HOUSTON—Since Yao Ming’s intention to retire from the NBA was first reported last Friday, basketball fans across the country have been reflecting on the player’s nine-year career, with nearly all of them agreeing the Rockets center will forever be remembered for his 22-point, 8-rebound performance against the Milwaukee Bucks during a regular season game in 2007.
“It was just classic Yao,” said Rockets fan Nate Dula, adding that everything about the contest, from Yao’s softness on defense to his early foul trouble, would forever be part of NBA lore. “The 4-foot turnaround jump shots where his feet barely left the ground, the 9-for-22 shooting performance, the single offensive rebound. We were watching a legend in the making before our very eyes.”
“Everyone knew it was a special night when he got dunked on by [6-foot-3 guard] Charlie Bell,” Dula added. “But when Bell did it again in the fourth quarter, that brought the night from great to unforgettable.”
According to fans, Yao’s vintage performance ranks with some of the all-time greatest individual achievements in basketball, including Michael Jordan’s 63-point playoff game against the Celtics, Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point night, and Magic Johnson’s baby sky hook to win Game 4 of the NBA Finals. Had Yao tallied more than one offensive rebound, fans said, it would have easily been the greatest performance in the history of the sport.
Fans also cited Yao’s 4-for-7 shooting from the free-throw line and his complete vanishing act in the last five minutes of the game as evidence of his play during the midseason contest being “truly epic.”
Moreover, many maintained that the game’s signature image—that of Yao Ming limping off the court following a second-quarter foot injury—would never be forgotten.
“The way he awkwardly dunked with one hand so that it almost looked like he couldn’t jump high enough to dunk a basketball gave me chills,” Houston resident Gary Udall said of the 7-foot-6 Yao. “And, you have to think of the context, too. A regular season game in March with nothing on the line against the fifth-place Bucks? That’s when Yao really came into his own.”
“I think he may have even led the Rockets in scoring that game,” Udall added. “Actually, wait, no. Tracy McGrady also had 22 points.”
Though most fans agree Yao’s 22-point, 8-rebound effort against the Bucks was his greatest game, some argue the best was his 21-point, 6-rebound game against Charlotte in 2006; his 22-point, 6-rebound game against the Bulls in 2004; or his 22-point, 7-rebound game against Memphis in 2007. However, many contend that considering Yao was only two rebounds shy of a double-double and had only one blocked shot despite being a foot taller than nearly every player on the court, the Milwaukee game is the performance in which Yao the mere player became Yao the legend.
In addition, Rockets fans claimed that when Yao wasn’t on the floor during the game, the crowd experienced that “classic, unspoken feeling” that dominated the entire Yao Ming era: the sense that maybe the team would be substantially better, more efficient, and, on the whole, more exciting without Yao on the court.
“I was actually at the game,” said Joe Laskowski, removing the ticket stub he keeps in his wallet. “The energy of the crowd was… Well, it was nowhere close to how electric it was when Hakeem Olajuwon played for us. In fact, I think Kenny Smith was more fun to watch. And so was Steve Francis, when I come to think of it. Also Scottie Pippen, even though he was way past his prime when he joined the team. And then there’s Luis Scola, who is a pretty underrated player. Oh, you know, we had Barkley there for a bit. Drexler, too, of course, Clyde the Glide. Who else… Let me think here. Oh, yeah, Robert Horry. Big Shot Rob. That guy helped us win a couple titles.”
“But none of those players can say they helped the Rockets reach the second round of the NBA playoffs before going down with a career-ending foot injury,” Laskowski continued. “Not one.”