The Future is Yao

November 22, 2002
The Future is Yao
By Ric Sweeney

Let’s hope Charley Casserly is on his game this off-season because he’s now officially on the hot seat to turn the still-raw Texans into a playoff contender, and I don’t mean someday, off in the distant future, I mean now. Anything short of a playoff push in 2003 and Casserly’s team, the darlings of the Houston sports scene all these many months, could find themselves riding shotgun to the city’s other currently active pro franchise, the Rockets, who have fallen ass backwards into something — dare I say it: transcendent.

And last night, I was among the 19,853 inside the American Airlines Center in Dallas who will be able to tell their grandchildren they witnessed Yao Ming’s coming out party.

And believe me, I wasn’t the only one acutely aware that they were in the presence of something potentially historic. There was a tangible buzz circulating throughout the arena, a palpable energy that resonated from top to bottom. Fans — most of them Maverick fans, mind you — were actually leaning forward in their chairs whenever Houston had the ball and Ming was on the floor.

I’ve lived in Dallas since 1992, and I’ve probably been to a dozen Rocket-Maverick games, and there was never the kind of excitement I saw last night when Hakeem Olajuwon used to came to town. Granted, Dallas’ basketball scene for most of the 90’s was deader than Jeffrey Jones’ career, but let’s not forget: Olajuwon was special, easily the best player on the floor, and easily one of the best in the game; there was an appreciation, but not a so-thick-it-could-choke-you buzz about him, even as he whirled and spun and moved like a man half his size. Took him for granted? Perhaps. Six, seven years into Ming’s career, a been-there, done-that vibe might follow him. But not last night. And not for the foreseeable future.

What I saw last night was a guy with no discernable offensive game dominating his opponent. Think about that and then try to magine David Carr heading onto the field without a game plan (must…resist… Chris Palmer… joke) and the Texans winning an offensive shootout.

So far as I could tell, Ming has no low post moves — in fact, he has trouble establishing position in the low post. And the team seems to run very few plays for him, if any at all, and they very obviously lack chemistry together. And yet, he was unstoppable; the Mavericks had no answer for him. None. Had he not grown tired, he might’ve thrown down 40 points, and I have a feeling that might start to taste a bit routine before very long. Yes, he’s a freakish, Barnum-like sideshow, but make no mistake — Ming can play basketball.

And you have to keep in mind; he’s played all of 10 games in the NBA. Imagine what he’s going to be doing 10 games from now. Twenty games from now. By the All-Star break, he could very well be the biggest star on the planet. Two years from now, maybe three, as he starts to realize his potential, we could be watching one of those rare, once-in-a-blue moon kind of athletes; a later day Muhammad Ali.

Did I go too far? Maybe. I do, after all, have a tendency to get ahead of myself. For instance, after the Texans disposed of the Cowboys in week 1, I bet a friend of mine that they were about to embark on an unprecedented 80-game win streak. So, yeah, admittedly, the giddy factor has a tendency to sort of overtake my rational thought process.

But in this instance, I don’t think I’m completely off base. I watched SportsCenter when I got home last night and they were making Yao Ming the story. Never mind the fact Dallas had just won it’s 12th straight game, the highlights were “Yao this” and “Yao that” with an, “Oh, by the way, Mavericks won” thrown in under their breath. Local talk shows — Dallas talk shows — were the same way. Everyone wanted to talk about Ming. How many athletes are bigger than the game they play?

And no, I didn’t forget about Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, Jackie Chan and countless other second comings from the Far East. The truth is, while nice players, those guys, even at their peak, weren’t redesigning the very fabric of the game they play. Ming potentially could alter basketball the way Wilt Chamberlin did in his heyday. How do you stop a 7’6″ center with touch and skills around the basket?

And when … OK, if he does prove to have that kind of impact, where does that leave our Texans? David Carr’s a wonderful prospect with a future so bright, we’ve gotta wear shades, but he possesses maybe a nth of the intrigue that Yao has oozing from every pore of his elongated body. Their only hope to keep pace, and win over Houston’s ever-increasingly fickle fan, is to trot a winner out onto the field each and every Sunday. Which brings us back to Casserly.

He was already looking at a difficult off-season as is (such is life with an expansion team); now, the Rockets have turned up the intensity. They’re moving into a new building, have new uniforms on the way and will soon be starting the future of professional sports on a nightly basis. I never thought football would ever take a backseat to any sport in Houston, but, I have to admit, if given the choice of throwing my money at, granted, an improving, but nonetheless losing football team versus watching Yao Ming develop his skills and embark on his journey to take over the world, well — hold on, my order for just came in…

Ric Sweeney just wants to confirm: when you join the Communist Party, you still get to keep your stuff, right?