Yao Ming was born on September 12, 1980, in Shanghai, Chinathe only child of Fengdi Fang and Yao Zhiyuan, his mother and father. Just about everyone in Ming's homeland is raised an an only child because of the country's restrictions on family size. Thanks to his parentsboth of whom stood well over six feet and had enjoyed excellent basketball careersMing had the genetics and instincts necessary for stardom on the hardwood. Fang, a center, was once captain of China's national women's team. Zhiyuan made his mark with a local pro club in Shanghai.
Ming's mother and father both held good jobs, Fang with a sports institute and Zhiyuan with a harbor engineering company. The family lived in a custom-built apartment. Larger-than-normal door frames accommodated their unusual height. Their beds were extra long, and their clothes and shoes were also made to order.
Shanghai, the largest city in China with a population of 11 million, was a wondrous place for Ming to grow up. Located on the coast of the East China Sea between the mouth of the Yangtze River to the north and the bays of Hangchow and Yu-p'an to the south, Shanghai (which translates literally to "on the sea") was the first Chinese port to be opened to Western trade, and today stands as one of the world's largest seaports. The city is also set apart by innovation and modern thinking. Indeed, Shanghai is China's leader in higher education and scientific research.
Initially, it was these types of intellectual pursuits that fascinated Ming. Though his parents tried to get him interested in basketball, he didn't give the sport a second look until he was nine. Though he towered over other kids his age, Ming was hindered by his bony frame and found it very difficult to heave the ball toward the hoop. He was often outmuscled under the boards by boys much smaller than him. In fact, friends used to joke that his skinny arms looked like chopsticks. Fitness was a problem, too. After one or two trips up and down the court Ming was winded.
Despite these shortcomings, Ming's parents encouraged him to stick with basketball. He played in his first organized basketball game after his tenth birthday, in a league similar to Little League baseball in the U.S. His father promised gifts for every shot he converted, and his mother nourished him with special family recipes. Drawing on their own playing days, Fang and Zhiyuan also offered plenty of advice and analysis. They also tutored their son on the beauty of the game, especially from a center's standpoint.
By his twelfth birthday, Ming had become serious about basketball. His parents sent him to Shanghai's provincial sports academy, where he worked on his game several hours a day. He lived in a dorm, and pedaled around campus on a bicycle that was comically small for him.
Being away from home
focused Ming even more intently on basketball. His hero was Arvydas Sabonis,
the world-class center who rose to prominence for the Soviet national
teams of the mid-1980s. At the time, the 7-3 Lithuanian was honing his
game in Spain. Ming loved the way Saboniswho later played with the
Portland Trailblazershandled the ball, found open teammates with
dazzling passes and stepped away from the basket for outside jumpers.
He emulated his idol whenever he took the floor.
Ming's progress helped earn him a spot on his local youth team, the Shanghai Oriental Sharks. By this time he had also discovered the world of basketball on the other side of the Pacific. A limited schedule of NBA games was broadcast in China, and Ming followed the Houston Rockets closely. Led by Hakeem Olajuwon, another agile big man, the Rockets won back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995. Ming was hooked.
ON THE RISE
China's national basketball program was also on the rise during the mid-1990s. Though an eighth-place finish at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta didn't suggest it, the country was developing a talent pipeline and filling it with youngsters like Ming. The national team boasted two seven-footers, Wang Zhi-Zhi and Menk Bateer, both of whom could run the floor, play tough defense and score near the basket. Hoops had become so popular in China that a professional league, the Chinese Basketball Association, had been launched. The focus of the sport, however, was much different than in other countries. In China, teamwork was valued over individual achievement. In fact, in the CBA's first season, statistics weren't even kept.
