SHANGHAI, July 20 (Xinhua) -- With 26 screws inserted in his left foot, the world-famous Chinese NBA player Yao Ming said farewell to the basketball courts at 30, an age when a man is just about to embrace the prime time of his career.
Yao's injury-forced retirement, which he officially announced Wednesday but had been revealed by media several days earlier, has sadden numerous Chinese basketball fans and prompted them to question who will continue Yao's legend.
"Today I announce a personal decision: I end my career as a basketball player and officially retire," Yao said at a press conference held at 2 p.m. at the Kerry Hotel in his hometown, Pudong in Shanghai.
"I had to leave the court when I suffered a stress fracture in my left foot for the third time at the end of last year. The past six months were an agonizing wait. I have been thinking (about my future) over and over," said the 2.26-meter Houston Rockets center, dressed in a dark suit.
Chinese expressed their regrets, support, and blessings to Yao, recalled his humor and modesty, and eulogized his sophisticated sports skills and dedication to philanthropy.
Noticeably, many Chinese have shifted their attention to Yao's successor. Thousands of Weibo users asked "Who is the next Yao Ming?" or simply declared "I'm longing for the next Yao."
Yao, who will turn 31 in September, played for eight seasons in the NBA after being the top overall pick in the 2002 draft. He averaged 19 points and 9.2 rebounds and has been named in the NBA All-star team eight times.
INSPIRES A GENERATION
On Weibo, the Chinese twitter-like microblogging site, about 1.2 million comments concerning Yao's retirement had been posted as of 5 p.m..
"Now, an era has ended. No matter how great an athlete is, he will feel extremely helpless when confronted with injuries. I believe Yao will try his best to help boost the development of basketball in China after his retirement. Bless Yao Ming," Zhou Yafei, a Chinese professional swimmer, said in her Weibo post.
"I feel I've lost part of my life. He inspired me to conquer all difficulties in my life in the past years," said David Zhang, a die-hard fan of Yao in his 30's in Nanjing, capital city of the eastern Jiangsu Province.
In 2002, when Yao moved into the NBA, Zhang quit his job as a middle school teacher and began cramming for the fierce national postgraduate qualifying examination.
"At that time, I saw Yao's first game in the NBA on TV. He scored zero and appeared awkward. I felt we shared a similar situation that we both had to start from scratch and face much uncertainty," Zhang said, adding that he watched nearly every game in which Yao played.
However, two years after Zhang successfully obtained a master degree and became a news reporter as he'd dreamed, Yao chose to end his once-glorious professional basketball career.
"It's really sad. Watching Yao Ming's game is the collective memory of me and my bros, even a generation of Chinese youth. But I totally understand him, as he said he didn't want to play with his daughter while using crutches in the future," he said.
For Jin Yifeng, a 25-year-old fan of Yao in Beijing, what has inspired him most about his idol is Yao's perseverance on the court and patriotism.
"He's more a warrior than an athlete. He sweated blood in the game in spite of endless injuries," Jin said.
"In addition, Yao was always ready to go back home when his country needed him," he said. Under Yao's leadership, the Chinese national basketball team managed to reach the Olympic quarterfinals for twice in the past decade.
Yao has undoubtedly become a national hero for a generation of young Chinese. However, unlike the war heroes worshipped by the older generation, Yao has been admired as an "ordinary person" who obtained success while also suffering frustrations, said Liu Shan, associate professor with College of Communication and Art of the Shanghai-based Tongji University.
Yao, whose face is perhaps the most recognizable Chinese one worldwide, has become a bridge between the east and west. He helped the NBA explore a promising market in the world's most populous country, and conveyed the likeable image of Chinese people to the world.
Yao made the cover story of the Asian Edition of Time Magazine twice, and was selected by the magazine as one of its "100 most influential people in the world today" twice.
"His contributions to the NBA cannot be overstated. He is such a huge man and on top of that, he is a phenomenal player," NBA superstar Kobe Bryant said when he was asked to comment on Yao's retirement.
"In terms of opening up doors for Chinese basketball players to come to the NBA, or for the youth here in China to believe that it's possible to achieve the dream of being an NBA player, all that started from Yao," said the 32-year-old Los Angeles Lakers guard.
"Even that movement didn't have the impact and magnitude that Yao Ming has had," he said.
Yao also conscientiously fulfilled his missions as an international sports celebrity, characterized by his endeavors to protect wildlife, compassion to the poor and the disabled, as well as generous donations for victims of natural disasters, both in China and the United States.
"You can hardly find any negative news about Yao. I believe he has the image that every Chinese hopes to show the world, strong and rich, but modest and compassionate," Jin said.
In recent years, China has seen a significant change in its global status, as it has overtaken Japan as the world's second largest economy and been viewed as a major "threat" by some countries, said Su Qun, a senior NBA observer in an article.
Thus, China badly needs an icon, which is less political, but a more cultural one that was widely acknowledged, Su said. "And Yao Ming seems the gift bestowed by God."
Yao's individual efforts to step onto the global arena may just mirror the three-decade endeavors of the country to reform and open up to the outside world, according to a commentary article published in the Southern Metropolis Daily.
IS YAO SURPASSABLE?
Is there a Chinese figure who can parallel Yao in terms of career achievements, personal qualities and international influence?
What Chinese people are anticipating may not just be an outstanding athlete, but also a "Chinese icon" that can represent a wholesome image of the emerging China, according to Meng Jian, a journalism professor with the Shanghai-based Fudan University.
It must be discouraging for Yao's fans to find that his Chinese peers, Yi Jianlian and Sun Yue both suffered major setbacks on the NBA court and have far from been a Yao-like international sports giant.
As Yao only played in five games in the season 2009 to 2011, the NBA lost large audiences and attention due to Yao's absence, according to Yan Jian, deputy editor-in-chief of the Chinese-language Basketball News.
The NBA may try every means to make up for it by, for example, giving more opportunities to Yi, the only Chinese player in the league, drafting more Chinese players into the league, or searching grassroots Chinese talents.
"Thus, the next Yao, or even a group of Yao in the NBA league, won't come too late. However, we should be fully aware that they were merely created by the NBA to save itself," Yan said.
Some Chinese are looking to the Grand Slam titleist Li Na and the Olympic 100-meter hurdle champion Liu Xiang, who were both born after 1980 and attracted a large number of fans by their prominent sports skills and distinctive personalities.
"They are the best in their field. But I think the global influence of tennis and hurdling is inferior to basketball, which can only be paralleled by football," Jin said, adding that Chinese football has sunk into a years-long dire state.
Looking beyond sports, some people pin their hopes on Han Han, a young racing driver and more importantly, an outspoken writer who often lashes out about the country's problems. Nevertheless, although admired by masses of Chinese young, Han hasn't got an international reputation like Yao.
Some pessimists simply lament that "China won't have another Yao Ming anymore."
The public anxiety over the next Yao showcases that Chinese people hope the country can obtain the "soft power" that can match with its marvelous economic growth, Meng said.