The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 35 | On Yao Ming’s legacy and the Lara vs. Williams debacle

Leaving Proof 35 | On Yao Ming’s legacy and the Lara vs. Williams debacle
Published on Thursday, July 14, 2011 by

Another sports-themed column so soon after the last one, you say? Well, I’m still catching up on my Lone Wolf and Cub and Blade of the Immortal reading, and there’s not really a lot, comics-wise, that I feel like writing about right at the moment besides those two titles. A couple of sports-related events over the past week did inspire me to put fingers to keyboard, though.

According to reports, Chinese NBA center Yao Ming is set to officially announce his retirement on July 20, after playing just five games last season due to a nagging stress fracture in his left foot. It’s a disappointing end to the nine-year, eight season NBA career of one of the most skilled big men the pro game has ever seen. Yao has been dogged by injuries throughout most of his time with the NBA’s Houston Rockets, who drafted him first overall in the 2002 draft. He remained largely injury-free in his first three seasons in the league but averaged only 48 games a season over the last five. But despite all sorts of health-related setbacks, the Shanghai native has managed to compile career averages of 19.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game while shooting 52.4% from the field and a guard-like 83.3% from the line. Not bad for a guy whom Charles Barkley predicted would never average 19 points per game. From his second year in the league onwards, he was probably the best true back-to-the-basket center in the league after Shaquille O’Neal and I think he legitimately wrested that title from the Big Diesel during the 2006–07 season, when he averaged career high per-game averages in points (25.0) and blocks (2.0) while also posting his fourth-best season average rebounding numbers (9.4 per game). Sports Illustrated‘s Chris Mannix suggests that Yao is a likely Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee when he becomes eligible five years from now, a motion that I’m sure will encounter some resistance from more than a few fans of the sport (especially since Spencer Haywood, a center who has comparable NBA career averages and has won an NBA championship besides, is still not in the Hall).

There is a precedent for an international player with an abbreviated NBA career being inducted into the Hall under the “player” category for their role in promoting the sport internationally through outstanding play, however. The late Croatian shooting guard Dražen Petrović was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2002, even though his NBA career averages of 15.4 points and 2.4 assists per game, compiled over just four seasons (he died in an automobile accident in 1993), don’t really seem all that impressive relative to the career totals and averages of other Hall of Fame shooting guards. But when one considers how dominant he was in the European leagues before making the jump to the States (he was a six-time European Player of the Year award winner), and perhaps more importantly, how he demonstrated that European players can be All-Star and All-NBA quality starters (he averaged 22.3 points per game on an astounding 51.3% from the field and 44.9% from the arc in the season before his death), thus helping the professional game make huge inroads in post-Cold War Eastern Europe, it becomes harder to argue against his posthumous induction. Dražen Petrović blazed the trail for later NBA champions and All-Stars of European pedigree such as Toni Kukoč, Manu Ginóbili (yes, I know he’s Argentinian, but he was drafted by the Spurs on the strength of his performance in the Italian leagues), Tony Parker, Mehmet Okur, Pau Gasol, and Dirk Nowitzki (of course that means he also paved the way for guys like Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Darko Miličić, but his legacy can hardly be blamed for NBA general managers’ draft mistakes).

If Yao Ming is to be inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player, it will have to be on the strength of arguments similar to the ones that led to Petrović’s induction. Yao has the gaudier career stats. But based on those numbers alone, the 7’5″ center, as good as he was, is a fringe Hall of Famer at best. What’s harder to figure out, precisely because it’s impossible to quantify meaningfully, is if his impact on the game was just as significant as Petrović’s. There’s no questioning the commercial implications of Yao’s success in the NBA, no matter how seemingly short-lived it was (I say “seemingly” because the average NBA career is actually only 4.81 seasons long, according to a 2008 study published in The Sports Journal). His highly-developed basketball skills, otherwordly physical attributes, genuine humility, disarming sense of wit and humour, intelligence, philantropy, and general affability have made him a true global sports icon (sorry LeBron) and a much-beloved unofficial ambassador for the sport, the league, and his country. While basketball was already popular in Asia even prior to his NBA debut (particularly in China, the Philippines, and Japan, where many NBA cast-offs play in national professional leagues as imports and local television stations regularly televise NBA games), Yao Ming’s high-profile status in the NBA as a first overall draft pick and eventual All-Star took the sport’s popularity in Asia to another level.