Ming, who was pushing seven feet himself, planned to join the hometown Shanghai Sharks of the CBA for the 1997-98 season. Several American sporting goods companies were also looking to latch on with the league. Nike was as aggressive as any, inking a deal to sponsor the Sharks. When corporate executives got their first look at the team's 17-year-old center, their eyes lit up. Ming was invited to a Nike camp held in Paris in the summer of 1997. Matched up against players his own age, he wowed everyone in attendance, including Del Harris, at the time the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
From there Nike got permission to bring Ming and a Sharks teammate, Liu Wei, to the U.S. They played with an AAU junior elite team, then attended the Nike All-American camp in Indianapolis. Surrounded by 200 of America's best teenage prospects, Ming again flourished. Coaches and recruiters ranked him as the camp's second-best center.
On the strength of that performance, Ming was invited to be a counselor at Michael Jordan's Flight School in Santa Barbara, California. Though his English was limited, he fit in perfectly. Highlighting the camp for him were the five-on-five scrimmages organized by Jordan each night. During one game, Michael drained a three-pointer, then challenged Ming to do the same. To Jordan's amazement, Ming ambled down the court and nailed one from beyond the arc.
Before going home, Ming played for China in the FIBA 22-and-Under World Championship in Melbourne, Australia. It was a humbling experience. China failed to win any of its seven games and finished dead last among the 12 teams in the tournament.
Nonetheless, Ming returned to Shanghai a more confident and more rounded player. He was still noodle-thin, however, and paid the price during the CBA season. Opponents battered Ming under the boards, regularly sending him sprawling to the floor. He took his licks all year long, as did the Sharks, who finished eighth out of the league's 12 teams.
Ming finally began to fill out after his 18th birthday. Though his upper body remained weak, he gained strength in his legs, which were growing thick and muscular. He also developed a more varied arsenal of offensive moves. Ming put his A game on display during the Asian Basketball Confederation (ABC) Championship for Junior Men in Calcutta, India. With their seven-foot center leading the way, the Chinese captured the title, and Ming was named tournament MVP.
When the 1998-99 CBA campaign began, Ming was a different player. He was able to hold his own against older, more experienced opponents. Shanghai's fortunes improved as Ming found his way in the league. He averaged 25 points and 15 rebounds, and the Sharks jumped to fourth place in the standings.
In 1999 Ming was added to the Chinese men's national team. His first taste of international competition at this level came during the ABC Championship for Men in Fukuoka, Japan. Ming relished the challenge of going up against players more intense and talented than those he faced in the CBA. He, Zhi-Zhi and Bateer formed a terrifying trio, and China cruised to the title. Ming averaged 12 points and nearly seven rebounds, and regularly made his presence felt on defense.
Against stiffer competition in the FIBA Junior World Championship, however, the Chinese were overmatched. The US blew them out, 119-59, in their first game, and from there China mustered just one victory.
Ming learned a lot from his summer of international play. He demonstrated more maturity on the floor, and with a better idea of the skills he needed to work on, his all-around game improved. Though his scoring dipped a bit in the 1999-2000 CNBA season, he was more of a force in the paint, both on offense and defense. Ming led the Sharks to second place in standings, then keyed a run to the CBA final against the Bayi Rockets. But Shanghai was no competition for the Rockets and their veteran star, Zhi-Zhi, who claimed their sixth straight title in a three-game sweep.
For Ming, facing Zhi-Zhi for the championship was an accomplishment in and of itself. He viewed his counterpart as an older brother and took cues from him personally and professionally. At the time, Zhi-Zhi was being pursued by the Dallas Mavericks, who had used a first-round draft choice on him in June of 1999. While Ming had already begun to envision an NBA career of his own, he hoped his friend would be China's first basketball ambassador to the U.S.
After the CBA final, Ming, Zhi-Zhi and the rest of China's elite players began training for the 2000 Olympics. The only Asian entry in the basketball tournament, the Chinese were honored just to be suiting up for the Summer Games. Their goal in Australia was to show the world's best players that they belonged on the same court with them.
Despite the presence of Ming, Zhi-Zhi and Bateercollectively nicknamed "The Walking Great Wall"China was not well regarded in the international hoops community. The level of play in the CBA was thought to be no better than that of Division II in the U.S. Even Chinese fans acknowledged their game had a ways to go.
