Déj? Vu: A Failure to Launch

Atit Amin

Excuse me while I pick my jaw up off the ground. Last Tuesday was shaping up to be an ordinary day until I came back from class and heard the devastating news. At first, I couldn’t believe it; I thought it was too awful to be true and all too familiar of a sight. As it turned out, it was neither a wicked dream nor a cruel joke, but rather my hopes of seeing my favorite basketball team win an NBA Championship this season had been deflated yet again. Just like that, with the announcement that Houston Rockets’ supersized center Yao Ming had a stress fracture in his foot that would keep him out for the rest of the season and the playoffs, and possibly even the Summer Olympics in his native country, my hopes were once agan dashed. I was reminded of how all it takes is one ill-fated circumstance, an inadvertent kick to the shin in this case, for optimism to fly right out the window.

While it is certainly debatable as to whether the Rockets would have been able to run the table this year with a healthy Ming, I do believe that this was finally the season they would have broken the curse of making it beyond the first round of the NBA playoffs. As prolific as a player the Rockets other superstar, Tracy McGrady, is, backed by his stellar credentials and individual accolades, the constant knock on him is his inability to perform in May and June. Going back to T-Mac’s days in Toronto and Orlando, he is currently 0-7 in the playoffs, including two premature exits as a member of the Rockets. In a season that has seen Houston begin the year with a 6-1 record, then suddenly falter in the absence of an injured McGrady, and most recently, put together a 14-game winning streak, this latest setback is one that makes me concerned not just for the short-term, but the future as well.

As recollected first by Henry Abbott of ESPN, it was only two years ago when Yao was accidentally kicked in the side of his foot while trying to establish low-post position in the lane against the Utah Jazz. He continued playing, even knocked down a few shots, but soon the pain became unbearable and it was later determined that he had fractured a bone in that foot. The 2005-2006 season was the first in which Yao suffered a major injury and, unfortunately, it only served as a harbinger of things to come. For the last two years, Yao has missed a combined 61 games because of various ailments and now, you can add 26 more to that list. To be fair, as many as times as Yao has been on the injured list, he is remarkably durable for a man his size. The NBA has seen 7’6” giants before, but never have any enjoyed the type of success Yao has been able to amass thus far. Against the likes of Shawn Bradley, Manute Bol and Gheorghe Muresan, Yao stands tallest, with career averages of 19 points per game and nine rebounds a contest.

However, all is not well with the Rockets and it does not seem like their luck is about to turn around any time soon. Between the M&M boys, Houston has two fragile All-Stars, who have been together for four years and were once hailed as the next Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Well, those hopes have quickly fizzled as neither has been able to stay healthy or have shown the determination and intangibles needed to achieve success in the postseason. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a diehard Rockets fan, but even I see the writing on the wall. Neither player is getting any younger, especially with McGrady seriously contemplating how much he has left in the tank, not just physically but emotionally and psychologically as well. The surrounding cast that General Manager Daryl Morey has assembled is the best it has been in years, but without a pivotal post player, the Rockets will become one-dimensional and fairly predictable. This is an unfair burden to place on McGrady, who, when he is feeling 100%, is one of the best in the game and he nearly proved that in 2004-2005 by placing the team on his back against the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks, a playoff series the Mavs eventually won in seven games.

Most worrying about this injury is the long-term impact it will have on Yao and the rest of the team. If there is one certainty, it is that Yao will work harder than ever in his rehabilitation process because that is simply his nature. Many commentators have marveled at his work ethic, especially for a person of his size. However, with the Olympics looming this summer and China, as the host country, there is an insurmountable amount of pressure for Yao to recover as soon as possible. Even if he were to heal by August, I am concerned about the wear and tear that he will accumulate during the Summer games. While it is an honor to represent your country, you get paid to play the game by the Rockets, not the Chinese government. I don’t want to see him aggravate the injury or rush back just so he can satisfy the demands of the motherland.

For the rest of this 2008 season, it is still very possible for Houston to qualify the playoffs, but with 41-year Dikembe Mutumbo logging major minutes as the new starting center, they will likely not end up lasting long. That means I need to start looking forward to next year, but that’s what hurts the most. Just when I begin to feel a little sense of exuberance, the basketball gods decided that it was time to play with my sentiments. This is exactly why I try not to become so immersed and passionate about sports, especially my favorite teams, because ultimately, they are all a tease. While that’s a consequence of supporting the Yankees, Jets and Rockets, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for just one of the three to have a very successful season. Perhaps, I am being too unreasonable and I should cheer up, because after all it is just sports.