But while Petrović’s success augured the eventual arrival of an infusion of elite basketball talent from the European leagues, it doesn’t seem like Yao’s entry into the NBA heralded a similar sea-change in the NBA. It seems unfair to have him shoulder the blame for the inability of Asian professional league players who followed him into the NBA like Ha Seung-Jin, Yuta Tabuse, Sun Yue, and Yi Jianlian to achieve breakthrough success in the NBA, but I strongly feel that the success of European imports at the highest levels of competition in the NBA played a part (whether consciously or not) in the voters’ reasoning behind Petrović’s induction, and I think when Yao Ming’s name comes up in the Hall of Fame ballot five years from now, voters will consider that aspect of his impact on the sport as well. That being said, I don’t think it’s a stretch for him to enter the Hall of Fame, either. Like Petrović before him, his contribution to the sport goes well beyond easily measured things like career numbers or post-season victories or championship rings. All I know is, the game is much richer—and I’m not talking NBA jersey sales here—for his having played it (and play it very well he did) in the world’s premier professional basketball league. I don’t think he’s a lock as a first-ballot Hall of Famer although it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he were to be voted in as one, but I think the overall body of his basketball-related work on and off the court is enough to earn him a spot in Springfield.

With his retirement, I think it will be a while before we see another player with his combination of size, lower body strength, mobility, and touch around the basket and in the post. And it’s not just because preeminently skilled and athletic seven-plus foot tall centers are hard to come by. The various rule changes introduced in the NBA since 2001, such as the five-second back-to-the-basket rule and the new rules limiting hand-checking on the perimeter, have resulted in league offenses that are increasingly reliant on wing players and “face-up” power forwards and nominal centers. There’s a little less incentive now for big men to develop the kind of back-to-the-basket skills possessed by players like Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Arvydas Sabonis, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, and yes, Yao Ming.

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Watched Erislandy Lara take on Paul “The Punisher” Williams last Saturday in a junior middleweight bout on HBO’s Boxing After Dark. Both boxers were coming off of career setbacks. Lara, a former member of Cuba’s vaunted national team and one of the sport’s rising stars, managed to escape with his unbeaten record intact after fighting to a draw against Mexican spoiler Carlos Molina (a very close fight many observers thought Lara lost). Williams, an extremely well-conditioned athlete with an awkward, unpredictable fighting style once-touted as the “most avoided man in boxing” by ESPN’s Dan Rafael and  the “most dangerous man in boxing” by his promoter, was set to fight in his first match since a devastating knockout courtesy of current middleweight champion Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez that was eventually voted by the Ring Magazine’s editors as the 2010 KO of the year. Here’s a brutal reminder of what it looked like:

The consensus going into the bout was that Lara, the more technically skilled but smaller man, would make a decent fight out of it but Williams, with his sheer physical advantages, would prevail in the end.

But as the old adage goes, this is why they fight the fights.

