BEIJING // Yao Ming thinks it will take at least one injury-free NBA season before he can even start thinking about regaining his best form for the Houston Rockets. The seven-time All-Star, who has been out of action since sustaining a left-foot fracture in the Western Conference semi-finals against the Los Angeles Lakers in May 2009, is hoping to be fit in time for the Rockets' pre-season training camp in October.
"Talk about recovering my form is nothing but nonsense and will only be realised if I can get through the next season smoothly," he said in an interview with the newspaper China Daily. "Then, you will see results after that season." Yao was paid US$16.4 million (Dh60.2m) last year despite not playing one minute for the Rockets. Last month, he exercised the player option in his contract and will be paid $17.7m this season, or more than LeBron James will receive from the Miami Heat.
Yao conceded that he was unsure what kind of contribution he would be able to make to the team's bid to win the NBA title next season, even though Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Rockets, said he expected Yao to be in the line-up when the season begins. Even so, the Rockets last week signed the free agent Brad Miller to a three-year, $15m contract. Miller will provide depth at centre for the Rockets, or move into the starting five if Yao's comeback is slowed or aborted by further injury.
"I have no idea if I can return to the peak of my form," Yao said. "I have not been tested. I have not played competitive basketball since the injury even in training. I cannot answer if I will return to my best." He is recovering from an injury which at least one doctor described as "career-threatening" and the 2.28-metre centre, the tallest player in the NBA, has had to come to terms with the fact that his days on court could be ended at any moment with another injury.
"I know I will retire one day. My career will end sooner or later. Even if I can play until I am 36, I have to accept that fact," said Yao, who will turn 30 in September. "The only problem is that 30 is the golden time for an athlete, but for me it's sudden death and I find it hard to accept that." Still China's most popular and wealthiest sportsman despite a year on the sidelines, Yao has been the centre of a heated debate on the nationality of his daughter, who was born in Houston on May 21 and, thus, has American citizenship. Yao and his wife, Ye Li, a member of China's women's national team, are Chinese, but their daughter must renounce her US citizenship to gain a China passport, according to Chinese law.
Meanwhile, Yao said a return to his country's colours was also dependent on a long injury-free run. "If my foot can survive the whole season and require no surgery in the summer, I will probably play for China again," he said. "I think I can still help the Chinese team but, realistically speaking, I am not the future of China basketball due to my age. "China needs to have a new generation of players to take the responsibility."