China's towering basketball star Yao Ming has announced his decision to retire from the National Basketball Association after a series of injuries made it impossible for him to continue to compete. Yao Ming says he's not leaving basketball, however, and will continue to work for his former Chinese team, the Shanghai Sharks as well as with his charity group the Yao Foundation.
At 2.3 meters, Yao Ming's height was one of his biggest assets. It helped him rise through China's national sports system to the NBA. But his massive stature was also the cause of the wear and tear on his leg and ankle that forced him to retire.
Yao Ming's career in photos
Plagued by injuries
Yao Ming spent his entire eight-year NBA career playing for the Houston Rockets, who made him their top draft pick in 2002. Injuries forced him to miss hundreds of games during that period. During his last season, he played only five games after suffering a stress fracture in his left foot for the third time.
Speaking at a farewell news conference on Wednesday that was broadcast live on Chinese national television, Yao said the past six months have been agonizing as he thought through his decision.
"Today I have retired, but as one door closes, another door gradually opens and a brand new life is waiting for me outside that door," Yao said. "Although I have retired from the court, I will never leave basketball. The Shanghai Oriental Sharks Basketball Club will be the extension of my basketball career. I am running the club with the knowledge that I have learned over the years.”
Despite his injuries, Yao Ming averaged 19 points and nine rebounds, leading the Rockets to four post-season playoff appearances. He made the NBA's All-Star team eight times.
In a video message played at the press conference, NBA Commissioner David Stern called Yao Ming a "transformational player", adding that he was a testament to the globalization of the game of basketball.
Yao Ming's success not only made him an international superstar, but helped expand the NBA's fan base into China and other parts of Asia.
Brook Larmer, author of Operation Yao Ming: The Chinese Sports Empire, American Big Business and the Making of an NBA Superstar“ says the Chinese basketball star was not only a bridge for sports between the U.S. and China but also for business and diplomacy.
“It's a slightly bittersweet end to really an amazing journey and I think we have to remember how unusual this was when it happened [when Yao Ming made it into the NBA]", said Larmer. "Yao Ming was born right at the beginning of China's great expansion in 1980. Really his rise parallels China own rise in the world and certainly from the beginning he was seen as more than just a basketball player.”
Sharing the love
Outpourings of support for Yao Ming came quickly online and at his farewell press conference.
In one posting on the social media site Weibo, a fan of Yao Ming said the player was always an influence in his life and childhood. Another remarked that Yao carried with him the pride of the Chinese people and remarked that he would be a hero even in retirement.
In comments earlier this week, NBA star Kobe Bryant praised Yao for inspiring young Chinese basketball players.
"In terms of opening up doors or for Chinese basketball players to come to the NBA or for the youth here in China to believe that it's possible to achieve the dream of being an NBA player - all that started from Yao," said Bryant.
Larmer says Chinese athletes such as Yao Ming and tennis star Li Na, who recently became the first Chinese tennis player to win a Grand Slam tournament, have managed to be trail blazers who broke free from the rigid mold of China's national sports system. But that does not mean that others will follow in their footsteps.
“I don't think in basketball, however, that there will be many other Yao Ming's," Larmer said. "I think he is unique and probably the last, the one and only player of his sort that will ever come out of China.”
China’s state-managed sports system still focuses on recruiting exceptionally tall children to put through years of strictly regimented training. Despite the immense interest in basketball in China, Larmer says that until the state system changes, it is unlikely that other players will be able to replicate Yao Ming's success in the NBA.