To me Yao Ming was more than just a basketball player, he was the reason to watch from 2002-2009. After the frustrating loss in the 1st round to the Lakers in the strike shortened season of 1998-1999 (Cuttino blocked by Shaq to end Game 4 with 2 HOF's wide open), my interest in basketball waned. The isolation stylings of Francis and Mobley just never interested me, I still watched college basketball and the NBA Playoffs, but the Rockets were unwatchable.
That all changed when the luck of the ping-pong balls shined on the Rockets in 2002. Yao brought not only the obvious upside in skill, but an intrigue that could not be matched. I had court side seats for his first regular season home game against Toronto. My buddy Travis and I stood in awe at the sight of this 7-6 man running out of the tunnel at the Compaq Center to head to the layup line. He scored only 8 points that night, but the potential was obvious, and I bought his jersey; the first Rockets jersey I bought since Hakeem.
As the years went on his talent started to show and between the 2005-06 season, through the 2008-09 season, I believe he was the best center in basketball (21.9 ppg/10 rpg/1.8 bpg). In 9 career match-ups vs Dwight Howard, the Rockets went 7-2 with Yao dominating his successor as best big man in the league. In those 9 games Yao averaged 23.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting 56%. Howard averaged 12.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks while shooting 45%; Yao was the man.
Unfortunately 7-6 humans weren't meant to play basketball 82 games a year. This was especially crushing in the 2007-2008 season when I was working as an intern for the Rockets broadcast department. The Rockets had won their 12th game of the eventual 22 game winning streak against Chicago, and everyone was in high spirits on a Monday; then my boss broke the news. At first I thought it was a cruel joke, it wasn't. When I walked into the press conference room and saw Yao in a suit, it finally hit me; not only was his season over, but he wasn't getting any younger and his foot problems would eventually end his career too soon. After missing only 2 games in his first 3 seasons, Yao missed 86 games over the next 3 seasons.
So, we're left with what could have been. Here's a look back at some of my favorite moments of his short career.
November 17th, 2002 - Yao scores 20 points off the bench vs. the Lakers, Barkley loses his bet
February 26th, 2006 - Yao's Coming Out Party vs Dwight Howard, Earns Some Respect
December 17th, 2006 - Yao Dominates The Clippers & Lets Them Hear About It
February 26th, 2009 - Yao Rejects The King
April 18th, 2009 - Yao Shoots 9-9 In Game 1 vs. Blazers
His jersey should be hanging from the rafters at Toyota Center whenever this lockout ends.