Sad story of Yao Ming’s left foot

The 40-year-old Shaquille O’Neal, who retired from NBA in June, up-loaded a twitter video last week to invite the 30-year-old Yao Ming, who is reportedly retiring from the league, to go on vacation.

Sad story of Yao Ming's left foot

“I’m going to miss you bro,” O’Neal said in the video message. “You’re one of the greatest players to come out of China. One of the greatest players, period. I’m going to miss you brother.

“Enjoy your time, let’s go on vacation bro, me and you.”

Yao and O’Neal are both among the league’s most outstanding centers in the past decade. Yao, who will turn 31 this September, is more fortunate because he has 10 more years to enjoy his time off the court. Or, he is less fortunate, because he has 10 less years to stay on the court.

Why does Yao plan to retire early?

Since Yao moved to the NBA as the overall top pick in the 2002 draft, his nine-year stint with Houston Rockets, especially his last six seasons, was plagued with a series of injuries and surgeries – the bone spur in his left foot and osteomyelitis in the big toe of the left foot in 2005, the broken bone in his left foot and right knee in 2006, the stress fracture in his left foot in 2008, the hairline fracture in his left foot in 2009 and the stress fracture in his left ankle in 2010.

During the 2008-2009 season, Yao was diagnosed with a sprained ankle in the second round series against the Los Angeles Lakers. After he underwent surgery to repair the broken bone in his left foot, Duan Guihua, a Chinese sports medicine specialist said: “The fact that Yao Ming suffered with frequent injuries shows his previous surgeries were not truly successful. There will be little chance for Yao to fully recover. I am afraid he will be injured again soon.”

Duan’s worry proved to be right. After Yao was ruled out for the entire 2009-2010 season, the Rockets limited Yao to no more than 24 minutes a game for the 2010-2011 season, with no plan to play him on back-to-back nights. Their goal was to keep Yao healthy in the long term. However, Yao only played five matches before sustaining a stress fracture in his left ankle, which led to his decision to quit professional basketball.

During his NBA career Yao received a series of big surgeries to his left foot. All the screws placed in his foot to strengthen the bones could weigh over 500 grams. His fragile feet just could not withstand the pounding of the NBA game over the long haul.

Yao’s early retirement may have been already foreshadowed back in his teenage years. Yao was hit by the first serious injury in 1997 when he was still a junior player in the Shanghai Sharks, the Chinese Basketball League side where Yao served before he moved to NBA. Yao broke his left ankle when he stepped on an opponent’s foot. Instead of undergoing operation, Yao just received conservative treatment. Two years later his left ankle was fractured again and the same treatment was given.

If Yao had undergone surgery to treat either of the two early injuries, maybe his career should have been extended, and the left foot would not have been the “Achilles heel” that brought down the basketball titan.

Yao’s early retirement reflects a long-existing problem in China’s training system of young athletes. The result of a match sometimes transcends the health of an athlete, therefore in China it is usually the coach or the team leader, instead of the team doc, to have the final say on whether to field an injured player.

Short-sighted decisions to neglect doctors’ expertise often jeopardize an athlete’s career. Although China’s sports community have begun to realize this problem and the idea of “health comes first” has been accepted in recent years, China is still lagging far behind in terms of injury prevention and scientific treatment.

Fighting with injuries is a heroic spirit that deserves high praise in the Chinese culture. But if there’s still not enough attention paid to the athlete’s health, China may lose more sports stars to injury-forced early retirement.


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