No timetable for Yao Ming's return

Updated: December 17, 2010, 8:24 AM ET
By Ric Bucher | ESPN The Magazine

Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets will examine all options before determining his future after another stress fracture was found in his left ankle Thursday morning.

Yao, as is his nature, was upbeat in light of a setback that throws a shadow over his future.

"I haven't died," he said. "Right now I'm drinking a beer and eating fried chicken. What were you expecting, a funeral?"

[+] EnlargeYao Ming
AP Photo/Eric GayYao Ming is out indefinitely after a stress fracture was discovered in his left ankle Thursday morning.

Only a few days ago, a source close to Yao expected the 7-foot-6 All-Star center to return to action from a bone bruise in his left ankle for the Rockets' post-Christmas three-game homestand that starts Dec. 27 against the Washington Wizards.

Yao was more optimistic, saying he was targeting the team's three-game road swing through California that begins Sunday.

But a routine exam this week discovered his injury, sustained in the first quarter of a Nov. 19 game against the Wizards, was a fracture.

He explained his even-tempered response to the discovery by pointing to a friend in China who, at 20 years old, appeared to have NBA-caliber talent.

The friend sprained his knee and the subsequent exam revealed he had bone cancer. His knee was replaced with an artificial one, thereby ending his playing career and NBA dreams.

"Compared to that," Yao said, "mine is nothing."

Yao was surprised by Thursday's discovery because he had no pain in his foot or ankle. The fracture is not in the area reconstructed by surgeons two summers ago in hopes of alleviating the foot and ankle problems that had forced him to miss 86 regular-season games over a three-year span.

He had missed two games over his first three seasons in the NBA, despite an annual offseason schedule playing for the Chinese national team.

Yao had prepared himself for anything since having his left arch surgically lowered in an attempt to reduce the stress on his foot and ankle.

The same surgery alleviated similar issues for Miami Heat center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who has since played more than 700 games without a recurrence.

But Ilgauskas is also at least 50 pounds lighter than Yao and was in his early 20s when he had the surgery. Yao turned 30 in September.

"The doctor told me there was no guarantee it would work, so I never put myself where I was expecting the best," Yao said. "I was always prepared for the worst."

Yao and the Rockets will take the next few days to go over the tests and determine a course of action. A decision is expected to be announced on Monday.

At the time of the reconstructive surgery, Yao told friends he would retire rather than have surgery and endure a long rehabilitation again.

As of Thursday, he refused to reiterate that stance.

"Right now, I still hope I can come back and play," he said.

Yao is in the final year of a contract that will pay him $17.7 million this season. He recently purchased the Shanghai Sharks, the team with which he started his professional career in the Chinese Basketball Association.

He became the first foreign-born and developed player to be selected first in an NBA draft when the Rockets took him No. 1 in 2002.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine.

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer