BEIJING - The expected retirement of Chinese basketball star Yao Ming risks diminishing the NBA's once-burgeoning popularity in the country, with many local fans saying they would no longer watch NBA games.
Yao's expected retirement comes at an already difficult time for the NBA, with the 2011-12 season in jeopardy due to a dispute between teams and the players' union.
"What's the point of watching NBA now?" asked an online user called Lubingxia on Sina Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like site.
An online poll on Weibo by Monday lunchtime showed that 57 percent of respondents would stop watching the NBA after Yao's retirement.
The 7-foot-6 (2.25-meter) center is expected to announce at a news conference scheduled for July 20 that he is retiring from the NBA after nine seasons. He boosted the popularity of the basketball league in China and throughout Asia, spiking merchandise sales and TV ratings for games after the Houston Rockets made him the top overall pick in the 2002 draft.
But Yao, who turns 31 in September, has been plagued by leg and foot injuries, missing 250 regular-season games over the past six seasons.
"He is one of the most influential people in today's society _ especially to those born in the '80s," said Ren Bo, a 25-year-old sports trainer. "It's probably going to be a while until we see another Yao Ming."
Yahoo! Sports first reported that Yao is retiring. A person with direct knowledge of his decision confirmed to The Associated Press that Yao decided the risk of another injury and subsequent rehabilitation was too great.
The news upset fans in China, where he has been praised as a role model for the past decade, and strengthened that image by carrying his country's flag during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"It is Yao Ming who makes the kids in China like basketball and it's also Yao Ming who makes the kids know how a real professional basketball player should be," said Xu Jicheng, a longtime basketball commentator.
"I'm not thrilled about his retirement, but I will still support him. Millions of Chinese still idolize him," said 24-year-old Guo Ju Fei, a small business owner.
Some online comments conveyed sadness that his retirement would mean the end of a great era and that they would not get to see him at the 2012 London Olympics. There was also some anger that his injuries kept him from reaching his peak.
"I still haven't recovered from the fact that Yao is retiring. The feeling is worse than being dumped," wrote one online user going by the name of Xie Chen.
Others hoped a "miracle" would occur and that Yao would change his mind.
Many comments expressed gratitude to the player for being a Chinese icon and an athlete they could be proud of.
Online comments and newspapers also singled out his wit, humor and humility.
"Yao Ming is like an ambassador. With a basketball player's height, a comedian's humor, post-80s generation's freshness ... one does not know how many foreigners' impressions of the Chinese he has changed," wrote the Chinese Business Morning View, based in Shenyang city in northeastern Liaoning province.