- Associated Press - Monday, July 11, 2011

Those beat-up legs that cut short seasons, and eventually a career, would never have sat still for China’s greatest moment.

Yao Ming knew the Chinese needed to be successful as the hosts of the 2008 Olympics, and he knew they couldn’t do it without him. So when he was injured that February, just six months before the opening ceremony, he threw himself into a rehab that ensured he’d be on the floor, though sadly not for much longer.

And with Yao set to retire from the NBA, it’s easy to focus on how much he lost during an injury-plagued final few seasons.

It’s better to think about how much the 7-foot-6 star accomplished in the time he did play.

“People forget how good he is, because he’s been out of the picture for a few years, because of injuries. This guy was the best center of his generation, his timeframe. They also forget the intangibles _ the grace, the humility, the humor, the wit, the selflessness, which he conducted himself with every day, despite enormous pressures,” former Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said.

So much would have been different without Yao, both for the NBA that has made millions in basketball-crazed China, to the superstars who found endorsement dollars there that never existed previously. Kevin Durant spent the last week there, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade all are expected this summer.

Think that would be the case if it turned out Yao couldn’t play?

That was the pressure Yao faced as the No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft. He not only had the usual scrutiny on the floor of a top pick, he had to show he had personality off it, that along with that work ethic the Chinese were known for was a sense of humor good enough to land him opposite Yogi Berra in a comical Visa commercial on Super Bowl Sunday of his rookie season.

He quickly won over Shaquille O’Neal, one of the many NBA players to post his appreciation of Yao on Twitter over the weekend, and every other big man he battled. His numbers were solid: 19 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, but he started getting hurt just as he was getting better. After playing at least 80 games each of his first three seasons, he lasted more than 60 only once the rest of his nine-year career.

“”Yao Ming has had an extraordinary impact on the growth of basketball, worldwide. We consider that he only played, effectively, five seasons,” Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based consultancy SportsCorp. “He opened up the most populated nation in the world, at a time when it was going through its greatest growth, in a way that will never be duplicated.”

But all those extra summers playing for China were going to catch up to Yao. He should have sat out in 2006 after missing four months because of a broken foot, but instead rushed back for the world basketball championship, guaranteed beforehand the Chinese would advance out of pool play, and carried them to that goal.

Opponents who knew how much it meant for Yao and the Chinese were worried he wouldn’t be able to play two years later in Beijing after surgery that March to repair a stress fracture in his left foot. Somehow, that foot was strong enough to carry his nation’s flag into the games, strong enough to make a 3-pointer for the first basket of the game in China’s opener against the gold medal-winning Americans, setting off as raucous an ovation as can ever be heard inside an arena.

“I was just really happy to make that shot,” Yao said after the Americans’ 101-70 victory. “It was the first score in our Olympic campaign here at home and I’ll always remember it. It represents that we can keep our heads up in the face of really tough odds.”

Yao struggled to make it through the game, exhausted after making his return to competitive play against the most athletic team in the world. But he gutted his way through the competition, leading the Chinese to a stirring victory over Dirk Nowitzki and Germany days later to ensure the hosts would reach the medal round.

His career was rarely the same afterward. He broke his left foot in the second round of the 2009 playoffs, right after Houston’s lone playoff victory with Yao, and missed the entire next season. He made it just five games in 2010-11 before realizing he just didn’t want to put himself through another difficult rehab, knowing his feet simply couldn’t hold his huge frame any longer.

He’ll stay active with the team he owns in the Chinese league, though at just 30 it seems he should still have more time on the court. But he gave so much to the Rockets, and especially the Chinese _ “team first, team last, team always,” Van Gundy said _ that it subtracted from what could have been a greater individual legacy.

His first major injury came in the 2005-06 season, his first with averages of 20 points and 10 rebounds. Instead of a full summer off, he went to Japan for the worlds. So fatigued in China’s final group stage game that he couldn’t even cross halfcourt on some possessions, he summoned the energy to play all 40 minutes, scoring 36 points against NBA centers Rasho Nesterovic and Primoz Brezec to will the Chinese to a 78-77 victory over Slovenia, pumping his fists after a spot in the knockout round had been clinched.

“Maybe only he can do those things,” China coach Jonas Kazlauskas said.

It’s a shame he can’t do them anymore.

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AP Sports Writer Chris Duncan in Houston contributed to this report.

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