Lara lands a left

Lara landing one of numerous left hands against Williams

Lara kept landing the overhand left, the same punch that Martinez used to send Williams into unconsciousness in his last fight. It got so bad that HBO commentators Max Kellerman and Roy Jones, Jr. actually brought up the possibility of Williams receiving a career-ending beating at the hands of the Cuban pugilist (the irony of course, is that Jones himself has been subject to more than a few beatings in the ring that most people would consider career-ending, yet he insists on fighting on). I didn’t think it was that bad, but it was clear to me that Williams and his corner had no idea how to defend himself against Lara’s left. Had Williams not outweighed Lara by a ridiculous ten pounds after rehydrating (he was 170 lbs. on the unofficial pre-fight scale to Lara’s 160 lbs., making it a case of a super middleweight fighting a middleweight) and if Lara had a bit more pop to his punches, I don’t think Williams would have lasted past the fifth or sixth round. The only real damage Williams was able to inflict on Lara was via an unintentional headbutt that resulted in golf-ball sized hematoma on the left side of Lara’s head (post-fight x-rays would also reveal a fracture resulting from the headbutt).

I had it 117-111, nine rounds to three for Lara after 12 rounds (the same as unofficial HBO scorer Harold Lederman’s card). I suspected something was wrong when I heard that the first judge scored it a draw, though. And that suspicion became full-blown disbelief when the next two scorecards were announced in Williams’ favour.

Lara blocks a right to the body from Williams

I’m not one of those fight fans who cry foul every time the judges’ scorecards don’t reflect my own observations of the fight. Watching a fight ringside is different from watching it on TV: the viewing angles are different, the impact of the punches are likely to be more apparent to those watching ringside, and the judges don’t have commentators and things like live CompuBox statistics overlays influencing their assessment of how the fight is going, so there are bound to be differences in perception when it comes to closely contested fights. But this was not a closely contested fight. Not in the least. Lara beat Williams like he owed him money and slept with his sister. Roy Jones, Jr. (himself not a stranger to bad decisions, having lost out on Olympic gold in 1988 in one of the worst boxing decisions I’ve seen in all my years of following the sport) issued a statement after the fight that neatly encapsulated my frustration regarding the decision:

Paul Williams didn’t win a decision here. This is what is wrong with boxing now. This is one of our problems. We don’t do athletes justice. I mean, if he won, he won. If he lost, he lost. For goodness’ sakes, how can you do this to a guy?

How bad was the decision to give the fight to Williams? Bad enough that the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board suspended all three judges indefinitely after reviewing the fight. There’s no way for the board to have the fight result changed to a no-contest though, since that’s only merited if there is evidence of corruption (i.e., if there’s firm evidence that the judges were bribed or coerced into awarding the win to Williams), although given that the board took all of two days to conduct their investigation, I don’t know if I’m satisfied with their ruling. It is entirely possible that it was just incompetent judging, though.

Williams got caught time and again by Lara's overhand lefts

In any event, I don’t think Williams will be offering Lara a rematch anytime soon. Lara definitely had his number and I think a future meeting would see the Cuban pursuing the knockout more aggressively, and given Williams’ total inability to defend the overhand left and his seeming refusal to change his style to account for it, I only see another beating or even a KO for him. I guess the former “most avoided man in boxing” will be doing some avoiding of his own, since he’s seemingly keen to fight Sergio Martinez again to avenge his knockout loss and cash in on one more big fight before retiring (and if I’m Martinez, I’d be licking my chops after seeing what’s essentially a smaller and less athletic version of myself totally dismantle The Punisher). I still like Williams, he’s a once-in-a-generation physical specimen (how many junior middleweights have the reach of a heavyweight and the punch output of a featherweight?) who also happens to be well-spoken outside the ring, but fair or not, he’s been painted as the villain in this episode through no real fault of his own.

As for Lara, well, it’s a shame that he’s no longer undefeated but his performance in the ring and his class in the face of the horrible decision probably earned him even more fans than a simple decision win over Williams, and undefeated records are hugely overrated anyway. If he’s as good as we all hope he is, he’ll rebound from this and come back the better fighter. I’d love to see him against incumbent junior middleweight alphabet title holders Miguel Cotto and Cornelius “K-9″ Bundrage before they get any older, and a showdown with Mexican junior middleweight brawling sensation Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez would be a boxing fan’s dream match.

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