China got the game it wanted right away, a battle against the Americans. Though drubbed 119-72, the Chinese left the floor with their heads held high. No one appeared the least bit intimidated by the mighty Dream Team, and twice in the first half the Chinese actually held the lead, 13-7 and 17-16. Most impressive was Ming's performance. In the early minutes of the contest he rejected a shot by Vince Carter, then later swatted away a floater by Gary Payton. While his final numbers were modest (five points and three rebounds in 16 minutes), the media and fans back in China were inspired by his fearless play. Ming was quickly developing into a national idol.
The Chinese responded to their rout at the hands of the Dream Team by manhandling New Zealand, 75-60, in their next game. But a pair of lopsided defeats to France and Lithuania ended all hopes of a medal run. Ming and his teammates gained a measure of redemption with an 85-76 victory over Italy, then lost to Spain to conclude the tournament. All in all, their ninth-place finish was perfectly respectable.
MAKING HIS MARK
Yao Ming opened a lot of eyes with his play during the Olympics. For the tournament, he finished sixth in rebounding and second in blocked shots. While he also turned the ball over 15 times in six games, NBA evaluators noted his tremendous athleticism and his desire to mix it up in the lane.
Within months, speculation started as to whether Ming would enter the 2001 NBA draft. A pair of highly touted high schoolers, Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler, were already leaning toward going pro. If Ming followed their lead, it was possible that a collegiate player would not be among the first three players taken in the draft, something that had never before happened in the NBA's 55-year history.
But as the months
passed, it seemed less and less likely that Ming would come to America.
The two stumbling blocks were the Sharks and the Chinese government. The
Shanghai club would certainly place a sizable price tag on the head of
its star, while public officials in China would have a laundry list of
requirements and conditions to be met before approving his departure.
NBA teams, however, took heart in the fact that the Chinese were in the
running to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. Granting Ming the freedom to
play in the US would bolster China's bid. Therefore, it was a safe bet
that at some point down the road he would be wearing an NBA uniform.
Ming, meanwhile, was back on the court with the Sharks, again gunning for a CBA championship. He enjoyed another spectacular season, averaging 27 points, topping the league in rebounding (19.4) and blocked shots (5.5), and appeared in his first All-Star game. He also led the CBA in dunks, a sign that he was embracing an American style of play. In Communist China, jamming is frowned upon because it focuses too much attention on the individual.
For the second year in a row, Shanghai advanced to the CBA final. Again their opponent was Bayi, and again the Sharks were steamrolled, losing the series three games to one. Ming's consolation was being named to the All-Playoff team. He was also voted the league MVP.
When the 2000-01 campaign ended, a new controversy ignited. For the past two years, a U.S. agent named Frank Duffy had been forging a relationship with Ming and his family. But with the youngster's stock rising, more and more people were vying for the right to represent him. Super agent David Falk of the SFX Sports Group began courting the Sharks, and soon word spread that he had the inside track to Ming. Michael Coyne, a Cleveland-based agent, also had his hat in the ring. In 1999 he had struck a deal with Shanghai that secured him up to 40 percent of Ming's NBA earnings through June of 2002.
Feeling he was being squeezed out, Duffy advised Ming to send a letter to NBA commissioner David Stern and Billy Hunter, executive director of the NBA players union. In the correspondence, he advised both that a nasty legal battle awaited if Falk or anyone else continued to interfere. In the end, the private and public maneuverings only served to sour the Chinese on the NBA. Ultimately it was determined that Ming would forego the 2001 draft.
Ming spent the following summer touring the world with the Chinese national team. One of their stops was Dallas, where he received some one-on-one instruction from Kiki Vandeweghe, who was then working for the Mavericks. The Chinese also competed in a full slate of international tournaments. At the East Asian Games in Japan, Ming helped China reach the final against Australia. Despite his 11 points, eight rebounds and five blocks, the Chinese fell 105-93. Weeks later China dominated an uneven field in the Asian Championships. The team took all eight of its games by double-digits to win the tournament, and Ming was named MVP.
