Yao elects surgery, may miss season

HOUSTON [SPORTS BLOG: Read the latest from the Eyewitness Sports team]

Yao said in a statement, "After much thought and reflection, I have decided to have surgery on my left foot. This surgery will allow me to continue my career playing basketball and I look forward to returning to the court. I would like to thank everyone who sent me their best wishes. I am very grateful to have the support of teammates, friends and fans as I dedicate myself to making a completely successful recovery."

The team's announcement Friday signals that the 7-foot-6 Yao doesn't plan on retiring, but it doesn't appear like the seven-time All-Star will be around to help them next season, either.

"While no timetable has been set for his return to action, Yao is expected to be available for the team's training camp in 2010," the Rockets said. That camp is in October.

The 28-year-old Yao chose a surgery that will involve a bone graft to promote bone regeneration, the team said. He's also hoping to reduce the arch in the foot by realigning and restructuring the bones.

John Huizinga, Yao's agent, did not immediately return a phone message, and nor did Yao issue a statement. Yao told the Xinhua News Agency this week that he planned to "fully recover" and had no plans to retire.

The decision for surgery was expected. The Rockets applied for a disabled player exception from the NBA a few weeks ago, betting that their center will miss next season as he recovers. The NBA agreed that Yao's return is unlikely and approved the request, freeing up about $5.7 million that the Rockets used to sign free agent Trevor Ariza from the Lakers.

Houston has also scrambled to find a center since free agency began and this week acquired 6-foot-11 David Andersen in a trade with Atlanta.

Yao has been consulting with doctors since late June, when the Rockets said he would be out indefinitely.

He suffered a hairline fracture in the foot in a playoff game on May 3 and the team initially said Yao would miss only 8-12 weeks. When doctors re-examined the injury about seven weeks later, they discovered that the injury had not healed and amended the prognosis.

Dr. Tom Clanton, the Rockets' team doctor, will perform the surgery.

"This combination of procedures should not only allow healing of his navicular stress fracture, but also improve the mechanics of his foot to reduce the stress on that bone and give him the best long-term prognosis," Clanton said in a statement.

He also said Cleveland Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas had a similar procedure in 2001 that allowed him to return to action. Ilgauskas missed 58 games in the 2000-01 season with the same injury and had surgery on Feb. 7, 2001. He returned to action on Dec. 4, 2001, after missing the first 17 games of the season.

Yao started 77 games in 2008-09, his most injury-free season since 2004-05, when he played in 80.

He sat out one game in November with soreness in the foot, but didn't have another problem with it until the playoffs. He led the Rockets past Portland in the first round -- Houston's first playoff series win since 1997 -- before hurting his foot late in Game 3 of the second round against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Yao said two days later that the injury wasn't as severe as other ones and that he wasn't overly concerned. He had missed the last 26 games of the 2007-08 with a stress fracture in the same foot. He had pins inserted and rushed his rehab to play in the Beijing Olympics.

Yao is due to make about $16 million next season and holds the option of returning to the Rockets for 2009-10. General manager Daryl Morey called Yao the "cornerstone" of the franchise before the team changed Yao's prognosis in June.

Yao recently purchased his former team, the financially troubled Shanghai Sharks, but said this week that was not an indication that he was planning an early retirement.

"I do not have any plans to retire and my doctors and I are very confident that I can fully recover and return to the stadium; the team and the acquisition has nothing to do with my injury," Yao said in an interview Friday with Xinhua.

Houston drafted Yao with the No. 1 overall pick in 2002. He averaged 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds as a rookie and quickly established himself as a perennial All-Star.

The injury issues began in the 2005-06 season, when he sat out 21 games with an infection in his left big toe. He broke a bone in his left foot near the end of that season and had surgery.

Yao then broke his right leg early in the 2006-07 season and missed 32 games, then suffered the stress fracture in his left foot in 2007-08.

The latest injury likely drops the Rockets out of contention next season and is the latest blow in its bid to re-establish itself among the NBA's elite teams.

Houston acquired Tracy McGrady in June 2004 and envisioned the two-time scoring champion joining Yao in a devastating inside-out threat. The Rockets went 146-74 when Yao and McGrady played together, but it happened so rarely over five seasons that it never mattered in the end.

McGrady ran into as many injuries as Yao. He underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee in February and was expected to miss up to 12 months. His contract expires after next season.

The Rockets acquired forward Ron Artest last summer with the hope of creating a "Big 3" that would vault Houston into championship contention. But now McGrady and Yao are out for months to come and Artest bolted for the Lakers a few weeks ago.

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