x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Premature retirement for China's top basketball star, Yao Ming

Observers ask if acceding to competing demands of country and team mean basketball star was stretched too thin and left with too little time to recover from injuries.

China's state sports machine was less than impressed when, in 2007, the injury-prone Yao turned up late for national team practice after his marriage to Ye Li, seen yesterday with their daughter Qin Lei. Carlos Barria / Reuters
China's state sports machine was less than impressed when, in 2007, the injury-prone Yao turned up late for national team practice after his marriage to Ye Li, seen yesterday with their daughter Qin Lei. Carlos Barria / Reuters

BEIJING // He was born to play basketball but Yao Ming, the first Asian player to become an all-star in America's National Basketball Association, announced his retirement from the game yesterday at the age of 30.

Rumours of his retirement had been circulating for weeks but official confirmation only came yesterday when Yao addressed a hall packed full of journalists in Shanghai - an announcement that Chinese state television broadcast live.

Speaking from behind an extra-high lectern in a five-star hotel in his home city, the 7ft 6in Houston Rockets player said he had reached his decision after suffering a succession of leg and foot injuries.

"Today is an important day for me and holds a special meaning for both my basketball career and my future," Yao said in his characteristic deep voice.

"At the end of last year I had to leave the court because I had a stress fracture in my left foot for the third time. The past six months were an agonising wait. I had been thinking about my future over and over, but today I am announcing my personal decision to formally retire as a basketball player."

Yao added that he planned to focus on his role as owner of the Shanghai Sharks, the team where he started his professional career and which he bought in 2009. He said he also intended to spend more time on his philanthropic work through his Yao Foundation.

While Yao won his nation's admiration for his grace and strength on the court, some fans and commentators have wondered if he might have had a longer and more successful career - winning an Olympic gold for China or an NBA championship ring - if he had not been stretched so thin in the name of national honour.

When Yao joined the Rockets in 2002, Chinese sport authorities demanded that he remain part of the national team as well, meaning he had little time to recover from injuries.

In 2007, when Yao turned up late to national team practice, having taken some time off to get married, China's massive state sports machine was unimpressed.

"No matter how lofty public welfare activities are, they can't be allowed to take first place in a player's life," an article in the China Sports Daily, a state-owned newspaper said.

"No matter how sweet personal life is, it can't be compared to the exultation of capturing glory for one's nation."

This week, an editorial in the Global Times, a state-owned English language newspaper, conceded that such commitments may have taken their toll even if they helped make him into the much loved, and wealthy (he routinely tops the Forbes' list of China's most powerful celebrities) figure he is in China today.

"His decision to represent China to play in the 2008 Beijing Olympics after an NBA season, at the risk of ruining his career due to worsening injuries, won him more respect among Chinese fans," the editorial said.

Yao's early retirement (NBA players normally retire in their mid-30s but some go on to play past 40) is perhaps all the more surprising because in many ways he was born to play basketball.

Both his parents were successful professional basketball players measuring more than 6ft and, when they came to retire, sport officials convinced them to marry in order to produce the perfect basketball player.

When Yao was born weighing 5kg, nearly double the size of the average newborn, and with huge hands and feet, it seemed they had done that.

But according to his former coaches Yao was not a natural and it took years of training and handwork for him to eventually excel.

In 2002, at the age of 21, however, he led the Shanghai Sharks to their first championship in 50 years and amid huge scepticism over his ability to appeal to US fans and deliver on the court, the Rockets picked Yao first in the NBA draft, the first international player to be selected first overall without having previously played US college basketball.

Yet, deliver he did, helping the Rockets to reach the first round of the play-offs in the two seasons after his rookie year and the second round of the play-offs in 2009, the first time since 1997.

He also won over US fans and attracted hundreds of millions of new fans for the NBA in Asia, viewers many experts say the league might lose now Yao has gone and China has produced no other player of his skill.

Shortly after Yao's announcement the NBA commissioner, Davis Stern, released a statement praising him as a "transformational" player.

"His dominant play and endearing demeanour along with his extensive humanitarian efforts have made him an international fan favourite and proven an extraordinary bridge between basketball fans in the US and China," he said.