Commentary

Yao to play in Olympics? For now, the answer is Yes

Originally Published: February 26, 2008
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

Yao MingJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty ImagesIt appears that Yao Ming should recover in time to represent his home country in the Beijing Olympics.

When his doctor delivered the bad news, there were two things Yao Ming immediately wanted to know: Was he himself partly to blame for the stress fracture in his foot? And what effect would it have on his playing for China this summer in the Beijing Olympics?

The blame, the doctor told him, was a nonissue. In fact, the specific diagnosis of the injury came just two weeks after symptoms first arose, which is relatively quick when it comes to stress fractures of the tarsal navicular bone. So if anything, Yao had saved himself from letting the injury get worse.

What's more, the early diagnosis means that Yao should be recovered in time to play in Beijing. At least that's what the word is now.

Fact is, the word "should" is what the 1.3 billion people of China are going to have to pin their hopes on over the next five months as Yao begins to recover from the foot injury that brought a swift and sudden end to his NBA season Tuesday. The recovery time is three to four months if Yao chooses to have surgery, four months if he chooses the nonsurgical route and has the foot immobilized in a cast.

"If I cannot play in the Olympics for my country this time, it will be the biggest loss in my career to right now," Yao said at a news conference Tuesday.

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told ESPN.com that the opinions of many -- including the Chinese Basketball Federation, Yao's U.S.-based representatives and Rockets' medical personnel -- will be gathered before a decision is made about whether Yao will have surgery.

"It is not our consideration in any sort of way to discourage him" from playing for China this summer, Morey said. "His Chinese heritage is what makes him, and it's a big part of his life. All we'll do is support him and support his drive to represent his country. We knew that was part of what we were getting when we got a national treasure."

To their credit, the Rockets have never publicly complained about Yao's national team commitments, which have contributed to the wear and tear on the 7-foot-6 center's body.

Until last summer, Yao had spent every June, July and August of his teenage and adult life summering in the spartan-like national team program. Chinese players sleep two to a room, and the training regimen -- until changes were made four years ago -- was derived not from basketball textbooks but from military physical-fitness drills.

The Chinese program took a major leap forward at the Athens Olympics under the guidance of Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Del Harris, who coached China to a stunning upset of Serbia-Montenegro to reach the final eight for the first time in the country's Olympic history.

But as satisfying as that accomplishment was, it set the bar higher for Team China this summer, when it will be playing on its home soil. And the fact is, despite China having anywhere from two to four NBA players on its roster (Yi Jianlian is a lock, Wang ZhiZhi is likely and Mengke Bateer is a question mark), the national team still seems at least two Olympics away from realistically expecting to compete for a medal.

(Part of the problem, Harris once explained over late-night refreshments at a Belgrade restaurant, is that the Chinese federation is wonderful at sending future 7-footers into the national basketball program at an early age, but not so good at sending youngsters into the program who can handle the ball and shoot and who will grow to be 6-foot-4. So as good as China is along the front line, its backcourt play has been its Achilles' heel, and the Chinese federation's refusal to allow its guards to play professionally in Europe has hindered their progress further.)

The Chinese might have unrealistically high hopes for their Olympic team. The word on the street in New Orleans during All-Star Weekend was that the Chinese Federation had pulled out of a planned summer exhibition game against the U.S. in Shanghai to avoid a 40-point, buzz-killing loss a week before the opening ceremony.

Well, this Yao injury brings a little buzz kill to the buildup, but if what we're hearing about Yao's recovery is true, the injury won't be a factor in August. He'll play, and China still won't have a chance against any of the six teams -- the U.S., Argentina, Spain, Russia, Lithuania and Greece (if the Greeks qualify in July) -- that have a legitimate shot at winning the gold medal.

[+] EnlargeYao Ming
China Photos/Getty ImagesYao Ming should be able to carry a torch as an active participant in Beijing.
Yao's four-month recovery window takes us through the end of June, which leaves another six weeks before the Olympic basketball tournament begins Aug. 10.

The stress fracture could turn out to be a blessing in disguise because Yao will not have to immediately report to Team China's training camp following the conclusion of the Rockets' season. In other words, that's about 60 days worth of two-a-days that Yao will now get to skip. (How seriously is China taking its chances? Well, the basketball team opened its pre-Olympic training camp nearly three weeks ago.)

The Rockets' team physician has recommended surgery, and Yao's representatives will encourage him to follow the advice of the doctors. The Chinese federation will weigh in, too, and it'll be interesting to see whether their opinions will carry any weight in Yao's decision-making process. They, after all, are the same folks perpetuating the myth back home that China has a chance to medal.

"There are a lot of shareholders in Team Yao," Morey said. "I don't know that they [the Chinese Federation] will have any formal say, but I think their opinion is weighed."

The truth is, with or without Yao, and whether or not he chooses surgery, China doesn't have a realistic chance to medal.

"It would be monumental if they did better than eighth," Harris said.

In the big picture, this will have only a minor impact on what should be a tremendous tournament. Like the rest of us, and the rest of Team China, Yao will be watching when somebody wins the gold medal Aug. 24.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider and has done extensive international basketball reporting. To e-mail Chris, click here.