It's easy to forget, now that he's been so absent the last two years, that Yao Ming was once an iron man. The career obituaries that detail all the games missed in recent seasons and various injuries to his feet and legs tend to not mention that Yao played all 82 games his rookie year in the NBA, all 82 games his second season and 80 his third season.
The latest injury, the one that will force Yao to the sideline for the rest of this season and threatens to end his career, has prompted more conversation about what might have been had he stayed healthy and, sadly, not enough about the enormous contribution he made to basketball.
Almost certainly, Yao Ming has introduced more people to professional basketball, surely the NBA brand, than any one man in the history of the sport. While it's difficult to get exact ratings of the 39 NBA games broadcast in a season in China on CCTV (China Central television), the best available evidence is that approximately 200 million have frequently watched when the Rockets play, which is about one-third of the time. That's 195 million more than watch an NBA playoff game, on average. It's nearly two Super Bowls worth of eyeballs on any game. Or as former Rockets guard Sam Cassell said, "Let's just say for the sake of arguing, its 50 million people. That means Yao attracts a major market all by himself. Actually, that's five major markets. And we all know it's a lot more people than that. It's hundreds of millions watching games for the whole time he's been in the league."
That begs the question of how popular the NBA will remain in China if Yao never plays again. In recent years, while the NBA was laying off approximately 9 percent of its workforce, the league was announcing a massive cooperative with AEG to design, market and operate multi-purpose sports and entertainment arenas in major cities throughout China. According to TrueHoop, NBA.com China is the most popular website in China.
While Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are as popular in China as they are in the U.S., but the increase in the game's popularity there since Yao was drafted into the league in 2002 is undeniable. Rockets players who would walk unrecognized in any mall in California or New York have had endorsement deals in China simply because of Yao's popularity. Cassell, who never played with Yao but came to know him well during the summers the two spent in Houston, said of the phenomenon, "Everybody eats off of Yao He's just a great guy; you'll never hear anybody say anything negative about him."
Quite literally, you don't. Shaquille O'Neal once told me he hated that he hazed Yao a little bit early in his career. When the news he would miss the season became public over the weekend, James said, "It's horrible that Yao is hurt like this Anytime a guy has something he loves taken away like that, in the prime of his career, it's terrible "
LeBron, looking for a silver lining of some kind, brought up teammate Zydrunas Ilgauskas and his ability to play through similar injuries, but he did point out that Ilgauskas was in his mid-20s when he went through the last of the surgeries, not 30 as Yao is now. "It's kind of the same with Greg Oden," LeBron said. "It's happened a lot with some of the big guys. All you think about as a kid when you realize it might be possible to play professionally is playing the game at the very highest level."
At least Yao did that. At his best, he was an offensive force. He averaged 25 points a game in 2006 and averaged 22 points a game in 2007 and 2008. He shot better than 50 percent for the season six straight times and was third in the league in field goal percentage in 2005. He made 83 percent of his foul shots. He improved every season in some obvious way, despite never having a summer free to rest or work at his game, which surely factors into the physical breakdowns down now at 30. He is like a thoroughbred who has simply been in too many races.
"There was never an offseason from the time he entered the league," Cassell said. "He played for China's national team every summer. He never had three months away. You need time to recuperate. I know I would walk away for two months, barely touch a ball in the summer. Yao never had that luxury. When I think about how much pressure he was under to play all the time and be great all the time There were 30 cameras in his face every single night because of the Chinese media covering his every move. And I never saw him complain. He nodded his head and did whatever needed to be done. I remember when he first came into the league thinking, 'How can this kid handle all this?' He was still trying to get through the language barrier. There was no peace and quiet for him ever. He could never blend in; it was impossible."
Cassell's point is essential to digest in any discussion of Yao. The game's greatest players, particularly in the modern era since the end of offseason careers and summer jobs, overhaul or tinker with their games during the summer. The summer is when Magic Johnson taught himself that 3-point set shot and when Bryant visited Hakeem Olajuwon to add elements of post-play to his game.
"Yao never had that luxury," Cassell said. " I think about guys who don't like the pressure of having to carry a city. Yao had to carry a country all the time, during his NBA season and the Olympics or the World Championships."
Toni Kukoc was an enormously impactful figure in the early 1990s, but he couldn't affect the game the way Yao has. Kukoc's visibility as a member of Michael Jordan's last three Chicago Bulls teams made him the first European player of consequence. Yao was the first Asian player of consequence and is such an important cultural figure that he helped the NBA change the way it does business. He's also a giant, at essentially 7-foot-6, whose body is so freakishly large that it's amazing he was able to play as many games as he has, particularly when we consider the year-round play and that other giants such as Gheorghe Muresan and now Oden have been unable to put together sustained periods of play without prolonged absences. When you consider, historically, other 7-footers with prodigious talents -- Ralph Sampson and, of course, Bill Walton, whose bodies betrayed them -- Yao finds himself in a fraternity he surely wants no part of being in.
There is optimism in Houston that Yao's career is not yet over, and Yao's observation that he is hardly about to prepare for his own funeral lightens the mood a bit and provides a certain context, if not outright relief. But know that the Houston Rockets are worse off for Yao's absence, as is the NBA, as is basketball in China, as is the general product that is professional basketball. Anybody who never won a championship, never even reached a conference finals but who can nonetheless be missed that much is truly a giant figure and in his case is hugely underappreciated.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN, and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Wilbon recently concluded three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.