Retired but not forgotten: Yao Ming calls it a day
SHANGHAI (AP) — A large scroll behind the player who brought China to the NBA and the NBA to China summed up the occasion.
"Ming xie," it said in large Chinese characters that, loosely translated, mean "Yao Ming, thanks, the end."
Yao, with teary eyes at times and dressed in an equally somber black suit, closed the book Wednesday on his eight-year career with the Houston Rockets, conceding that injuries finally got the best of him.
"My past six months were an agonizing wait. I had been thinking (about my future) over and over," the 30-year-old Yao said in comments translated into English. "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 would 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.
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 crowd.
"I will be always with you," he said.
Yao entered the Grand Shanghai Ballroom after the master of ceremonies led a countdown to his arrival, months after his last game. He thanked a host of people — his family, former coaches, even players like Shaquille O'Neal — "for making me a better player."
But the basketball world — from the sprawling NBA merchandise shops in Beijing and other Asian cities to the average American basketball fans who grew to love the 7-foot-6 center's pleasant demeanor and desire to use his popularity to help others — maybe owe him a word of thanks.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey was among those singing Yao's praises Wednesday. Morey made the long trip from Houston, needing permission from the NBA to attend the formal farewell because the lockout prohibits contact with players.
Morey said 20 hours on planes was tiring but "I would be sorry if I wasn't here."
"It's a big moment," Morey added. "Yao had a sense of humor, a great attitude and sense of working together. I hope we can continue his culture in the NBA."
Yao ranks second in Rockets history in blocks (920), sixth in total points (9,247) and sixth in total rebounds (4,494).
"This is a sad day for me as well as the entire Houston Rockets organization," Rockets owner Leslie Alexander said in a statement. "Yao Ming was a great basketball player, but he's distinguished himself as an even better person. From the moment he arrived in Houston with unprecedented expectations, he handled himself with poise, dignity, purpose and pride well beyond his years."
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.
Basketball gained a foothold in the world's most populous nation through TV broadcasts and media coverage of Yao, while attendance at Rockets games increased 55 percent after he joined the team. And he became the most recognizable face — usually smiling — of any athlete in Asia.
"In terms of opening up doors 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," Kobe Bryant said on a recent promotional trip to China.
Yao played eight seasons in the NBA, but missed an estimated 250 regular-season games over the past six years. A third stress fracture in his left foot at the end of last year essentially took the decision out of his hands.
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.
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 the 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 years.
Yao played in 77 games in the 2008-09 season, when Houston reached 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 plans to continue his philanthropic work with his Yao Foundation. He donated $2 million and set up a charity to rebuild schools in the wake of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.
AP Sports Writer Chris Duncan in Houston, Associated Press writers Scott McDonald and Chi-Chi Zhang in Beijing and news assistant Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this story.