Or so he says.
The gentlest of giants is sitting on a training table courtside at the University of Texas' Cooley Pavilion, his colossal frame resting against the wall while his left leg is wrapped in a device that stretches from his ill-fated foot to his hip. There might have been a time not so long ago when the pride of China was discussed as one of the best players of this era, an iconic talent who would bring basketball to his homeland and a championship to his Houston Rockets, but this is an MVP performance of a different kind.
This is the "Most Valuable Pump" -- brought to you by Norma-Tec -- a device with a marketing-friendly moniker that is currently pushing Yao's blood from the bottom of his leg toward the top. And after suffering through 16 months away from the game and the reality that his latest injury had him thinking retirement before he even turned 30, it's no wonder Yao is having some trouble above the neck too.
"You need to make one of these (machines) for my head," the 7-foot-6, 310-pound center says with a wry smile to the team's physical therapist nearby. "I've got some blood pressure problems."
The game's most indomitable spirit, in case anyone wondered, is fully healed too.
Yao's long-awaited return Tuesday comes with good news beyond the obvious. Not only has he recovered from the fractured left foot that booted him out of the Western Conference Semifinals in 2009 and forced him to miss all of last season, the greatest of souls that has been so unmercifully challenged is still intact as well.
Five significant injuries in the last five seasons, two surgeries, 173 regular season games missed, and Yao is ready to take on his make-or-break moment with the same attitude with which he began in 2002.
"You have to treat yourself well," Yao told FanHouse during training camp, just after he turned 30 on Sept. 12. "I know how much I can put into this sport when I come back, so when I'm out, I'm saying, 'What can I do now?' Of course I had a thousand reasons to feel frustrated, but just for myself I have to treat myself well. Don't blame myself too hard. You're already hurt. Your body is already hurt. You cannot play. What can hurt you more than that? Just try to be positive. Basketball is not the end of the world."
The NBA's resident Atlas still bears more weight than any other in the league -- even if he did fall out of the top 10 list in China jersey sales in what was a clear sign of his unfortunate times. He still endears the masses with his humanity, still sparks laughter with a wit that has only grown sharper as his English has so drastically improved in recent years.
But his world has changed, and not just because his medical chart grew longer. Yao and his wife, Ye Li, had a rare day of joy in a hospital on May 21, welcoming a baby daughter into their family. His Rockets family took part in the celebration, with players' and coaches' wives joining for a shower and everyone wondering how little Amy (her American name) could be just seven pounds and nine ounces considering her gargantuan genes.
The new father wasted no time planning how and where his daughter would spend her formative years, with plans to raise her both in China and America and the hope that the global exposure makes her "worldwide."
"Not to be famous, but to have more knowledge," he quickly clarifies.
He's even quicker to clarify that these are plans for the future and not the present. Such damage control became a necessity after this summer, when Yao's comments to Chinese media while in Beijing frightened those who deem it his duty to carry his national team at any expense.
He had raised the possibility of retirement, making it clear that another injury to the foot which he has fractured twice would be too much to overcome. He sent a clear message that that the national program must start planning for a future without him, and seemingly ruled out any chance that he would play in the 2012 London Olympics.
Yet when asked about his statements and, more specifically, whether he planned on playing for the national team next summer if he can remain healthy, Yao asked -- politely, of course -- that this reporter "save that question" for another time.
"I already created a lot of troubles by saying I might retire or something, so I don't want to get your misunderstanding on this, but I'll still try my best," said Yao, who missed the 2008 NBA playoffs after breaking the left foot for the first time but rushed back to play with his national team in the Beijing Olympics that summer. "I'll still get back to playing the sport I've been playing for 20 years and has brought me a lot of fun, and gave me a very successful feeling during my career. I don't want to let go that easily. ... I'm going to still try hard to get back, but I know if one day is the day, then that's the day. It's just a matter of time."
That outlook wasn't supposed to come so soon. But the severity of his situation, the harsh reality that he stands on the brink of either a new beginning or a bitter end, has come with a long-overdue benefit for Yao.
Suddenly, it's acceptable to think short-term, to take a day-by-day approach that just so happens to block out the big picture that so often weighed him down. Tonight, he'll face off in Hidalgo, Texas, against Orlando's Dwight Howard, the matchup that was once great basketball theater having changed immensely since last they saw each other. As for tomorrow? No need to go there until you get there.
Yao still dreams of being the most dominant big man in the NBA, but his immediate goal will be to produce within the necessary confines that have been placed upon him. He will play with a 24-minute-per-game limit that was mandated by Dr. Tom Clanton, the former Rockets physician who performed his surgery and in whom the Rockets are granting full trust with such decisions. Coach Rick Adelman is asking the public to not expect too much too soon, as he anticipates Yao will play fewer than 24 minutes in the early games and likely not see substantial progress until "December or January." Adelman isn't alone on that front, either.
The unofficial team motto is one of patience, with all involved well aware that the skeptics have every reason to be skeptical even if the roster has title-caliber talent. Even the team's brass isn't putting all its money down on this table, as the Rockets are refusing to sign any extensions for those players who could be given one. That includes Yao, who declined an early termination option for the coming season over the summer and will be paid $17.6 million in the final year of his contract.