Ming next led China to the silver medal at the World University Games, in Beijing. The team's most impressive victory came in the semifinals against the U.S., a squad that included Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter of Maryland, Roger Mason Jr. of Virginia and Lyn Greer of Temple. To the delight of the home fans, the Chinese roared to an 11-point lead, then held off a fierce rally from the Americans for an 83-82 victory. Ming chipped in with 12 points. In the final, however, China was routed by Yugoslavia, 101-61.
Ming quickly shifted his focus to the 2001-02 CBA campaign. He and the Sharks were a team on a mission. Sparked in part by a couple of AmericansLloyd "Sweet Pea" Daniels and Steve HartShanghai rolled during the regular season, posting a record of 23-1. On his way to his second consecutive MVP award, Ming was phenomenal, averaging 29.7 points, 18.5 rebounds and 4.8 blocks.
In the playoffs, he guided Shanghai to a pair of series sweeps, setting up another showdown with Bayi for the league title. Two things worked in the Sharks' favor this time around. First, the Rockets were without Zhi-Zhi, who by now had joined the Mavericks. Second, Shanghai had bolstered its roster with the addition of David Benoit, a member of the Utah Jazz during the team's heyday in the late 1990s. Those factors helped turn the tables on Bayi. The Sharks won the best-of-five final to capture their first championship. Ming raised his performance to a new level, averaging 41 points and 21 rebounds a game.
Ming's attention then shifted to the NBA draft. The Sharks and the Chinese government seemed open to negotiating his release, so it was time to start boning up on American cities. At first, he thought he'd like to go to a team in a major market with a large Chinese population, such as New York, Chicago or Golden State. When the Rockets won the lottery, he began to think that Houston might be an even better place to play. For one thing, the media there wasn't nearly as aggressive as it was in bigger U.S. cities. Considering the headlines that his arrival in the NBA promised to generate, this was a bonus. Also, coach Rudy Tomjanovich and GM Carroll Dawson had plenty of experience with athletic big men. Ming remembered Rudy T as the man at the helm when Hakeem and the Rockets soared to a pair of NBA titles.
Of course, there were no guarantees that Ming would be the first overall draftee. In May, with debate raging over whether Houston should gamble its pick on Ming, he held a workout for 25 NBA teams at Loyola's Alumni Gym in north Chicago. The hour-long session was run by former NBA coach P.J. Carlesimo. Also participating were Chris Christoffersen, a 7-2 center from Oregon, Marquette point guard Cordell Henry and Mitch Henderson, an assistant coach at Northwestern. Ming displayed his soft shooting touch, quick feet, and shot-blocking abilities, but he seemed to lack intensity. Many NBA teams left Chicago with more questions than answers about him.
The Rockets, however, were sold on Ming's potential and his desire to achieve greatness, and took him on draft day. There was just one problem: Negotiations with the Sharks stalled. Shanghai's hesitancy to strike a deal was partly due to bad blood that had surfaced between Bayi and Dallas over Zhi-Zhi. When the CBA requested that the seven-footer return home to play for the Chinese national team, the Mavericks didnt exactly cooperate. The Sharks feared a similar situation might develop with Ming.
With Houston trying to work out a deal, Ming prepared to join China for the World Basketbal Championship, in Indianapolis. While the Chinese were again smoked by the competition, he stood out on both ends of the court. He averaged 21 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.25 blocked shots, shot an eye-popping 75 percent from the field, and was named to the all-tournament team at center.
From there, Ming, still unsigned by the Rockets, led China to the silver medal at the All-Asian Games. Finally, in October, he inked a deal with Houston. His contractfour years at $17.8 millionincluded a $350,000 transfer fee paid to the Sharks, and allows the CBA to call him back to China for international competitions. In addition, an estimated half of his salary goes to various Chinese sporting agencies.
