Tonight, at 6:30 p.m. CT, Yao Ming will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, along an all-time great class with Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal and Tom Izzo. This week, the basketball media world has been deluged with stories about Yao and his otherworldly impact on and off the court. Here are the best ones:
Jeff Van Gundy’s essay about coaching Yao
Steve Francis on playing “My Brother Yao”
Tracy McGrady: “I am proud to call Yao Ming my friend”
ESPN: Why Chinese basketball fans will always thank Yao Ming
A one-on-one interview with Yao Ming on the Hall
Even in retirement, Yao Ming continues to court greatness
Yahoo Sports: Don’t even think about underselling Yao the basketball player
The stories are too many to count, and have a heartwarming, common theme: Yao Ming is one of the tallest humans to have ever lived, and yet his inner peace, generous nature, and sense of humor were the things everyone noticed more than his size.
My favorite memory of Yao as a player — other than reading pieces like this and getting a warm feeling that, as a Rockets fan, Yao was ours to cherish, and ours alone — was in a Rockets loss. It’s now the second-worst buzzer-beating loss to the Blazers in Rockets history. Before Damian Lillard hit The Shot, Brandon Roy hit The Shot. But before Brandon Roy hit an undeniably impressive buzzer beater, Yao hit an even tougher shot (start the video at 1:37 below).
Yao wasn’t just double-covered, Yao had two guys inside of his jersey. He didn’t just make a turnaround jumper with two guys in his jersey, he made a turnaround jumper with two guys in his jersey while getting fouled. And he didn’t just make the shot, it was as pure a swish as you could ever imagine.
He also made the free throw to give the Rockets the lead, a picturesque swish. Of course.
In a way, that shot, and that game, is a beautiful, sad metaphor for Yao’s career. He was a singular talent and player, but tragically flawed. He could make plays that no one else could make, engender respect and admiration among his peers — look at the faces of the Rockets players after Yao hits the free throw in the video — but the body that made him so special betrayed him.
The Rockets won 22 straight games, were one of the most relevant teams int he league during Yao’s peak, but they never even made the Conference Finals. Despite a Herculean effort from Yao, the Rockets were ultimately too frail to reach their full potential.
In the grand scheme of things, wins and losses, potential fulfilled or not, doesn’t truly matter. Yao refuses to indulges the many “What Ifs” of his career. He’s focused on making the world a better place, ensuring that elephants aren’t wiped out as a result of the illegal Chinese ivory market, bringing basketball to the farthest flung regions of the world, and bringing his internal light and peace to everyone he touches.
Thanks for all the memories, Yao, and I can’t wait for your speech tonight. You deserve every good thing to happen to you.