Yet still, there's an old-school loyalty between the two parties, a mutual understanding that neither will abandon the other so long as the shared will to win remains. For Yao's part, the willingness to work has never been the problem.
It's why he has so many fans inside the organization, so much support from those who are in awe of his unique combination of class and character. There is admiration for his approach, his habits that have grown more tireless with every obstacle. And even with the dreadful history of their intertwined fates, there is a sentiment outside of the self-serving among his colleagues that sprouts from their genuine respect.
It's why Houston general manager Daryl Morey was so disappointed for him on May 10, 2009, when Yao -- who was playing at an MVP level while Houston was down 2-1 against the Lakers in those playoffs -- was told he would miss the rest of the postseason after his Game 3 injury.
Few can relate to that sort of setback. It was something akin to a lifelong mountain climber trying Everest just one more time, only to be blindsided by a storm upon final approach to its majestic peak. The medical downhill slide was as painful as the injury itself, from Yao's original diagnosis of a sprained ankle to the discovery of the foot fracture days later to the revelation two months thereafter that he would need surgery.
"When he found out he was going to be out the rest of that (playoffs), there was a pretty strong look of distraught (on his face)," said Morey, whose team lost to the Lakers in seven games in what was its only second-round appearance since Yao was the No. 1 pick in 2002. "That (look) affected me, just because he works harder than anyone in the league. I know that sounds trite, but he's in that group of guys who take their career and their profession very seriously and work extraordinarily hard, and all of it had come to that moment."
Because Yao's foot didn't respond to the initial treatment, a far more sophisticated procedure was chosen that involved both bone regeneration and bone restructuring to improve his arch and reduce stress. Yao wouldn't be deemed fully healed until August 24, 2010, but the time in between was nothing short of grueling emotionally and physically as he worked his way back yet again.
"I think a lot of people probably would've given up halfway through it," Rockets small forward Shane Battier said. "But to his credit, he really wanted to come back and prove that he has a lot of great basketball still ahead of him."
As if it wasn't clear already, the surgery was the latest reminder that Yao's body simply wasn't meant to play this sport. His story may be Bill Walton-esque, but his frame -- that of "an elephant running with deer," as one member of the Rockets put it -- is somewhere between Gheorghe Muresan and Andre the Giant. As such, the Rockets have taken the it-takes-a-village mentality to his many comebacks.
The group around Yao has grown recently, with longtime trainer Keith Jones adding two key members to his staff in the last two years as part of the organization's push to take a more scientific approach to rehabilitation and injury prevention. Strength and conditioning coach Daryl Eto was handpicked by Jones and Morey last July because his techniques at a private training facility in Arizona were considered, as Morey once told the Houston Chronicle, "out ahead of what (the Rockets) were doing."
The team's physical therapist, Jason Biles, was brought on six weeks ago, and he said Houston is one of "seven or eight" teams in the NBA that have someone in his position full-time (most teams, including the Rockets previously, outsource for those services). They are the hands-on team that treats his frame like a classic car that's just too pretty to let go, even if it is entered in the wrong sort of race.
They spend their mornings massaging and manipulating his muscles, trying to maximize this rarest of machines. In the five weeks leading up to training camp and during the preseason session itself, that meant 8:30 a.m. starts and at least six hours of meticulously-planned work every day.
"We do a lot of manual therapy intervention, a lot of corrective exercises and we do a lot of movement training to improve his efficiency when he's on the court," said Biles, who spent his three previous seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies. "It's not just about the foot with Yao. It's about the whole body and functional movement, and the quality of that movement. We can continue to address the foot, and we will because that's the priority, but we're also looking at Yao from head to toe, so we can address any other imbalances that could contribute to stressing the foot or contribute to him not performing at the highest level possible."
Or, as Battier essentially put it, it's all-hands-on-deck all the time.
"We got taped after (a team breakfast during training camp), and Yao had four people pulling on different parts of his body," Battier said. "They were just working on his ankle while trying to strengthen his glutes and trying to make sure everything is in working shape and working order. Just to have four people manually manipulate your body like that, that's not a first-time occurrence. He's had people poring over him, just scrutinizing the way he walks, scrutinizing the way he runs and the way he jumps.
"Every time he falls people are scrutinizing -- training staff, the fans, coaches, teammates. After a while, I think I'd say, 'To hell with this. I'm done with it.' But I don't think Yao has ever complained. He has stayed pretty positive throughout the experience and that's the reason why he's in training camp today."
As Yao has the "MVP" taken off his leg by Biles on the training table, his mood is nothing short of cheery.
He had helped pass this time by using a different technological marvel, an iPad that looked more like an iPhone in his enormous hands and allowed for some brief web browsing. He puts the mini-computer to the side, then proceeds to cast off the latest praise to come his way.
Biles is raving about Yao's devotion to this process, describing the professionalism and personality that make it so easy to root for him. Yao laughs, then takes the self-deprecating route that he knows so well.
"I'm just lazy," he insists. "I don't want to ask (questions). I don't want to think. I just want to do it."
There is truth in those final words. And he hopes they finally come true.
"I just want to do this thing right, and I'm doing that," Yao says. "That is my attitude."
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