Yao Ming's severe foot injury, announced yesterday, drew an almost audible groan that went up Friday from the growing legions of Chinese basketball fans, worried that their greatest hero may have to end his career.
The ungainly but personable 7’6” center for the Houston Rockets has a stress fracture in his left ankle that is expected to keep him off the court for the rest of the season and perhaps for ever, though at least one player has recovered from the same injury within six weeks. Yao had played only five games this season, making a tentative comeback after missing all last year’s games with a broken foot.
“We should bless Yao Ming and hope that he recovers soon,” intoned the presenter of Friday morning’s news show on state-run China Central TV. Mr. Yao is a national icon here, and was chosen to carry the Chinese flag at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Yao is also a commercial phenomenon, his face plastered on billboards and TV screens around the world advertising Nike, Reebok, Apple, Visa, McDonalds, and both Pepsi and Coca Cola – global brands that have paid him tens of millions of dollars over the past 10 years.
Those millions have not endeared him to some Chinese fans. Comments on Sina.com were mixed, and included criticism that “his skills and strength are only average. He is just a businessman who represents clothes brands and opens restaurants” as one post put it.
Yao has been a highly successful ambassador for basketball – and for the NBA – in his homeland. Largely on the strength of Yao’s popularity the NBA launched NBA China in 2008 and made the Middle Kingdom its second largest market.
In the preliminary NBA All Star vote announced yesterday, Yao is the top ranked Western Conference center “because countless Chinese people voted for him” says Song Danfeng, a popular basketball blogger here.
But “the depth of China's affinity for the NBA would be greatly tested by the absence of the favorite son, just as China's progress in the world basketball arena would be stunted without Yao” worries an article on the NBA official website by veteran commentator Fran Blinebury.