The team Ming joined was on the rise. Though Houston finished a dismal 28-54 in 2001-02, most observers agreed that the Rockets had talent. Guard Steve Francis had blossomed into an All-Star, Cuttino Mobley was a proven 20-point scorer, and forward Eddie Griffin had loads of potential. Ming was the man who might just bring everyone together. Tomjanovich and Dawson were most excited about the pairing of their rookie center with Francis. The duo promised to provide a solid nucleus for years to come.
By the NBA All-Star break, it was safe to say that Ming and the Rockets had surpassed all expectations. The big man listened to his coaches, learned from his mistakes, and maintained his implacable demeanor as he improved on a game-by-game basis. Not that he wasn't good from the get-go. Despite scoring just 20 points in his first six games (thus eliciting a chorus of I-told-you-so's from his detractors) Ming displayed soft hands, good anticipation, and an understanding of how to do the little things when the big things weren't happening. It was no coincidence that the Rockets notched four victories in those games. As Ming's minutes increased, so did his numbers. He also learned how to deal with the in-your-face style of the league's big men, and now punctuates his glides to the basket with a dunk and a hint of a smile.
It didn't take long for Ming to turn in some outstanding games. In a 103-90 loss to Dallas, he collected 30 points and 16 rebounds. A month later he torched the Indiana Pacers with 29 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks in a 95-83 Rockets win. The biggest moment in his young NBA career came in a highly publicized January match-up with Shaquille O'Neal and the Lakers. Six months earlier, Shaq had cracked wise about Ming and his Chinese heritage. Though the rookie brushed the remark aside, the media dredged it up before the game.
Ming opened the contest by blocking three of O'Neal's shots and scoring on a jump hook, a layup and a turnaround jumper. Shaq ultimately won the battle with 31 points and 13 rebounds, but Ming won the war as the Rockets emerged with a 108-104 overtime victory. Ming sealed the deal with a dunk on a pretty passing sequence with Francis, who dropped 44 on L.A. The victory was the 23rd of the year for the Rockets, putting them a couple of months ahead of their previous season's pace.
From there Houston entered into a battle with Phoenix for the 8th and final playoff spot in the West. The club received disheartening news in March when Tomjanovic was diagnosed with bladder cancer, but still kept an eye on the postseason. Though the Rockets ultimately failed in their quest—the Suns edged them by a single game—at 43-39, the season was a major success.
Ming had a lot to do with Houston's improved play. An easy selection for the All-Rookie team, he ended the campaign averaging 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds. In February he posted five double-doubles, then recorded six more in March and April, including a season-high 19 rebounds versus Sacramento. In all he placed in the top 20 in 11 statistical categories.
Ming's impact was also felt off the court. He was voted to start over Shaq in the All-Star game. Attendance was up all year at Houston home games, and a significant portion of those tickets were sold to Asian fans.The Rockets-Lakers game in January of 2003 was the second highest rated hoops broadcast in U.S. cable history. Literally hundreds of millions of viewers tuned into Rockets games back in China.
Ming also proved to be a natural as a pitchman, starring in commercials for Apple and VISA. As his English improved, his endorsements became more lucrative. The league, meanwhile, was salivating over the thought of Ming as its global marketing poster boy.
After his excellent rookie campaign, Ming helped lead the Chinese National Basketball team to an Olympic playoff berth. During a practice, however, he broke a bone above his left eye, and was forced to sit out some exhibition games.
Back in Houston, former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy was hired as the Rockets' new head man for the 2003-04 season. Among his first moves was the implementation of a new offense designed to spread the ball around more. Initially, this didn't sit well with Francis, who still liked to run the show his way. The team also suffered two other personnel problems, the release of Griffin and a substance abuse suspension of Maurice Taylor.
