the resources of one. Keep your chin up, make the playoffs and steal a round, and redemption is yours, T-Mac. It’s a ridiculously tall order in the stacked Western Conference, I know. But if resiliency is the order of the day, I’m willing to bet teammates like Shane Battier, Rafer Alston, Luis Scola and Carl Landry have plenty to spare.
There’s no sugarcoating the darkness of this day. It’s a crushing blow to a franchise which began the day brimming with optimism. But bad things happen to good people all the time. You mourn, then you move on.
And if the Rockets need an example of what to do now, they merely need to look toward the locker of No. 11. Yao Ming put on a brave face and played through the pain as long as he could. Now it’s time for his teammates to do the same. – Jason Friedman