Beyond the Boxscore
Yao Ming can't walk, but he suddenly wants to play again: Who's he kidding withthis last stand?
Yao Ming talked about making yet another comeback try — and then he hobbled away on crutches.
His left foot still completely immobilized in a walking boot that's bigger then some suitcases, Yao uses his crutches to gingerly make his way across the Toyota Center's plush Lexus Lounge. His wife Ye Li stands at his side, smiling in a rare public appearance. Soon, Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander is at Yao's other side, getting his own face time with the 7-foot-6 icon.
This was the scene at the Rockets' 15th annual Tux & Tennies Gala Thursday night. The night was a benefit for SNAP — the spray-neuter assistance program that focuses on preventing the overpopulation of animals, particularly in lower income areas — and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Houston. It was a night that brought out the hilarious stylings of Rockets forward Chuck Hayes (both with his white coat tuxedo combination and his work at the microphone during the live auction portion of the evening). A night that had a very-drink-relaxed, 7-foot Rockets center Brad Miller trying to stare down some competitive bidders for a Final Four ticket package that eventually reached $10,000 (with Miller, wearing a camouflage hat with his tuxedo, buying one of the two packages).
A night that became all about Yao. This is no fault of the man himself. Even after all these years in the international spotlight, Yao still seems more bemused than impressed by all the hubbub around basketball players in general, and him in particular.
But Yao has become the Greta Garbo of the NBA. He limps off the court after yet another season-ending injury and is seldom heard from. Anytime he reappears in public, the questions and the fascination resume.
It isn't just limited to the reporters and fans either. Rockets owner Leslie Alexander made sure that the man he's paid $17.7 million to play five games this season sat at his table — table No. 1 for the whole gala. Even after all these years of promise and disappointment, Alexander is obviously still delighted and fascinated with Yao.
"If you can find me another 7-foot-6 center who's great and who's also a great person," Alexander said at the thought of the Rockets moving on from Yao. "Of course we want him back. If he's healthy and the doctors say he can play."
And there's the rub, the disclaimer that comes with any Yao talk. He's the All-Star with the blaring fine print. It seemed a little curious for Yao to indicate he'd try to make one more comeback ("that's the direction," he said) while his stress-fractured left ankle is still so heavily encased. Yao Ming is still 10 weeks away from walking — if everything goes right. Now, he's thinking of running, of schooling less-skilled NBA big men again?
Yao himself acknowledged that it's easy to say now. He's not in the grind of rehab at the moment. He's in an immobilized happy zone.
"When you're lying on a bed, drinking soda and eating hamburgers, actually your day is pretty easy," Yao said, poking fun at the idea of injured multi-millionaire athletes going through "tough" times. Yes, Yao is different. Even eight years into his NBA career. He resists the idea of a pity party — even though he's one of the few professional athletes who is a good enough guy that people do truly feel sorry for him.
This is part of the reason people are so transfixed by Yao. I'd thought that Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson had passed Yao as the compelling sports figure in Houston. Until, I saw people react to Yao again at Tux & Tennies. The biggest check writers in the building included.
"When somebody meets me, the first thing they say is 'Oh, you're Yao Ming's boss,' " Alexander said.
Alexander had a lot to be proud of on this night. He told the story of how he knew he'd funded SNAP's first mobile truck in Houston, but he'd recently found out that he'd "donated the first Snap truck in the country in Florida" years and years ago. (Alexander knew he'd made the donation, he just didn't realize it was SNAP's first mobile unit). He talked about the Boys and Girls Clubs taking on even greater importance with all funding cuts Texas schools are facing on the state level.
Still, he seemed as pleased as anything by the fact that he's the owner who employs Yao Ming, great global citizen.
That has to come in handy if Yao — who will be a free agent this summer — wants to negotiate a new playing contract. It also begs the question if Yao is fooling himself, Alexander or the Rockets' future more by floating this last stand comeback balloon.
No easy road
When you're as talented a player as Yao (and at his best, he was always among the top two centers in the league), you probably have to try before giving in to retirement. Or at least, give lip service to trying. Maybe Yao really can recraft his career in a new direction the way Grant Hill has in Phoenix and to a lesser extent, Tracy McGrady, has in Detroit.
He still seems to be at least semi peace with the idea that this could be it though. This is the same guy who was talking retirement not long ago.
"That's the sad, sad question," Yao said at Tux and Tennies. "There's the possibility that I will not be able to come back and play. But I'll tell myself I did everything I can."
Yao deserves this last shot. But the Rockets cannot become beholden to it. General manager Daryl Morey (who seemed as surprised as anyone that Yao was talking about playing again already) must craft next season's roster figuring that Yao will contribute nothing.
For once, time could be on Yao's side. An NBA lockout (which are much surer things than NFL lockouts) will likely push back the start of next season, giving Yao extra weeks and even months to see if his version of Rocky VI is realistic. And realism is a key word in the Rockets organization. In many ways, it is Alexander's mantra.
"You are your record," Alexander said. "That's what I've always said. We're 33-33. The West is unbelievably tough. This is a very good team, but it is not good enough to be a playoff team in the West."
A TV reporter prompted Alexander to later say that he wasn't giving up on the playoffs this season, but it is clear that the owner with two NBA championships isn't delighting in the idea of being a longshot to sneak in as an eighth seed. He's too ambitious to think that, too realistic.
Except when it comes to Yao. Then, Alexander's hard-boiled realism melts, giving way to farfetched hopes.
Yao Ming limps around on his crutches, sporting a classy tuxedo, and everyone coos. What exactly's changed?