Ming adjusted well to Van Gundy's style. He topped the Rockets in scoring at 17.5 points per game, and also raised his rebounding to nine a night. Ming was particularly effective against opponenets without a true center. In January, he dominated the Magic with 37 points and 10 rebounds. A month later he went for a career-high 41 points in a 123-121 win over Atlanta. He enjoyed his best stretch in March, averaging a double-double in 14 games.
The Rockets won eight of those contests to put themselves in position for a playoff spot. Francis and Van Gundy were getting along better, Mobley's shot selection improved, and Jim Jackson was playing with renwed confidence. Despite ranking 25th in the league in offense, Houston dug in on defense and finished at 45-37, good for the seventh seed in the West.
Getting out of the first round was going to be a challenge, as the Rockets squared off against the Lakers. Many billed the series as a battle between Ming and Shaq, and gave Houston a real shot at an upset.
The pundits were wrong. Shaq outplayed Ming, and the Lakers ran away with the series in five games. Houston's only victory came when Francis exploded for 27 points, while Ming chipped in with 18 points and 10 boards.
In June, after weeks of rumors, the Rockets pulled the trigger on a major deal that changed the face of the team. With Van Gundy still looking for a way to get Francis on the same page with his teammates, particularly Ming, Houston solved the problem by sending the point guard along with Mobley and Kelvin Cato to Orlando for Tracy McGrady. The trade could have a huge impact in the West. With the Lakers in flux, Ming and McGrady could be the next installent of Shaq and Kobe—without all the tension.
Only two months later Ming was again in the spotlight as he led the Chinese national team into the Summer Games in Athens. Now in his second Olympics, a more experienced Ming hoped to improve on China's ninth-place finish in Sydney.
As the Asian champions, the Chinese opened pool play against European runner-up Spain. The game was expected to be a showdown between Ming and Memphis Grizzlies star Pau Gasol, but quickly became a one-sided affair as the Spanish ran away with an 83-58 win. Ming played well in the loss, recording a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds.
He had his most dominating performance two days later, scoring 39 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in a 69-62 victory over New Zealand. Unfortunately the Chinese then went into a tailspin. They dropped four of their final five games of the tournament and finished in eighth place. From a personal standpoint, Ming enjoyed a great showing. Named to the All-Olympics team, he ranked third overall in scoring at 20.7 ppg, and led all players in rebounding at 9.3 boards per contest.
Back in Houston, it took McGrady a while to come to grips with his new environs. In the early part of the 2004-05 season, he assumed it would be the T-Mac and Yao Show, but Van Gundy had a more complex plan in mind. He knew he needed a third scoring option, and tried to create some chemistry to make one emerge. Though this never happened, the team pulled together in the process and started to close out wins that used to slip through their grasp.
Guard Bob Sura got healthy and took control of the offense, early-season pickups David Wesley and Jon Barry contributed key minutes off the bench, and as soon as the usually controlling Van Gundy saw a natural rhythm develop, he just let his players play. The Rockets ignited prior to the All-Star Break and took off from there, finishing with 51 wins.
The difference was less Ming and more McGrady. The newcomer was clearly an elite NBA star. Ming was essentially the same player as the year before—a good center, but not as great one. Instead of rising to challenge Shaq as the league’s best pivot man, he sank further into the "next-best" category. Ming finished the year with good numbers (18.3 points per game, 8.4 rebounds and two blocks), but he rarely dominated. McGrady believed he had to get angry on the court, while scouts thought he needed to get a half-step quicker and a few pounds stronger. The Rockets just wanted him to take a summer off and rest up.
First, however, there was the small matter of the NBA playoffs. Ming raised his scoring average to 21.4 in a seven-game war with the Mavericks and Erick Dampier, who was now claiming he had no peers in the pivot in the west. The series started well for the Rockets but badly for Ming, who fouled out of Game 1 in 20 minutes. But Houston kept the Dallas offense under wraps and won 98-86.
