"Your head, it's so ... shiny!" Getty Images

Yao Ming strode up onto the stage as gracefully as any 7'6" guy in a tuxedo and a bulky walking boot on his left foot could. Fresh from a visit to hometown Shanghai and a mysterious non-traditional medicine man, Yao was, for the first time since a fracture was discovered in his foot that forced a premature end to his season, walking without crutches.

"With Yao, we'd have as good a chance as anybody," said GM Daryl Morey wistfully, two days before the Rockets opened their playoff series against the Jazz. Morey stood inside Houston's Kingdom Builders Center, where Hall of Fame guard Calvin Murphy organized a Yao roast to raise funds for the center's charter high school.

The injury served a worthy purpose on this night, though. Former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, part of a six-man dais firing one-liners at Yao, had the black-tie dinner crowd rolling. "Congratulations on another great half season, Yao," Van Gundy said. "I have some friends who work for the IRS. They're investigating Yao because he claimed on his tax return to be a full-time employee."

Yao took the shots in stride and even returned a few, buoyed by a doctor's report that the fracture no longer could be detected on an X-ray. He said he plans to begin training hard to prepare for this summer's Beijing Olympicsand, next NBA season, to get Van Gundy's IRS friends off his back.

Check out what Mag Senior Writer Ric Bucher thinks about the Rockets' place in the West: