AUSTIN - With Yao Ming's sore left big toe keeping him off the court Friday, Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy pointed directly at the culprit he suspected of causing Yao's ongoing problems.
It's got to be the shoes.
"This is a reoccurring issue with Yao's feet, and he's not getting the shoe on time from Reebok," Van Gundy said. "He is not getting the shoe fitted properly so he doesn't have reoccurring issues with his toe and feet. Yao's got to be more demanding of this company. He's not getting the results he wants. It puts him at risk.
"It's the same issue here this year. Nothing's changed. It's problematic. Some things can't be prevented. This one I think can be with more attention to detail on the shoe he's getting from the company that really should care about him."
Yao, who along with the Philadelphia 76ers' Allen Iverson is one of Reebok's top athlete-endorsers, missed Friday's practice and will sit out today's workout with a bruised left big toe.
Rockets trainer Keith Jones said Yao could return to practice Monday.
But Reebok officials said the shoes being redesigned for Yao are not late and that he is playing in the ATR Pump shoes he prefers with the revisions he wanted.
"The product guys here at Reebok work very closely, not only with Yao but with all our athletes to make sure the products they wear are sufficient to perform in," Reebok spokeswoman Denise Kaigler said. "The feedback taken is very specific and incorporated into the product."
Reebok's Kevin Leary, who works specifically with Yao, said the Rockets center, like most big men, requested the collar of his shoe be raised with stiffer foam. If Yao's problems had been caused by sliding inside the shoe, Leary said the stiffer, higher collar might have prevented the foot moving within the shoe. But Leary did not know the nature of the injury or its cause.
Yao, 7-6 and 310 pounds, lost the nail on the toe last October, leading to an infection and eventually to surgery Dec. 19. He missed 21 games because of the condition. He missed the season's final four games after breaking his left foot.
Yao has used a variety of orthotics and linings in his shoes, but because of the injuries on both sides of his foot, the fit is crucial.
"This is a repetitive thing," Van Gundy said. "It plagued him last year and cost us dearly. We're staring down the same thing. Someone has to step forward, take control and get it corrected. It's important for the Rockets, important for Yao Ming and important for Yao's teammates. It's problematic. It's a huge concern, and it's disappointing.
"Last year started the same way. We never got it right, and ultimately he had to have surgery. Anybody who dismisses this as something minor is overlooking the bigger problem. Why does this continue to happen? Why don't we solve this issue yet? Somebody has to step forward with Yao's best interest at heart."
Yao, 26, developed his most recent problem during Wednesday's morning practice but practiced again that night and the next morning. No Reebok representative has been to the training camp since the problems began, although Leary said he would have been in Austin if the Rockets had requested he make the trip.
Yao's agent, John Huizinga, who is the primary contact for Yao with Reebok, said he does not believe Yao's current foot problem is related to his shoes.
"The fact of the matter is, he is wearing the same shoes now he wore all through the World Championships," Huizinga said. "It doesn't have much to do with the current situation. He is wearing his favorite shoes, the ones he loves the most.
"They continually try to adapt the shoes to whatever is going on at the time. I'm not saying nothing could be done to make them better. I'm saying I don't think shoes are inherently the problem. I don't know where Jeff is coming from. Maybe he (Yao) is allergic to Jeff Van Gundy. For him to pick out the shoes, I don't know what he's talking about."
Yao tried shoes this summer in Shanghai and sent them back for several revisions. He had yet to receive the newest pair through Friday's practices.
Huizinga said he "shares Jeff's frustration," but he said opponents have routinely stomped Yao's foot as a way to defend against him and that the toenail has been damaged so often it does not grow in correctly.
"You could have him out there in steel work boots," Huizinga said. "But they're big and they're heavy and it's tough to play basketball in them. If a part of your body is injured enough, it takes awhile to come back."
Yao had blood drained from underneath the nail Wednesday. He is being treated with antibiotics to prevent infection, although there is no sign of one yet.
"It's not serious at all," Jones said. "A couple of days, he's going to be fine. We're just playing it smart."
But Van Gundy called for more preventive action.
"Yao has to take a vested interest in being so demanding it gets solved," Van Gundy said.
I think Reebok B-Ball Sneakers suck. If I were Yao I would have 1 of their Running Shoes (Trinity) moded with an anke brace and TPU toe-shell to protect up front. Let's just hope he doesnt have much longer left on his contract so he can endorse something else.