Yao to have surgery, likely out 2009-10

Updated: July 18, 2009, 1:30 AM ET
By Ric Bucher | ESPN The Magazine

Houston Rockets center Yao Ming has elected to have extensive surgery on his fractured left foot that almost certainly eliminates his chances of playing next season but offers hope that he can resume his NBA career and not fracture the foot a career-ending third time.

After consultation with a battery of doctors, Yao, 28, has decided to undergo a bone graft to heal the existing fracture and have his arch surgically lowered to reduce the stress on his foot.

Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas had a fracture in the same part of the foot, had a similar combination of surgeries and has played the past eight seasons without suffering another fracture.

Yao has broken the foot twice, most recently in May in Game 3 of Houston's second-round playoff battle with the eventual champions, the Lakers.

It originally was hoped the fracture would heal with rest and Yao would be back for training camp, but a check-up in June revealed the fracture had not improved.

Yao spoke with Ilgauskas before making his decision and was encouraged by what Ilgauskas told him.

"I am confident that the path I have chosen is the best one," Yao said. "I know I have a lot of work ahead of me before I can be back on the court, and I am committed to do whatever I can to make my recovery 100 percent successful. I have full confidence I'll play again."

The surgery will be performed next week by Dr. Tom Clanton, one of the Rockets' team physicians. If all goes well, Yao said, he could begin rehabilitation "a couple weeks" after surgery and could return to basketball activity in six months.

The Rockets said Friday that there is no timetable set for the return of 7-foot-6 Yao, a seven-time All-Star but that he is "expected to be available for the team's training camp in 2010." That camp is in October -- 15 months away.

"This combination of procedures should not only allow healing of his navicular stress fracture, but also improve the mechanics of his foot to reduce the stress on that bone and give him the best long-term prognosis," Clanton said in a statement.

The decision for surgery was expected. The Rockets applied for a disabled player exception from the NBA a few weeks ago, betting that their center will miss next season as he recovers. The NBA agreed that Yao's return is unlikely and approved the request, freeing up about $5.7 million, which the Rockets used to sign free agent Trevor Ariza from the Lakers.

Houston has also scrambled to find a center since free agency began and this week acquired 6-foot-11 David Andersen in a trade with Atlanta.

Yao has been consulting with doctors since late June, when the Rockets said he would be out indefinitely.

After Yao suffered a hairline fracture in the foot in that May playoff game, the team initially said he would miss only eight to 12 weeks. When doctors re-examined the injury about seven weeks later, however, they discovered that the injury had not healed and amended the prognosis.

Yao started 77 games in 2008-09, his most injury-free season since 2004-05, when he played in 80.

He sat out one game in November with soreness in the foot, but didn't have another problem with it until the playoffs. He led the Rockets past Portland in the first round -- Houston's first playoff series win since 1997 -- before hurting his foot late in Game 3 of the second round against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Yao said two days later that the injury wasn't as severe as other ones and that he wasn't overly concerned. He had missed the last 26 games of the 2007-08 with a stress fracture in the same foot. He had pins inserted and rushed his rehab to play in the Beijing Olympics.

Yao is due to make about $16 million next season and holds the option of returning to the Rockets for 2010-11. General manager Daryl Morey called Yao the "cornerstone" of the franchise before the team changed Yao's prognosis in June.

Yao recently purchased his former team, the financially troubled Shanghai Sharks, but said this week that that was not an indication that he was planning an early retirement.

"I do not have any plans to retire and my doctors and I are very confident that I can fully recover and return to the stadium; the team and the acquisition has nothing to do with my injury," Yao said in an interview Friday with Xinhua.

Houston drafted Yao with the No. 1 overall pick in 2002. He averaged 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds as a rookie and quickly established himself as a perennial All-Star.

The injury issues began in the 2005-06 season, when he sat out 21 games with an infection in his left big toe. He broke a bone in his left foot near the end of that season and had surgery.

Yao then broke his right leg early in the 2006-07 season and missed 32 games, then suffered the stress fracture in his left foot in 2007-08.

The latest injury likely drops the Rockets out of contention next season.

Houston acquired Tracy McGrady in June 2004 and envisioned the two-time scoring champion joining Yao in a devastating inside-out threat. The Rockets went 146-74 when Yao and McGrady played together, but it happened so rarely in five seasons that it never mattered in the end.

McGrady ran into as many injuries as Yao. He underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee in February and was expected to miss as long as 12 months. His contract expires after next season.

The Rockets acquired forward Ron Artest last summer with the hope of creating a "big three" that would vault Houston into championship contention. But now McGrady and Yao are out for months to come and Artest bolted for the Lakers a few weeks ago.

Ric Bucher is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN Insider. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer

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