Growing up a Laker fan, I’m a fan of the big man. I was weaned on the graceful stylings of Kareem and spent my early adulthood reveling in the brute force of Shaq. In recent years, the fluidity and precision of Pau Gasol and the youthful power and growing polish of Andrew Bynum have given me much joy. I’ll always have a special place in my heart and root for the behemoths of this game.
So today, I’m saddened that the league has lost one of its giants to retirement. Yao Ming will no longer be a member of the league that we all love so much, calling it a career today. The lower leg injuries proved to be too much to overcome.
Though he never wore a Laker jersey, Yao was one of my favorite players. His determination and competitiveness were traits that I admired. I’ll never forget him dragging his leg up and down the floor in the 2009 playoffs against the Lakers. Not wanting to exit a game that meant so much to him and his mates, he persevered through what turned out to be a broken foot, trying to will and skill his team to a needed win. His Rockets ended up losing that series to our Lakers, but my ongoing respect for him was set in stone that night.
His skill level was off the charts. Men his size weren’t supposed to have such touch. Yao could make spot up twenty footers look like pop-a-shots. His jump hook from either block was nearly impossible to defend. He shot turn around jumpers over both shoulders, many dropping through the hoop from that high release point that defenders could only look up to. And his passing was simply superb. He delivered all variety of dimes to his teammates, dropping lead bounce passes to baseline cutters or hook passes to ‘mates diving down the middle of the paint.
Defensively he had his weaknesses in hedging and recovering on pick and rolls and he suffered guarding the quicker face up five men on the schedule that would isolate and try to drive by him. But he protected the rim well, contesting all comers even if it meant being on the wrong side of a poster. What I appreciated most about his defense was that he tried hard to be a great defender even though he was clearly limited by his foot speed and stamina.
But what Yao will always be remembered for was his sheer enormity. Nearly every coach I’ve ever had has said that “you can’t teach size.” Phil Jackson once said that “there are only so many dinosaurs”, and once claimed that if he could have his pick of any player to start a team with in the league, he’d choose Dwight Howard. The true big men that have skill and can play the pivot are a rarity, something that the greatest professional coach ever understood clearly.
Even though we’ve seen this coming for a couple of years, it doesn’t make this any less of a sad day for the true hoop heads around the world. Yao was one of a kind and blessed the league with skill, heart, and class both on and off the court. I’ll miss him and his game and wish him nothing but the best in his post basketball life.