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Yao Ming Retiring? Chinese Fans Hope Not Yet

By Jaime FlorCruz and Haolan Hong, CNN
In recent years, Yao Ming has struggled with foot and ankle injuries.
In recent years, Yao Ming has struggled with foot and ankle injuries.
  • NEW: Yao's agent tells CNN he will hold news conference on July 20 to discuss his future
  • Yao Ming was the NBA's top overall draft in 2002
  • One Chinese media outlet says Yao did not announce his retirement
  • The 30-year-old basketball player has been plagued with injuries in recent years

Beijing (CNN) -- Yao Ming fans in China reacted with shock and disbelief when they learned from U.S. media reports Friday night that their basketball idol has decided to retire.

Fans took to the Internet Friday to express their feelings about the basketball star, who plays with the Houston Rockets in the NBA.

"I did not expect his retirement to come so soon!" said a Netizen called Yilubaijiahei in a Sina Weibo microblog.

What does retirement mean for fans?

Another person who went by the name Tuzitouda in another tweet wrote: "I feel a little bit of sadness. If Big Yao retires, it is not only the end of an era, but also the end of my NBA-syndrome including those seasons when Yao played with the Rockets."

Major news portals in China put the news on their front pages.

"The U.S. media say Yao has formally decided to retire, Chinese superstar says goodbye to NBA," reads the headline of Tencent Sports.

But Sina Sports, a section of Sina. com, one of China's biggest web portals, says its reporter reached Zhang Mingji soon after hearing the media reports.

Zhang, who is one of Yao's agents, said Yao did not announce his retirement and did not inform the NBA and the Houston Rockets that he was doing so, as reported by the U.S. media.

Yao's agent told CNN that he is giving a news conference in Shanghai on July 20 to talk about "his future career plans."

Chinese sports writers and fans believe that Yao's retirement, of course, will happen sooner or later, although they hope it will be later.

They hope the superstar could still play not only in the NBA but for the Chinese national team in the London Olympics next year.

The Shanghai native, who stands at 7-feet, 6-inches, was the NBA's top overall draft in 2002, when he was signed by Houston Rockets.

He is one of the most successful overseas players in the league. Voted an All-Star player eight times, Yao has chalked up a career average of 19 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. His field-goal percentage was 52.4.

In recent years, however, he struggled with foot and ankle injuries. He missed the 2009-2010 season. After playing only five games, he missed that last season, when he suffered a stress fracture on his left ankle.

Yao has been undergoing treatment and training in recent months, but doubts about whether he could make a comeback persists.

When asked about his future prospects, Yao himself was reticent.

In an interview with a CCTV sportscaster last month, Yao said: "I don't know if I would join some champion team in the future. I don't even know if I can play again."

Yao revealed that his left ankle injury was far from healed. "Walking or jogging is okay... but I need to get 80 percent of my strength back to play. I have got only 30 percent at most now."

Last month, Yao brought his one-year-old daughter Amy to China for the first time since her birth in the United States.

Yao said Amy is one incentive for him to return to the NBA.

Yao told CCTV: "I wish she could watch me play and even win a championship, not only see through video highlights how her dad played before. She is definitely a big motivation for me to continue my role as a player, although my foot still needs a lot of treatment to meet the demands of the game."

The 30-year-old Yao sounded mellow about this future in NBA. "A championship ring has become not so important in my plans," he said in the interview. "My main thought for the next 10 years is to look after my family and continue my community activities."

The basketball superstar has set up the Yao Ming Foundation which he uses to attract donations and raise funds for charity, including building schools and supporting education.

He has also joined campaigns to curb environmental degradation and promote animal rights, including multi-media campaign to curb consumption of shark's fins, which are considered a gourmet delicacy in China and Asia.

If Yao retires, he would leave behind giant footprints in world of basketball and business. He helped expand the popularity of sports globally and specially in China.

Yao is the icon of China's basketball. He was the pillar of the national men's team for many years, playing in world championships and the Olympics. He is also China's goodwill ambassador, the most recognizable face of China overseas.

Thanks to Yao, the NBA has been successful in China. NBA games are televised in many TV and cable channels through the season. NBA stars have a big following in the mainland. Some like Jason Kidd and Shane Battier, like Yao, make a lot of money here from endorsing basketball sneakers and sports apparels produced by local companies, like Li Ning and PEAK.

Yao Ming currently endorses Chinese brands such as China Unicom CDMA and China Life Insurance, as well as global brands such as Pepsi, Gatorade sports drinks, Visa, McDonald's and Apple computers.