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Yao Ming retirement marks end of an era

By Steven Jiang, CNN
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End of the Yao Ming era
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Yao told a packed press conference that he'll end his athletic career
  • Yao's been voted an NBA All-Star player eight times
  • The league paid Yao $93 million during his career and millions in endorsements

Shanghai (CNN) -- With a short statement, China's tallest superstar Wednesday made it official that he has quit playing basketball, after weeks of intense media speculation on his future.

"I will end my athletic career and formally retire from the game of basketball," Yao Ming, who turns 31 in September, told a packed press conference in his hometown.

The Shanghai native, who stands at 7 feet and 6 inches (2.29 meters), blamed persistent injuries for cutting short his decorated career on the court.

"At the end of last year, I once again had a stress fracture in my left foot and had to sit out of basketball," he said. "Since then, like many friends who cared about me, I waited and hoped that I could return."

China bids farewell to Yao

The nicknamed "Little Giant" was signed by the Houston Rockets in 2002 as the top overall pick of the National Basketball Association in North America.

Since then Yao has scored an average of 19 points per game and been voted an NBA All-Star player eight times, turning himself to one of the most successful overseas players in the league.

Over the past two years, however, foot and ankle injuries forced him to miss the 2009-2010 season and sit out most of last season after only five games.

Despite the recent setback, the former Houston Rockets center made a special point in English about thanking his adopted hometown.

"Nine years ago, I came to Houston as a young, tall, skinny player," he said. "The entire city and the team changed me to a grown man -- not only as a basketball player but also I had my daughter there."

Yao's one-year-old daughter Amy, smiling at a wall of flashing cameras, almost outshone her famous father when the whole family -- including Yao's wife and parents -- took center stage.

Her potential birthplace was a contentious topic in China last year, as supporters debated the implications of their hero, who had led the national team into world championships and the Olympics, becoming the father of an American citizen.

At the press event, amid high praises from sports officials, Yao fielded the rapid-fire questions from journalists -- ranging from his most memorable game to his daughter's first "Daddy" -- with his usual brevity and dry humor.

Yao Ming says farewell to the NBA
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"On earth," he responded when a local reporter asked him where he planned to live in retirement.

Now the owner of his former club, Shanghai Sharks, Yao depicted a busy post-retirement schedule filled with work involving coaching, charity and commerce (too busy to help improve the Netherlands' national team, as suggested by a Dutch reporter).

He also appealed to Chinese fans to continue watching basketball, amid worries that his departure would diminish the nation's interest in the game. The NBA franchise has made huge inroads in China thanks to Yao's popularity.

The league paid Yao $93 million during his nine-year career. He also has earned an estimated $25 million in endorsement deals for local products as well as global brands such as Apple, McDonald's and Visa.

To his admirers, however, Yao's multifaceted role as a sport star, national idol and cultural ambassador simply makes him invaluable.

Hong Nanli was the only journalist allowed on stage when she presented Yao with a special gift: A large print of a photograph chosen from several thousand she had taken of him since he was a teenage athlete.

"I was his fan even before he became a star," said the 73-year-old sports photographer for the Oriental Sports Daily newspaper. "When I learned about his retirement, I felt a sense of loss -- we won't see the 'Little Giant' on the court again."

The star himself sounded more optimistic -- and a bit philosophical -- when CNN asked him: When are we going to see next Yao Ming in the NBA?

"I followed somebody's footprints -- Chinese players in the league ahead of me," he said. "It's always taking some legacy from older players -- you get it, you gain experience from that and make your own success."

"I believe in the future there will be more Chinese players following our footprints and moving even further."