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Despite Progress, Yao's Journey Back Can Only Lead To Familiar Questions

Yao Ming's return to the hardwood Tuesday presented few answers, likely because the single lingering question hovering above The Great Wall won't be answered until next May when the Rockets make their playoff run.

Yao Ming's return to the hardwood Tuesday presented few answers, likely because the single lingering question -- yes, there is only one question -- hovering above The Great Wall won't be answered until next May when the Rockets make their playoff run. 

Can Yao escape injury?

Escape? Surely you mean "avoid."

Not avoid, because Yao doesn't avoid much of anything anymore. Contact? Yes, please. Banging in the post? He's all for it. Yao is no softy anymore. Surprisingly, it takes quite an injury to keep him off the court. Not even a clash of the knees that could have kept Yao out of the entire '09 playoffs sidelined him. This, before his giant foot ever had the chance to be KO'd. Yao won't be avoiding injury, because that's not Yao.

Then perhaps you mean "heal." Can he heal from his current injury?

Not heal, because that's not what we should be most worried about here. The foot will heal and has mostly healed. The surgery is proven. The rehab has been patient and carefully executed, without error to this point. We didn't see much movement in Tuesday's workout other than simple footwork on the block. But Yao looked comfortable. And he should remain comfortable.

The foot isn't the problem. It's already on the mend. What we need to worry about, instead, is what Yao hasn't injured yet.

We can talk all we want about how successful Yao's current recovery may be, but once he takes the court, this season will be just like any other. Will he stay healthy? Will he be available in the playoffs? Not only are we asking the same questions that we have asked ever since the Ming Dynasty's first collapse in his fourth season, but now we are doing so from the back of our throats. This is the first time Yao has ever returned from such a long layoff. Will his body be able to take the same beating that it has in year's past, just like that?

I sure hope everything works out. This has got to be a successful season for Yao, both for his sake and for our sakes. What a shame it would be for such a talented player and a phenomenal human being to be cut short of greatness. Yao's a great player, but his legacy won't indicate such if he checks out yet again.  At least Bill Walton got his ring. At least he earned it as the best player on his team. (He also got another ring, with the Celtics in '86.) Barring a miracle escape from injury, Yao likely has a few more chances, but he won't be the standout talent this time around.

It used to be that we could watch Yao Ming for his breathtaking talent and ability. Now, we're watching his minutes. Now, we're watching his legs, holding our breath, hoping that nothing awful happens.

Regardless of what Yao has done to get healthy and find his old form, at the end of the day, he still needs to escape injury. He needs to beat the odds. Conventional wisdom says that a 7-6 man shouldn't be able to take the wear and tear of running with quicker guards a foot smaller than him. And yet, Yao was able to stay healthy for his first three seasons.

Should he be more wary of contact? Should he shy away from challenging high-flying guards in the paint. No, because then Yao wouldn't be playing basketball his way, the way for which he finally found a hunger, the way that transformed a nice, young, very, very tall kid into a mature, punishing, I'm-going-to-rip-your-face-off All-Star. We don't want Yao to go back to his old, cautious ways, even if that could potentially extend his games played in '10-11.

We're all just going to have to risk it and hope for the best, because that's what Yao would do. That's what he is going to do. I think we're to the point that placing faith in an untrustworthy body is rational. That's how much Yao means to us. He has never shied away from us, his loyal fans. He has shown us his human side. The side of him with a wife and daughter. The side of him that can't stand to be hurt again.

Cross your fingers and trust the sturdiness of the Great Wall, but realize that there's not much reason to do so. Realize, too, that it's not Yao's fault.

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.