Ming bounced back in Game 2, converting 13 of 14 shots for 33 points as the Rockets won again on the Mavs’ home court. But Dallas dug deep and seized control of the series, winning three straight. Van Gundy went ballistic when he saw the ways officials allowed the Mavs to mug Ming, and was fined $100,000 for accusing the league of conspiring against his center. The Rockets won Game 6 to stay alive, but Game 7 was a disaster, a 116-76 blowout that was the worst finale defeat in NBA history. The last gasp against the Mavs illustrated Houston’s problem completely. Ming scored 33, T-Mac added 27, and the rest of the guys bagged 16.
Retooling the Rockets promised to be a challenge, but it became a near impossibility the following season when Ming was diagnosed with osteomyelitis in his left big toe. This was the same painful disease that nearly crippled Mickey Mantle (and has led to amputation in extreme cases). Ming underwent surgery to address the problem, yet his popularity among NBA fans barely waned. When the votes were tabulated for the 2006 All-Star Game, Houston’s center was once again finished ahead of everyone else.
Ming ended up missing a total of 25 games during the 2005–06 campaign. Still, he averaged a double-double for the first time: 22.3 points and 10.3 rebounds a night. Adding to Houston’s woes was the fact that McGrady was on the sidelines half the year with back problems. Thanks to workmanlike contributions from Juwan Howard, Rafer Alston and Luther Head, the Rockets were with sniffing range of a .500 season. But with four games to go Ming broke his already troublesome left foot and spent the next six months off the hardwood.
Every expert had an opinion on how Ming would bounce back from his injuries. He defied even the most ambitious expectations by starting the 2006–07 season like every night was Game 7. Ming exhibited a keener understanding of what NBA teams were doing against him and became a smarter shooter, passer and ballhandler. His defense and rebounding also improved. Then, while blocking a shot, he fell to the floor and fractured his right knee. Ming missed 34 games.
The Rockets, under the deft leadership of Van Gundy, maintained a high level of play without their star center. Dikembe Mutombo filled in (as he had the year before) and McGrady, Howard and newcomer Shane Battier gave the team a good forward line. Ming returned in March and helped the Rockets reach the 50-win plateau.
The Rockets and their fans were aiming high as the playoffs began. They faced the Utah Jazz, a tricky team led by Andrei Kirilenko, Deron Williams, and Carlos Boozer. The Rockets took the first two games but the Jazz battled back to force a Game 7 in Houston. Ming scored 35 points and lifted the team on his shoulders by netting 15 in a wild forth quarter. Boozer was even better, scoring 41 and hitting a pair of clutch free throws in the closing moments. The Jazz eked out a win, and Ming was distraught in the locker room. He told reporters he hadn’t done his job. A couple of weeks later the Van Gundy era came to an end in Houston.
Under new coach Rick Adelman, the Rockets hit their stride around mid-year in the 2007-08 season. They won eight straight heading into All-Star Weekend—Ming was voted the West’s starting center—and four more after that to run their string to 12 victories. All was not well with Ming, however. He had been experiencing pain in his left foot again. X-rays revealed a stress fracture. He was done for the season. Ming was averaging a double-double at the time.
To Ming’s delight, Houston kept winning without him. They went 22 games without a loss—the second longest in league history. The Rockets finished the year with an astonishing 55 wins, but without Ming, they looked helpless in the playoffs against the Jazz, who beat them in six games.
Ming’s left foot was strengthened with the surgical implanting of several screws. He rested and rehabbed four four months, returning to the court in time for the Olympics in Beijing. As China’s most recognizable sports hero, he was a featured participant in the awe-inspiring opening ceremonies, carrying the nation’s flag at the head of its athletic contingent. Ming also carried the Olympic torch into Tiananman Square.
Ming got China's hoops team off to a great start in their opening game against Team USA by nailing a 3-pointer. It was all downhill from there. The Americans won in a rout, 101-70. The Chinese next lost to Spain in overtime. After a win over Angola, China treated its fans to a huge victory, beating Germany 59-55. Ming was dominant with 25 points and 11 rebounds. That proved to be the highlight for the host country. The Chinese bowed out in the quarter-finals to Lithuania.
