HOUSTON (CBS Houston) – Former Rockets center Yao Ming doesn’t see much of his old team live these days because NBA games aren’t broadcast in China.
Apparently the news travels a little slow over there, too.
Yao, who returned to Houston and Toyota Center on Tuesday for the first time since retiring this past summer, was greeted warmly by several former teammates, members of the training staff and workers around the building prior to the Rockets tipping off against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Then came a distant but familiar voice from down the hall: “What’s up Yao!”
Yao had to squint in the direction of the voice as he asked, “Is that Ron?” as in ex-Rocket teammate and current Laker Ron Artest.
That would be Metta World Peace.
“What?” asked a clearly confused Yao, who had no idea the player formerly known as Ron Artest officially changed his name this past offseason.
It was one of the many light-hearted moments Yao shared as he stopped briefly to reflect on his career and his time here in Houston. Yao hadn’t been back in the city he had called home from 2002 to 2011 since last season prior to announcing on July 20 that he was retiring from the game due to injuries to his foot and ankle.
“It’s not strange, it’s a very familiar building for me,” Yao said as he surveyed his surroundings in the tunnel in Toyota Center just outside of his old locker room. “The only difference is when I walk in without any duty. I usually walk in to play game, practice. Today is just casual.”
But it was also emotional for the 7-foot-6 giant who was larger than life during much of his time with the Rockets. Not that he was moved to tears or anything, but it was as emotional as Yao gets in public.
While much of the Rockets team is different than the ones he starred on just a few years ago, there were still plenty of familiar faces in the locker room and around the hallways.
“It wasn’t even coming into this building,” Yao said of his emotions. “As soon as I drove my car onto the highway I already feel the emotion. Everything is so familiar.
“Today I walk in with a different identity.”
But he will never escape being who he was here and what he represented. NBA commissioner David Stern always looked at Yao in the big picture sense as “the bridge between Chinese and American fans.” Houstonians simply saw him and Tracy McGrady as the next chance to get the Rockets back to the NBA Finals.
There was plenty of excitement and optimism during most of the years. Yao had touch around and away from the basketball that defied his size. McGrady was a scorer who could fill it up with the best of the NBA stars.
Unfortunately, assortment of injuries to both stars derailed those NBA championship hopes and their careers to a degree. McGrady is still bouncing the NBA as a shell his former All-Star self currently with the Atlanta Hawks.
Yao, meanwhile, has returned home to Shanghai with a wife and kid. He now owns his former club team Shanghai Sharks and he is attending college.
His NBA playing days are now just a memory of what his life use to be.
“I have to say I appreciate,” Yao said of his career in Houston after being the Rockets No.1 overall draft pick in 2002. “I am pleased I can have a career spanning Houston and a great team I played with and great fans and great media.
“I grew my family here and I also grew myself mentally from a young boy.”
After missing the entire 2009-10 season due to injury and just playing in five games last season before suffering a setback, the 31-year-old Yao appears healthy enough to step back on the court again. But there are no illusions of grander or a comeback dancing around in his head.
“Good enough for walking but not good enough for playing basketball again,” he responded when asked about his health.
And while many fans in the city may still be wondering what if, as in what if Yao and McGrady hadn’t been so injury prone could the Rockets had made the NBA Finals runs that was so anticipated, it doesn’t sound like Yao thinks about it much. If he does, he certainly left a convincing impression otherwise.
“We had this chance before, we missed it. There is no if,” Yao said. “We just need to face ourselves and say we did our best and walk away.”
His basketball fix these days come from watching his Sharks hustle and claw in the Chinese Basketball Association. Like the Rockets, the Sharks are fighting for playoff positioning this season.
“Oh, we’re making the playoffs,” Yao said with a smile. “We are in the sixth spot.
“We are getting a lot of help from an American player and American coach and the Chinese players are playing very well. We are having a very successful year.
“Shanghai is similar to the Rockets in that we are always the underdogs in the league from the beginning of the season.”
He knows that much about the Rockets because while he can’t see them on television he can keep up on the Internet. He’s proud of his former team has continued to scrap and remain in contention for a playoff spot despite injuries to key players and not having the caliber of superstars he and McGrady were.
“I’m very happy the Rockets are still playing much better even though a it’s a short season and a lot of injuries have happened,” Yao said. “Right now we are still fighting for a playoff spot. We lost a couple of guys tonight but I believe the players will still play hard like we always did.”