Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets’ All- Star center and a national icon in China, retired from the National Basketball Association today after foot and ankle fractures limited him to five games the past two seasons.
The 7-foot-6-inch Yao, the No. 1 pick in the 2002 NBA draft, told a news conference in Shanghai he had considered retirement since fracturing his left ankle during the last game he played in November against the Washington Wizards. It was at least the fifth fracture in his legs and feet since 2006, according to the state-run China Daily newspaper.
“In the past half-year, I have gone through an agonizing wait,” Yao, 30, said. “I have been thinking over and over. Today, I’m making a personal decision to finish my career as a basketball player and retire formally.”
Yao averaged 19 points and 9.2 rebounds per game in the NBA while anchoring the national team in China, where his image is inescapable on billboards and he is nicknamed the “Little Giant.” After signing sponsorship deals with companies including Apple Inc. (AAPL) and McDonald’s Corp (MCD), he amassed an estimated fortune of $150 million in 2010, according to the Hurun Rich List, an annual compilation of China’s wealthiest people.
Sports Illustrated in June ranked him the fifth-highest paid non-U.S. athlete in the world, with an annual income of $36 million.
Beyond basketball, he established the Yao Ming Foundation, which donated $2 million to victims of China’s Sichuan province earthquake in 2008, and advocated against AIDS discrimination in China for the United Nations.
“Yao Ming is absolutely a global icon,” David Shoemaker, chief executive of NBA China, said in an interview. “Not just an icon in China, but a global icon and ambassador for the game who will be remembered in so many different ways.”
Yao said he will work with the Shanghai Sharks, the team he played with early in his career and bought in 2009.
The news conference where Yao announced his retirement demonstrated his popularity. More than 300 reporters were accredited to attend the event, which was broadcast live as part of a five-hour special about his career on China Central Television’s sports channel, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.
‘Most Important Player’
Yao was an eight-time All-Star, even winning enough fan votes in 2011 after being out the entire previous season.
After joining the Rockets, Yao became “a transformational player and a testament to the globalization of our game,” NBA Commissioner David Stern said in a statement. Yao was “an extraordinary bridge between basketball fans in the United States and China,” he said.
Yao never won an NBA title and had only one playoff series victory, over the Portland Trailblazers, in 2009. The Chinese national team could not field enough strong players to support him, and it lost to Lithuania in the Olympic quarterfinals in 2004 and 2008.
He carried China’s flag in the Olympic opening ceremonies in 2004 and 2008. The latter games were held in Beijing.
“He’s the most important player in the NBA,” Daryl Morey, general manager of the Rockets, told CCTV before Yao’s announcement. Yao’s role opening up the game to the world was “unparalleled by anyone, ever,” he said.
Yao broke his left foot in February 2008, yet still played in the Beijing games that August. He fractured it again in the third game of the Rockets-Los Angeles Lakers Western Conference semifinal in 2009. The Rockets lost in the seventh game, and he missed the entire 2009-2010 season.
Yao’s obligations to both the Rockets and the national team may have contributed to his injuries, said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
“I think the Chinese have struggled a bit with the continued focus that national-team play has in their country and comes at the expense of Yao’s health and success,” Swangard said.
Yao was caught between “trying to serve two masters: the masters of the U.S. team that he played for and the masters of the Chinese government that had invested all that time, energy, and effort into the player that he was,” Swangard said.
‘Life Hasn’t Ended’
Yao was due to become a free agent July 1 and told state television in June that he still hoped to return to the NBA. His NBA salary for 2010-2011 was $17.7 million, the eighth-highest in the league at the time, and he also had sponsorships with companies including Reebok International Ltd., Coca-Cola Co. (KO) and T-Mobile USA Inc.
“In terms of opening up doors for Chinese basketball players to come to the NBA, or for the youth in China to believe that it’s possible to achieve the dream of being an NBA player, all that started from Yao,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said during a visit to Shanghai yesterday, according to China Daily.
For now, Yao will remain involved with the Shanghai Sharks, the team he led to a China Basketball Association title in 2002, he said in the news conference. The team was struggling financially when he bought it in 2009.
“I have said one day when my career as a professional basketball player ends, it would be a comma, not a full stop,” Yao said. “Life hasn’t ended. There are many things to do down the road.”
Yao opened Yao Restaurants in Houston and Shanghai and has invested in several companies, including Beijing UniStrong Science & Technology Co., Ltd., a satellite navigation and positioning services provider, and Top100.cn, a Chinese music website.
Yao, a Shanghai native and son of two professional basketball players, is married to Ye Li, a former women’s national player. Their daughter was born in May 2010.
Yao spurred Chinese interest in the NBA that may not be able to be replaced, said Sun Jian, a 30-year-old university teacher in Shanghai.
“After Michael Jordan left basketball, I stopped watching the NBA. That changed when Yao Ming appeared,” Jian said. “I don’t know how many years we’ll wait until the next Yao Ming comes along.”
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