SHANGHAI (AP) — Wracked by injuries that curtailed his playing time in the NBA, Yao Ming called it quits on his basketball career Wednesday during a packed news conference in his hometown.
The Houston Rockets center and No. 1 draft pick in the 2002 NBA draft confirmed weeks of speculation about his retirement by opening with a simple statement: “I will formally end my career.”
He promised, though, that he wouldn’t stay far away from the sport that made him a household name in China. His impact expanded the NBA’s influence into the world’s most populous country, creating lucrative merchandise sales for the league and TV ratings that skyrocketed whenever the Rockets played.
The 7-foot-6 (2.29-meter) Yao played eight seasons in the NBA, but missed an estimated 250 regular-season games over the past six years.
“Today is an important day for me and holds a special meaning for both my basketball career and my future,” the 30-year-old Yao said in comments translated into English.
A third stress fracture in his left foot at the end of last year virtually took the decision out of his hands.
“My past six months were an agonizing wait. I had been thinking (about my future) over and over,” he said. “Today I am announcing a personal decision: ending my career as a basketball player and officially retire. But one door is closing and another one is opening.”
Yao said he will return to work with his former Chinese team, the Shanghai Sharks, with the possibility of becoming general manager. He already owns the club and wants to contribute more.
“My playing career started with the club. I hope I can do something for it,” Yao said.
He also plans to continue his philanthropic work with his Yao Foundation.
Houston general manager Daryl Morey attended the conference and had to get permission from the NBA to attend the formal farewell as the lockout prohibits contact with players.
Morey said he was tired from the long trip for the media conference but “I would be sorry if I wasn’t here.”
“It’s a big moment,” Morey said. “Yao had a sense of humor, a great attitude and sense of working together. I hope we can continue his culture in the NBA.”
NBA commissioner David Stern sent a statement describing Yao as a “transformational player and a testament to the globalization of our game.”
“His dominant play and endearing demeanor along with his extensive humanitarian efforts have made him an international fan favorite and provided an extraordinary bridge between basketball fans in the United States and China,” Stern said.
Yao entered the Grand Shanghai Ballroom dressed in a dark suit, after the master of ceremonies led a countdown to his arrival.
Yao’s wife, Ye Li, and their 14-month-old daughter, Yao Qinlei, and Yao’s parents, Yao Zhiyuan and Fang Fengdi, were in the room. Qinlei was dressed in a red qipao, a traditional Chinese dress. He later appeared with his family on the stage to the applause and cheers of the room.
He thanked his family, friends, coaches in China and in Houston and fellow competitors like Shaquille O’Neal “for making me a better player.”
“I will be always with you,” he added. “Thank-you.”
Later, Yao was asked by a Dutch journalist whether he might consider coaching in the Netherlands, to which he politely declined, smiling. He said he had no immediate plans to start his own clothing or athletic equipment lines, either, but didn’t rule it out in the future.
Despite news of Yao’s pending retirement being out for several weeks, the actual announcement was treated with the pomp that Yao’s appearance in China brings. Media were asked to sign up weeks in advance for the conference and show up two hours early Wednesday to pass through airport-style security checks.
The room was crammed at the back with dozens of television cameras and black-suited security men outnumbered the hundreds of media at various stages. China Central Television was to carry five continuous hours of Yao coverage beginning at 1 p.m. local time, including 90 minutes live from the media conference.
Yao’s contract expired after last season, and the Rockets said they were interested in re-signing him if he came back healthy. Yao said in April in China that his professional future depended on his recovery from a stress fracture in his left ankle.
Selected to the NBA All-Star team eight times, Yao averaged 19 points and 9.2 rebounds. After his rookie season, Yao helped the Rockets reach the playoffs in the next two seasons.
Yao played in 77 games in the 2008-09 season, when Houston reach the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
But Yao broke his left foot in a postseason game against the Los Angeles Lakers, and underwent complex surgery that sidelined him for the entire 2009-10 season. He lasted only five games at the start of the 2010-11 season, before breaking his left ankle. He underwent surgery in January, and was lost again for the season.
Yao had played six years with the Chinese national team before joining the Rockets, and was already a star in his home country.
He carried the Olympic torch through Tiananmen Square and his country’s flag during the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
He also donated $2 million and set up a foundation to rebuild schools in the wake of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.
A commentary in the Beijing News on Wednesday said filling Yao’s shoes in China and the NBA will not be easy — there is no other potential Chinese player ready to emerge as an NBA star.
“Since Yao Ming made his first appearance in NBA, the Chinese media have been in search of ‘the next Yao Ming’,” the newspaper said. “Even after Yao Ming retires, the next Yao Ming will not emerge despite repeated calls.”
It said the next Yao Ming is “like Yao Ming used to be, hidden under a stone.”
Wang Shuo, a designer at a software company in Beijing, compared Yao with China’s version of Michael Jordan when he heard the news in Beijing.
“He helped many Chinese develop a passion for basketball and many people will stop watching after his retirement,” Wang said. “Yao is not just a great player but also a great person. He has made this country proud with his nonprofit efforts and humble personality.”
Hu Libo, a high school mathematics teacher in central Beijing, said he regrets that there is no one to replace Yao in China.
“The saddest part … is not him leaving the game, but the fact that there is no one to pass the torch on to,” Hu said. “I really wish we had other Yao Ming-like players in the NBA that the Chinese could root for. We have to be realistic. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before another great player will emerge.”
Associated Press writers Scott McDonald and Chi-Chi Zhang in Beijing and news assistant Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this story.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.