When the Houston Rockets used the No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft on a tall man from China named Yao Ming, I forced my mom to drive me home in the middle of whatever errands we were running so I wouldn’t miss the seven-footer walk across the Madison Square Garden floor.
I was 12 at the time and my favorite player was Steve Francis. Many of the draft reports leading up to Yao’s selection pinned him as the missing piece that Francis needed to bring Houston a championship.
The generation before mine had its wonder years. Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Cassell and Kenny Smith were their adolescent heroes, but to me they were relics of an older game that I couldn’t attach myself to.
But this team was my team. The team that I pretended to be a part of when I was on the driveway alone. I’d pass the ball to all of the Rockets from Francis to Cuttino Mobley to Yao (myself to myself to myself), and score the game-winning dunk. And Yao was the face of it all.
I was 15 when Yao went 13 for 14 from the field against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 2005 playoffs. My Dad and I were watching the game on a television outside, and the game ran later and later into the night. My mom frequently came out to scold both of us for caring so much about something so trivial.
“Sameer, it is a Monday night!” she yelled from the back door. “Get to sleep, you have school in the morning.”
My dad and I responded with a halfhearted, “Okay, mom,” never peeling our eyes from the screen to be sure not to miss a moment of Yao’s heroic 33-point performance. We later sang that silly ode to Yao that mimicked the famous “Ole” chant. You know the one.
“Yao Ming, Yao Ming, Yao Ming, Yao Ming! Yao Ming! Yao Ming!”
Houston later lost the series, as was the case throughout most of Yao’s career, and then the injuries began to pile on.
Still, you don’t think superheroes have the capability of going down for the count. I always assumed he’d come back and dominate like he did when I was still a wide-eyed fanatic.
Yao’s superhero moment was in 2009. My first year of college was coming to an end, and the world was significantly scarier than it had been when I was a kid. I stuffed what was the entirety of my freshman 15 in wings down the gullet at Pluckers and watched the Rockets take on the Lakers in the second round of the playoffs — the first and only time Yao had advanced past the first round.
With about five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Yao bumped knees with Kobe Bryant and it was another “here-we-go-again moment.” He writhed in pain as the trainers walked him through the tunnel to end his night. I was fed up with him.
Yao was fed up with it all, too. In one of those “where-amazing-happens” instances, I watched Yao stretch in the tunnel, fend off the trainers begging him not to risk further injury and march back into the hostile Staples Center to finish the game. The Rockets won.
That is the last real memory I have of him as a player, but I prefer it that way.
You only get one childhood and a handful of childhood heroes, and after 10 or so years they are gone. Then there are new bunches of stars and heroes for 12-year-old boys and girls to help raise them, to help serve as that microcosmic reminder that everyone gets older, and that everyone has ups and downs. The only problem is you often don’t recognize it until it is too late.
Much has been written in the past few days of Yao’s global impact, and some have even talked about him being a disappointment. But to me, Yao Ming serves as reminder of all that is good at the core of sports, as well as a reminder that getting older is not a bad thing as long as you take it in stride.
In 2010, when asked about his injury issues, Yao laughed.
“I haven’t died,” he said. “Right now I’m drinking a beer and eating fried chicken. What were you expecting, a funeral?”
A friend of mine once said it is alright to be nostalgic without wanting to go back and relive it all, but I can’t quite immediately accept that. But with perspective like Yao’s, I’m working on it.