ALEX CHADWICK, host:

The biggest man on the hottest team in basketball is down with an injury. The man is Yao Ming. The team is the Houston Rockets. The injury is a stress fracture to the foot.

Yao is the leading Chinese player in the NBA, and so this is not just a sports story, because as Tom Goldman reports, he's the poster boy for this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing.

TOM GOLDMAN: Call it the tarsal navicular bone break felt round the world, starting in Houston, where Rockets general manager Daryl Morey reacted to the news of Yao Ming's stress fracture the way most local fans probably did.

Mr. DARYL MOREY (General Manager, Houston Rockets): That's a pretty big swing from a high to a low.

GOLDMAN: The Rockets have not lost a game in February, and up until yesterday one of the main reasons was seven foot six inch Yao Ming. An all-star in each of his six NBA seasons, Yao was playing the best basketball of his career. And the Rockets were in playoff position in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Then, over the past two weeks, pain in his left foot that turned out to be a fracture of the tarsal navicular, the bone between the ankle joint and the mid-foot.

Tom Clanton is the Rockets team doctor.

Dr. TOM CLANTON: He has not had one specific injury event to the left ankle that would really point to that being the start of this.

GOLDMAN: But rather an accumulation of stresses on the bone caused by a massive man constantly running and jumping.

For 27-year-old Yao Ming, this is the third straight season with a significant foot or leg injury. It's causing NBA pundits to wonder whether the player nicknamed The Great Wall of Yao actually is that sturdy. And it's causing Yao a great deal of frustration.

(Soundbite of sigh)

Mr. YAO MING (Houston Rockets): I hate to say again, because I mean it's happened again. Hopefully this is the last one. I can't worry about what happened yesterday. But I can - maybe I can change tomorrow.

GOLDMAN: The future is more than the Houston Rockets' playoff hopes this season, a lot more. Yao Ming is the most popular athlete in China. He's a cornerstone of the NBA's global expansion. He's expected to be one of the faces of this summer's Beijing Olympics, if he can play.

Whether Yao has surgery of chooses to heal using a cast and crutches instead, recovery time is estimated at about four months. The games begin in just under five and a half months. Yao Ming's race to recover could be a kind of pre-Olympic event. Dr. Clanton said yesterday he likes Yao's chances.

Dr. CLANTON: I don't think that I would want words put in my mouth that he's going to miss the Olympics. That's certainly not our expectation.

GOLDMAN: Despite a hopeful prognosis, Yao considered the possibility that he might not be fully healed in August.

If I cannot play in the Olympics for my country this time, he said, it'll be the biggest loss in my career.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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