Ming opened the 2008–09 season with more confidence than ever. And the Rockets were feeling good about running the offense through him. He stayed in the lineup for 77 games—his first full season in four years—and averaged a shade under 20 points and 10 rebounds. He shot a career-best 86.6 percent from the charity stripe.
The stars seemed to be aligned for Houston until February, when McGrady was felled by a season-ending knee injury. Doctors had scoped the joint prior to the season, but something didn't feel right beginning in January. Yet just as the Rockets had won without Ming the previous season, they held their own without T-Mac, posting a 53-29 mark and finishing a mere game behind the Spurs for the division title.
Heading into the playoffs, the Rockets knew that the Lakers were the team to beat in the West. They made it through their first series with Portland and felt strong going up against Los Angeles. Ron Artest and Shane Battier were the kind of players who could keep Kobe Bryant contained, and Aaron Brooks had blossomed into a playoff-tough guard.
Sure enough, the Rockets stung the Lakers in L.A., taking a 100-92 victory in Game 1. Ming led the team with 28 points and 10 rebounds. The Lakers evened the series in Game 2, and then disaster struck in Game 3. Ming felt a sharp pain in his left foot. He gutted it out the rest of the way, hoping it was just an ankle tweak. Coach Adelman and Ming’s teammates marveled at his ability to play through the pain. Days later, however, their worst fears were confimed. Ming had a hairline fracture of his foot. The Rockets ruled him out for the remainder of the playoffs.
Over the summer, doctors determined that Ming’s foot injury would require a year to heal. He underwent reconstructive surgery and sat out the 2009–10 season. Houston was able to sign Trevor Ariza in compensation for the salary cap hit they took—and they traded for Kevin Martin during the year—but it wasn’t enough. The center-less Rockets finished 42–40 and missed the playoffs.
Ming held a player option for the fifth and final year of his contract with the Rockets. He did not pick up the option until he was sure he was healthy enough to take the court. Ming spent the summer working his way back into playing shape. Chinese fans hoped he would join the national team for the World Championships in August, but he skipped the tournament knowing that his friend and fellow NBA center Yi Jianlian would acquit himself well.
Meanwhile, the Rockets set their lineup for the coming season. Sharpshooter Martin begins his first full year with the team, while Ming should get rebounding help from Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes and Ariza. And as always, Shane Battier will give the team whatever it needs off the bench. A championship squad? Houston fans just hope it's a healthy one.
Ming’s basketball journey has reached an interesting crossroads. He has erased any doubt that he can be a franchise player in the NBA, and few would argue that he has the skills and makeup to take the right team to the finals. Up for discussion is Ming’s durability, especially now that he has turned 30. As Ming enters the key years of what could still turn out to be a Hall of Fame career, the injury question—both for him and the Rockets—is all that remains.
MING THE PLAYER
Though Ming stands 7-5, he possesses the moves and agility of someone much smaller. He can dribble, pass and shoot from the outside, and has all the fundamentals needed to become a superior shot-blocker and rebounder. Thanks to his parents, he has a feel for the poetry of basketball, and there are times when it's fun just to watch how he moves around the floor and reacts to the game around him.
Ming is also an excellent free throw shooter—a key attribute for a successful NBA big man. He has actually led the Rockets in this category in years past.
Early in his career, Ming admitted that he needed to become more forceful on the floor. He had to abandon his Chinese roots and develop a mean streak. Although no one would ever accuse him of being an enforcer, he has demonstrated enough toughness to earn the respect of his fellow NBA centers.
As far as his teammates are concerned, Ming has all the right moves. He is unquestionably a team-first guy, not to mention a highly intelligent and likable person. He doesn't point fingers or shoot dirty looks at teammates when the Rockets lose, and he doesn't gripe to the refs when he gets hammered and doesn't get the call. When the team falls short of its goals, he is willing to take responsibility.
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