What are your last memories of Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson? Not your favorite or your best, but your last.
For Shaq, it would have to be watching his bigger-than-ever body rumble off the Celtics bench and kneel at the scorer’s table before a very brief stint on the court. For Iverson, it could be his final stretch of games in his second stint with the 76ers, or photos of him in a Turkish uniform playing basketball overseas.
Yao Ming didn’t end his career chasing a ring or chasing his youth. But he deserved the chance. At 35 years old, Yao Ming will enter the Basketball Hall of Fame this month. He shouldn’t be, though. He should still be playing.
As hard as it can be to watch our favorite players hang on for a bit too long (as perhaps Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan did last season, though to varying degrees), Yao proves the opposite—not watching them play long enough—is always much, much worse.
Yao, of course, wasn’t a flash in the pan. He played seven seasons (not counting his final year in which he played only five games) and was a revelation on the court. His soft touch around the rim. His reliable elbow jumper. His free-throw shooting. The initial mystery surrounding Yao and the lack of flash to his game undersold his ability to dominate in and around the paint.
Off the court, he handled his international megastardom with poise, and like a true NBA superstar, appeared in some chuckle-worthy commercials.
Injury issues took all of this away from Yao. He played five games in 2010–11 before calling it a career. During his last full season in the league, Yao was leading the Rockets—sans Tracy McGrady—in a heated playoff series against the Lakers before another injury cut short Houston’s upset bid.
Ill-timed injuries to Yao and his teammates cast a cloud over the Hall of Famer even at the height of his game. In 2005–06, Yao averaged a 20 points and 10 rebounds for the first time in his career, but only played in 31 games with McGrady, and Houston missed the playoffs. In 2007–08, Yao missed most of the season’s second half while the Rockets embarked on a historic winning streak. Then the 2009 Lakers series happened, with Houston falling in a seventh game without its two best players.
Yao’s career is not only a reminder of the fragility of NBA careers in general, but particularly a big man. One has to think his 7’6” frame didn’t do his feet, which were constantly the source of injury troubles, any favors.
More importantly, Yao’s career should be a reminder for anyone who thinks an aging star is hanging on for too long. Let them get that one last paycheck. Let them put up 50 shots in their final game, or get mercilessly blocked while trying to lead a spirited comeback.
Yao Ming’s career ended too soon and too abruptly. He was robbed not only of his prime, but of his twilight years, the league paying him back for all he did for it.
Yao Ming, like a plethora of legends before him, realistically deserved better than to one day end his career riding the bench or playing 12 minutes per game for a title contender. But we at least deserved the chance to complain about it.