Ming dynasty comes to an end
Yao Ming, one of China's first truly international sports stars, yesterday formally announced his long-awaited retirement from competitive basketball, but insisted the move was 'a comma, not a full stop'.
'Today I need to make a personal decision as a basketball player,' the NBA star and three-time Olympian told a packed press conference in his hometown of Shanghai that was broadcast live on national television and streamed on the internet. 'I will stop my basketball career and retire.'
Yao, 30, has been plagued by injuries and only played five games for the Houston Rockets in the past two seasons. He had been widely tipped to retire after suffering a stress fracture in his left foot in December. 'The past six months have been a very painful wait for me,' he said.
While Yao repeatedly mentioned plans for the future, he kept his cards close to his chest as what his next move would be.
'I have been preparing for this day for the past 17 or 18 years,' he said. 'It has come fast, very fast, but I have been preparing for it.'
He stressed his commitment to youth causes, saying he hoped to use his ownership of the Shanghai Sharks - where he started his own career, and eventually bought in 2009 - as a platform to promote sport among young people.
'Although I am leaving the court, I will not leave basketball,' he said. The son of professional basketball players recalled receiving his first basketball at the age of four, playing his first tournament at nine, competing in youth basketball at 14, before finally 'getting my first number on my back' with his debut for the Shanghai Sharks at 16.
However, he skirted an invitation from a Dutch journalist to manage the Netherlands team.
'As I know from my own coaches, coaching is not an easy job to do,' he said. 'It requires a lot of patience and energy, and they need to sacrifice a lot of their family time.' He added that owning the Sharks was 'already keeping me pretty busy'.
Dressed in a dark business suit and matching shirt spruced up with a silken bright-green tie, Yao remained largely calm and unemotional throughout.
Throughout his seven-minute speech, Yao spoke almost entirely in Putonghua, but switched to English to give thanks to the Texan city that had become his second home.
'Nine years ago I came to Houston a young, tall, skinny player,' he said. 'The entire city and team turned me into a grown man, not only a basketball player. Also I had my first daughter there. I feel like I'm a Houstonian, and will always be with you.' And he ended by pitching a bone to the home audience, crying out, 'Zha-zha nong' - thank you in the Shanghai dialect.
Yao visibly lightened up during a later question-and-answer session, during which he joked with his American translator, who has been working with him since Yao moved to the NBA in 2002.
Answering questions from overseas media in near-flawless English, Yao also demonstrated his colleague's usefulness had largely run its course.
Yao's one-year-old daughter, Qin Lei, was predictably less composed. Several times during her father's speech she could be seen attempting to clamber onto the table in front of her front-row seat, and she doodled on a notepad with her mother, Ye Li , while Shanghai Municipal Sports Bureau director Li Yuyi paid tribute to the sports star.
Asked if he had plans to launch his own line in sportswear, Yao jested that his various advertising deals could make that difficult.
'I think I need to get my name back from others before I can think about starting my own brand,' he said.
Ahead of the press conference, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told CCTV he believed Yao was 'obviously the most important player in the NBA' and 'not replaceable' on the team.
'What he has done to open up basketball to the world has been unmatched by anybody,' he said.
Given an opportunity to pose a question to Yao during the main event, Morey asked for some recruiting advice.
'Are there any other good players in China that you can refer to us now that you are going to retire?' he asked his departing star.
Unable to resist the chance to take an impish dig at his boss, Yao joked back in English that the club would need to agree his scouting fee first.
'Then we can talk about players,' he said, grinning.