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Yao Ming's Injury Explained

Hoopsworld—July 9, 2009

The Houston Rockets and their fans are still reeling from the news that they will be without All-Star center Yao Ming for the foreseeable future. While the news of his injury has been out there, the specifics of the injury itself are not as easy to come by. The Rockets are still getting additional tests and opinions and are unwilling to comment, and Yao's representatives are equally tight-lipped. While Yao's exact specifics are foggy, we did reach out to New Jersey Nets team physician Dr. Riley Williams of Hospital for Special Surgery to help shed some light on the nature of Yao's foot injury.

"I have no first-hand knowledge of Yao's injury, but I do know what it means to have a navicular stress fracture," Williams told HOOPSWORLD today. " The navicular bone is one of the bones that sits above the arch, and as a result, when the arch starts to fall or if you have a flat foot, you start to impart forces to that bone because it's in what we call the mid-foot. If you look at a bridge, under the bridge where the water goes, the underside is like a half an arch. The top brick in the arch would be like the navicular bone. So imagine if you were to straighten that arch out, the force pushing against that upper-most brick in the arch as the rest of the bricks start to fall to the middle as the arch collapses. It's that same type of analogy with the foot - the navicular sits at the top of the arch, and as you lose competency in the arch, there are more forces from both the heel and the fore-foot all squeezing on those mid-foot bones. Yao's so big that, even if, as a surgeon, you go in and 'fix' the crack, it still doesn't bode well for the future because you aren't able to do anything to correct the morphology of the foot, the actual structure of the foot. As a result, when he goes back out there and he's doing the same things that caused the injury in the first place, now he's got a screw in there which represents a stress riser in an area of weakness, and you get more cracks. That's the baseline issue for him, which is why people are so negative with his prognosis or likelihood that he could come back and play for any length of time."

The worst-case scenario is that Yao's basketball career is over, and Dr. Riley says it's very easy to see how that would be the case.

"There is absolutely nothing I've heard about his injury that would make me say they're overstating things. I think they're very prudent to treat the foot, try to get it to heal, but you almost have to say - like it was with Bill Walton's injury - it is what it is. You've gotten a certain amount of mileage out of the foot, and the fact that he's now has a recurrent stress fracture . . . it would be different if you fell and sprained something and broke some bones and it was a lightning strike type of issue. This is the result of performing his job. That's how it happened. There's nothing you can do to chance the forces, so it's probably going to happen again, even if you can get it to heal. You might be able to squeeze a season or two out of him, but planning for the long-term that's pretty irresponsible."

At the end of the day, what we're talking about is not just Yao Ming's ability to play basketball, but also his ability to walk for the rest of his life. Having additional surgeries might allow him to play another year or two, but would the cost to Yao be worth it?

"You never like to see guys go out like that, but it just doesn't bode well," says Williams. "A recurrent stress fracture is just not a good thing. If you came to my office with this injury, telling me you love to play basketball, I'd say it's time to move on. If you can make $15, $16, $20 million by tearing things up for a year or two, maybe you decide it's worth it, but he really does put in jeopardy his ability to walk, let alone play basketball with ongoing problems there."

Again, we emphasize that Dr. Williams has not seen Yao's foot, but he has operated on players like Vince Carter, Clifford Robinson, Richard Jefferson, and Keyon Dooling and is a recognized expert in the field. We appreciate him taking some time to give us a better understanding of the nature of Yao Ming's injury.


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