Always fluent in basketball

Updated: 2011-07-21 08:04

By David Lariviere (China Daily)

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Always fluent in basketball

China basketball star Yao Ming poses for a portrait on July 30, 2007, in Shanghai. [Photo/Agencies]

Yao's former coach Van Gundy praises his 'superior IQ', David Lariviere reports from New York

Yao Ming was only in his second year in the National Basketball Association (NBA) with the Houston Rockets and relied heavily on an interpreter before developing his English proficiency. However, first-year coach Jeff Van Gundy had no difficulty communicating with his towering star. "He worked hard at his English but he spoke perfect basketball. He didn't need any help on the court. He had a superior basketball IQ," said Van Gundy, who coached Yao during four of his finest seasons in the NBA.

Yao announced his retirement at a press conference on Wednesday in his hometown Shanghai after nine injury-plagued seasons.

Van Gundy, who coached Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing when he was with the New York Knicks, didn't quite know what to expect from Yao back in 2003.

"Until you coach him, you don't actually see his greatness," said Van Gundy. "He was a great combination of skill and will. He had a tremendous work ethic, an unselfish nature, just a superior worker, every intangible you want."

Van Gundy recently told The Houston Chronicle that Yao, voted an all-star in all of the eight years he played, should be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame for what he's meant to the sport. "When healthy, he was a dominant player - the best offensive player of his age group. He was the ambassador in opening up the market in China and handled everything with grace and humility. He was everything you would want your star player to be," Van Gundy said.

At his peak, during the 2005-06 season, Yao, who will turn 31 in September, averaged 25 points and 9.4 rebounds. For his career, Yao averaged 19 points, nine rebounds and two blocks a game, shot 52 percent from the field and a remarkable 83 percent from the line. His career totals were 9,247 points, 4,494 rebounds and 920 blocks.

"He was the best center for his age bracket," Van Gundy said. His most formidable foe in the middle was probably Shaquille O'Neal, who recently announced his retirement. "Shaq was one of the top 10 players of all time," said Van Gundy. "He wasn't Shaq."

NBA China is the league's most valuable foreign asset as corporate partners have invested more than $250 million. There are five Chinese-born players who have played in the NBA but only Yao and Yi Jianlian, now with the Washington Wizards, have played considerable roles.

Van Gundy revealed he had lunch with Yao about two to three months ago, but said there was no indication he was going to retire. "I'm not sure what the factors were that went into it. I'm sure he just felt it was the right time."

Contributing factors could have been Yao's free agency and the NBA lockout of the players by the owners as of July 1 because of the lack of a new collective bargaining agreement.

Whether Yao is fully healed from his left foot injuries that sidelined him for all but five games of the past two seasons is also not known.

"A man of his girth with every skill you needed to play for a championship-caliber team. To have his career cut short due to injury - although I don't like to compare players - it was at least similar to Bill Walton (Portland Trailblazers, San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers, Boston Celtics)," said Van Gundy.

His former coach-turned-TV analyst did not know what Yao would pursue next.

"I think he'll have as fine a post-NBA career as on it. His way with people and his sense of humor will make him every bit as successful."

Yao currently owns the Shanghai Sharks, the team he played for before he came to the US in 2002 as the top overall pick in the draft. The Rockets went to China after Van Gundy's first year. Van Gundy termed the experience as "incredible".

In whatever way Yao chooses to make his mark on basketball, Van Gundy is sure he'll be a success. "He enjoyed others' success as much as his own. He was beloved by his teammates, his coaches and his opponents."

And certainly by his millions of fans all around the world.

Always fluent in basketball