- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Now we find out Yao Ming’s fractured foot - that’s Yao as in “Owww!” - might keep him out all of next season and perhaps longer. This comes on the heels, if you’ll pardon the expression, of a broken bone in the same left foot in April 2006, a broken right leg the following season and a stress fracture in the aforementioned foot the season after that.

And that’s just the big stuff. We can only imagine how many times he’s bumped his head on a door frame… or a chandelier… or a highway overpass.

The moral of this story - as with those of other supersized hoopsters like Gheorghe Muresan and Ralph Sampson - is that a guy with a gargantuan frame really isn’t meant to bounce up and down a basketball court, jolting his joints and skeletal structure. A man that humongous is meant to… oh, I don’t know, pick fruit from hard-to-reach branches.

Sampson’s knees eventually gave out on him. With Muresan, it was his back. As for Yao, who measures 7-foot-6 and weighs 310 pounds, his bones appear to be buckling under the strain. Not that this will deter another NBA team from drafting the Next Pituitary Case - and going all-in on a contract, as the Rockets have with their $16 million-a-year center.

In sports, you see, bigger is always better… even when it isn’t. Being 7-7, after all, never helped Manute Bol be much more than a shot-blocking curiosity. Ed Jones, the Dallas Cowboys’ 6-9 pass rusher of yesteryear, may have been “Too Tall,” but he wasn’t Too Good to be left off the NFC Pro Bowl squad in 13 of his 16 seasons. And while 6-11 Jon Rauch is the tallest player in major league history, he remains, at age 30, merely an employed (for the moment) middle reliever.

But sports has always loved freaks of nature like this - players who leave mouths agape, players who will “reinvent” their positions - even if most of it is just smoke. This is the carnival-barker aspect of the business that our games have never truly outgrown, a harkening back to the days when profits were slimmer and fans were roped in my any means necessary. Besides, who doesn’t like a good sideshow?

And so we have a world in which one of the heavyweight champs, Nikolay Valuev, is 7 feet tall, and the defenseman who just won the Norris Trophy, the Bruins’ Zdeno Chara, is 7 feet with his skates on (and 6-9 otherwise). And so the latest pitcher to notch is 300th victory is 6-10 Randy Johnson (who towers nine inches above the other Johnson with 300 wins, Walter). And so the AFC title game is contested between a team with a 6-6 quarterback (Joe Flacco of the Ravens) and a team with a 6-5 quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers).

Yao is so huge - in both the physical and global sense - you’d hardly know his club has never sniffed an NBA championship (or that it went 10-0 without him during one stretch two seasons ago). He’s good, make no mistake, but more than anything, he’s gigantic. Have you ever studied his playoff statistics? They’re fairly comparable to Rik Smits’ in his prime. (And Smits stood a diminutive 7-4.)

In fact, you have to ask yourself: Who has been the better oversized basketballer, Yao or 7-2 Margo Dydek, who at least reached the WNBA Finals one year with the Connecticut Sun?

OK, maybe you don’t have to ask yourself that. But ask yourself this: For all their hype, how many of these Land of the Giants athletes have had that much of an impact on their sports? For every Chara, it seems, there’s a Steve McKenna, a 6-8 blueliner who kicked around the NHL for eight seasons and one year had as many fighting majors as he did goals in his career (18).

The only 7-footer to set cleat on a pro football field, defensive tackle Richard Sligh of the ‘67 Raiders, played in a grand total of eight games. (His long legs, better suited for basketball, made him easy for offensive linemen to get under.) Still, eight games is better than the one 7-5 Slavko Vranes got into in his cameo appearance with the Portland Trail Blazers in 2004.

Then there’s Ivo Karlovic. At 6-10, he might look imposing with a tennis racket in his hand - and indeed, he broke his own mark earlier this year by serving 55 aces in a match - but his career singles record as he enters his 30s is barely above .500. In golf, meanwhile, 6-7 Phil Blackmar might be able to post up 5-9 Corey Pavin, but the latter has won four times as many PGA Tour events (an even dozen to Blackmar’s three).

The point is simply this: For all the emphasis on size these days - extreme size, “Honey I Blew Up the Kid” size - most of the behemoths have left a rather small footprint in sports, certainly smaller than the size-16 EEEE shoes they wear. They’re big, but they’re not, well, Big, if you know what I mean.

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