One of the things that I admire most about Yao Ming is that he was the true embodiment of a sports idol in a league where the culture hasn't always trended towards the traits that personify one. In a league where players often skip playing for their national team due to injuries, Yao played the entire 2008 Olympics on one foot for his country. While LeBron James was making The Decision, Yao was always working to bring a championship to Houston. He never asked to be traded to a team with a better chance of winning. He never lashed out against his government for all of the extra work he had to do in the offseason for them. He played his dual roles of basketball ambassador to China and All-Star NBA center as well as anyone could have, despite the fact that one often dictated shortcomings in the other.
This is a man who could have done a lot of whining, had he so desired. He could have complained about being stuck on a team with Steve Francis, who didn't match his skillset in the slightest and was a poor percentage guard by the time Yao was ready to be a force. He could have complained about the horrendous job officials did, on a nightly basis, of not calling fouls on him that he easily forced. He could have complained that the Rockets didn't surround himself and Tracy McGrady with enough of a supporting cast to play well while the two were still healthy. He could have complained about the toll that his body took on a daily basis just to be able to play basketball, particularly without an offseason.
The legacy of Yao Ming is that he Didn't. To his detractors, he is the man who didn't get his team over the hump and didn't stay healthy. To his supporters, he didn't ever run from criticism, he didn't ever shy away from the two roles he was forced to play, and he didn't ever stop trying--on the court or in rehab.
This is a Rockets team that is clearly in flux right now. Daryl Morey has done a great job of accumulating talent, but with so much uncertainty over his star player, the Rockets have created a team that has parts that work best with Yao (like say, Shane Battier) and parts that work best without him (Courtney Lee) -- his absence from the team has gone a long way towards establishing consistency for the current version of the club.
Morey's task, the task that he's been having problems pulling off for the better part of the last year, is finding the Rockets a new star to build around. Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, and Kyle Lowry are all excellent players, but they aren't stars. Yao's time, if it isn't completely over, can be measured in precious few sand drops spinning down to the bottom of the hourglass. This team can no longer rely on him, and it hasn't acted like it could since the foot injury happened.
No matter who the Rockets find to be their next star, it's highly unlikely he'll carry himself with the grace and civility that Yao did. Critique him all you want, because he wasn't a perfect player. He didn't rebound as well as someone of his size should've, he did have documented turnover problems, and he didn't ever take the Rockets to the promised land.
Yao Ming, to use Rudy Tomjanovich's famous words, always played with the heart of a champion. He had his problems on the court due to his stature, and his commitment to Chinese basketball hampered his career in the states. But he always gutted it up and worked his tail off to be the best player he could be. If this is, indeed, the end, It was a true honor to watch him play.