The vertical version of the rotund Kool-Aid man obliterating the brick wall, Yao Ming crashed through into global consciousness nearly a decade ago. Yet over time, it's gotten no easier to fathom a man his size. Evolution be damned, the Rockets center continues to stand nearly a head higher than any other NBA starter. After thousands of repetitions, most of us still haven't adjusted to watching a man dunk and block shots without jumping. As Knicks big man Amar'e Stoudemire says, tilting his neck upward, "You don't never get used to playing him. Yao Ming, an original."
There are drawbacks, though, to standing 7'6"—three fourths of the way to the rim—and weighing in excess of 300 pounds. "No Smart Cars," jokes Yao, who's partial to a Mercedes SUV. Besides that, his is not the ideal physique for running up and down a wooden floor 100-plus nights a year, nor for colliding with other bodies. If the Injured Reserve had a loyalty rewards program, Yao would be entitled to automatic upgrades for life. He missed all of last season with a broken left foot. This season, even with a hard cap on his minutes, it took just seven games before he injured his ankle. Through Monday, he had missed nine games through Monday. He's 30 years old now. His status has been, well, dwarfed, by Kobe's ritual excellence, LeBron's melodrama, Kevin Durant's ascent. He may never return to his days as a reliable 20/10 guy, a credible All-Star. But maybe now, with his career imperiled, it's an apt time to pay homage to the most influential NBA player since Michael Jordan.
When David Stern goes on The Colbert Report, as he did on Nov. 15, and proclaims basketball "one of our leading cultural exports," that assertion owes largely to one man. Thanks to Yao, basketball is now the most popular sport in the world's most populous country. His profile in China can't be exaggerated. "Seeing Yao in China is like the Beatles and Elvis rolled into one," says Rockets forward Chuck Hayes. "The guards assigned to keeping people from getting autographs and taking pictures get autographs and take pictures." His appeal is such that Luis Scola and Shane Battier can score lucrative endorsement deals with Chinese firms simply by virtue of being Yao's teammates.
Yao entered the league accompanied by predictions that his arrival would inaugurate China's emergence as a basketball force. Today there is only one other Chinese player in the NBA, Washington center Yi Jianlian; and with Yao unavailable, China suffered a humbling loss to Iran in the 2009 Asia Championships. This absence of lineage has only elevated Yao's stature in China, putting his success in context, recasting him less as a harbinger and more of a singularly towering figure. Today the NBA generates the most traffic on the sports channels at every major Chinese web portal. With real estate for soccer fields getting harder to come by, most urban kids are gravitating to pickup basketball.
Yao changed basketball in the U.S. as well. When he plays on the road, invariably, teams marry his appearance with a new marketing opportunity. When the Rockets played in New York last month, Yao was home convalescing, but it didn't stop the Knicks from promoting the game as Asian Heritage Night, flush with traditional drum recitals during timeouts. "I got into basketball because of Yao," says John Yi of Queens, N.Y. "Now I'm a crazy fan."
Of course, regardless of a fan's ethnicity, Yao is easy to admire. Who can't warm to a player dominating a game without touching the ball? Or working like hell to improve when, at least commercially, he doesn't have to? Or expressing color and humor without being controversial? Although he is perhaps the most recognized athlete globally, his ego is as undersized as the rest of him is immense. A few months ago I was to meet with Yao in Houston. Running late, he called—from an unblocked number—to apologize profusely. "I can't believe I missed that exit. How long have I lived here?" When we ordered Whataburgers, his guilty pleasure, he reached for his wallet. "What do I owe you?"
He'd been thinking a lot about basketball and his mortality as an athlete. "The more I play, the more I think it's not a game," he says. "It's bigger. It's teaching people how to work together." The injuries have been immensely frustrating, more than he often admits. The "emotional journey," as he calls it, of rehab and inactivity is worse than the physical pain. "I wish I were more patient," he says. "You know you hear people say, 'Every day's a gift?' It's true. A year ago they said maybe [the injury] was career-threatening. I'm lucky I can still play."
When he can play no longer, his influence will continue. He owns the Shanghai Sharks, the team for which he (and his father) first played. With Yao watching games on-line and communicating with executives via Skype, Shanghai went to the league semifinals last year. When Yao retires, he's likely to become the Stern of the Chinese Basketball Association.
For now, he'll wring what he can from these remaining few years as a player, trying to stave off insurrection from his body. Brittle as his bones may be, the structural integrity of his legacy is as solid as the Great Wall of China itself.
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Yao has proved to be less a harbinger and more A SINGULARLY TOWERING FIGURE.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW