The moment that hurt the most, though, was Hakeem Olajuwon leaving the Rockets for Toronto. It felt dirty seeing Hakeem leave Houston after 20 years of NBA and NCAA ball. Catching a few Raptors games that year, I watched half in disgust, half in desperation to see the last few glimpses of my idol. It shouldn’t have been that way. I knew he was washed up, but I should have seen 40 or so games of washed-up Hakeem on local TV in his last year, instead of scrapping together a couple of TNT games of the Dream. The Rockets stinking to high heaven that year didn’t help either. It was the nadir of my Rockets fandom. Watching Steve Francis have complete control of a team’s fate is frightening. Amazingly, thankfully, the Rockets won the lottery that offseason and landed Yao Ming.
Well, not enough business. We missed the playoffs by one game to the Phoenix Suns. Adding insult to injury, the Suns' Amar’e Stoudemire won the Rookie of the Year award over Yao. It wasn’t the gravest travesty known to man, but it was wrong (compare the seasons). They basically averaged the same stats, but Yao edged Amar’e in blocks and did his damage much more efficiently (20.6 vs. 16.2 PER). I was convinced Amar’e only won because a) his team was a game better than Houston (big whoop!), b) he was drafted 9th so had the surprise factor and c) the backlash against Yao being voted an all-star starter, supposedly, because of the China vote.
Undaunted, I was psyched for the next year. Rudy Tomjanovich was let go as Rockets coach (a sad development), but Jeff Van Gundy was brought in. He instilled greater defensive principles and was able to feature Yao more in the offense, mercifully lowering Steve Francis’s profile. The 2004 Rockets was a motley crew of castoffs, vagabonds and ne’er do wells: Jim Jackson, Maurice Taylor, Francis, Cuttino Mobley, Eric Piatkowski, Clarence Weatherspoon, Mark Jackson and even Charles Oakley for a few games. And for the first time since 1999 we were in the playoffs. We got creamed by the Lakers, but it was just refreshing to be trounced in the postseason instead of immediately going fishing. In the years since, with playoff heartache after playoff heartache, I’ve reexamined that opinion, but at the time it was ecstasy.
T-Mac went off in Game 1 (famously, emasculating Shawn Bradley) and Yao went bananas in Game 2 missing just one shot all night (13-14 FG, 7-7 FT). Houston led 2-0 but the series stretched to 7 games. I missed the final showdown to visit some family on a farm in the Texas Hill Country. No radio, no TV, no news on the game. Returning to civilization the next day, I learned the sobering news: the Rockets lost by 40 points. I was shocked, embarrassed and glad I hadn’t been around to see that debacle. Maybe it was just growing pains though. It was just the first year of Yao-McGrady. Better days surely lay ahead!
By this point, critics and faithful loyalists alike began to wonder whether Yao could ever truly dominate the game. When he was on the court he was a terrifying offensive and defensive presence, clogging the lane. It’s no accident that LeBron James’s worst game came against the Rockets with Yao completely sealing off the lane to his drive-and-kicks while Shane Battier flummoxed him on the perimeter. But when you only suit up for 2/3 of the games, it’s hard to have faith in a player.
When T-Mac went down for the final time that the season, the sun shone ever brighter and springtime was my love for Houston. Making the postseason again, the Rockets dispatched Portland in six games, finally winning a playoff series for the first time since 1997. With memories of the 2004 whipping still in my mind, I was pumped for a chance at revenge in Round 2 against the Lakers. Houston stole Game 1, even with an injury scare for Yao but he dropped eight straight points to bury L.A. I knew it was an uphill battle, but we had struck first. The Lakers being an evil empire, struck back fast and hard, blowing Houston out in Game 2. Then came the fateful Game 3.
Suffering a fracture in his foot, Yao still played 40 minutes with 19 points and 14 rebounds in the losing effort. But watching that game and Yao’s limping, I feared for the worst and sadly that’s what we got. It was the last meaningful game of Yao Ming’s career. The scrappy Rockets pushed the Lakers to the brink without the sage Ming, but were finally silenced in a Game 7 blowout. Determined to play again, Yao underwent yet another lengthy rehab, this time a whole year and returned in October 2010 for a game against, whom else, the Lakers.
In my retro ketchup and mustard Rockets shirt, I was stunned to see Yao was even slower in person than he appeared on TV. JaVale McGee was effectively thwarting him every time he tried to establish low post position. Watching the game with my friend, Abe (a victim of Clay Bennent’s scheming ways. RIP Sonics), I complained how sad this was and hoped Yao would soon get his game-conditioning back. At some point during the 1st quarter Yao was knocked over and suffered an injury to his ankle and was led back to the locker room. Sure I was concerned, but it didn’t look bad. There was no wincing or fist-pounding and Yao was easily taken off the court. But as the second half started, I turned to Abe and said, “Where the hell is Yao?” He looked puzzled for a moment; we stared at the bench and concluded that there was no giant Chinese man there. At this point, I began to panic and told Abe we just saw Yao play his last game and for the first time I witnessed the Rockets lose to the Wizards.
(blurry photos I took that night of the pregame warmups below)
On the court, Yao definitely left me with a sense of incompleteness. So many possible achievements left unfulfilled, despite his many successes. Even more than his play, though, the man was forever endearing. He never had a cross word about his circumstances. He was frustrated certainly, but wasn’t a sad sack trying to shift blame onto others. He possessed a tremendous sense of duty that perhaps was his downfall, playing too much for China when he should have been resting his battered legs. But it was also that sense of duty that kept him coming back for the Rockets, when maybe he shouldn’t have. After all, there is life after and beyond basketball. I wouldn’t have begrudged Yao an iota if he called it quits back in 2006, 2007 or 2008. Ironically, though, it was his understanding that there was more beyond basketball, that sense of duty, of loyalty, that kept him coming back to the Rockets and to fulfill his obligation, his contract to the team.
And the Rockets of the 2000s were an awfully difficult bunch to stay true to. Truth be told, I would feel jaded and pissed, if the on-the-court results were all that happened. If all I had seen for the last decade was Steve Francis dribbling in circles, T-Mac timing surgeries just right to screw the Rockets, a bat attacking Moochie Norris’s blowout fro, Hakeem bolting for Toronto, Kelvin Cato being touted as the answer in the middle, Stromile Swift being the PF to put the team over the top, blowing series leads to Utah and Dallas, seeing Rudy T coach the Lakers, etc. With all this nonsense going on in the Rockets circus, it was a 7-foot-6 Chinaman who gave it all a sense of respectability.