Few phenomena in the world of sports are as reliable–and baffling–as the inflation of a player’s legend when he retires before his time. The collective perception of Yao Ming’s career, which was hampered, then prematurely ended by constant injuries, has followed this familiar path. When he finally decided to call it quits, a chanting mob of writers and fans swiftly arrived on the scene—not to destroy the giant, but to enshrine him in the Hall of Fame. While mere mortals like Michael Jordan require a half decade to reach the hall, some wanted to see a bronze Yao in Springfield next year.
Usually, this is the part reserved for a debate about Yao’s career numbers, records, and accomplishments. However, Yao was nominated under the “contributor” category—in the spirit of inductee Dick Vitale–not as a player, and therefore his on-court statistics won’t be considered.
I’ve never been completely comfortable with the “contributor” category of the Hall of Fame. Not because the inductees aren’t deserving, but because of the subjective and vague methods used to measure an individual’s contributions. The work of Larry O’Brien and Jerry Buss, though not tangible in terms of points and rebounds, are certainly recognizable. And I willingly admit the need for the category, as it is sometimes the only chance certain vital candidates have of getting into the Hall. But by and large, it is an abstract category, one hard to define, and at times even trickier to justify. There are no statistics for this category, no measuring stick to use to compare a candidate against an inductee.
However, the “contributor” category is not the most troubling part of this issue; it is instead the rush to enshrine Yao Ming that really troubles me. John Doleva, the President and CEO of the Hall of Fame, seems hesitant himself, admitting, “I can’t think of another player nominated in the contributor category, but then again Yao is very different,” Doleva said. “It’s unusual, but I think people can see the case for it.”
Well, I can’t. At least, not enough to justify immediate enshrinement.
After all, is it fair for Yao Ming to be considered for the Hall of Fame merely one year after his retirement, when legends such as Tex Winter had to wait decades to get in? More importantly, do Yao’s “contributions” measure up to those already inducted as contributors? There is no doubt that Yao Ming was an ambassador of the game. He was the face of Chinese, perhaps even Asian, basketball. His impact on the popularity of the game throughout Asia was so profound that some of his games caused record breaking television rating and viewer numbers. NBA China exists, for the most part, because of Yao Ming.
But is that enough for an immediate induction? They are great accomplishments, but nothing about those accomplishments are so great that they warrant Yao Ming’s immediate entry into the Hall of Fame. In fact, Yao himself thinks it’s too soon to be inducted into the Hall of Fame
This is not an attack on Yao Ming’s character; that is a near impossible task, and one I have no interest in pursuing. If more NBA players had Yao Ming’s poise and grace, it’s a safe bet that the league wouldn’t have the image issue it still, to this day, strives to shake.
Yao’s request for his name to be withdrawn from consideration this year only temporarily settles this debate; it’s a cease-fire, not a treaty. Inducting Yao now, or even in five years, effectively puts a cap on what he accomplished as an ambassador of and contributor to the game. If anything, now that his playing career is over, Yao should just now be entering the prime of his “contributor” career. We’ve seen what Yao can do as a contributor when he played basketball. If those accomplishments already merit a bronze statue in Springfield, why not wait and see what he achieves as a “full-time” ambassador before enshrining him?