Yao announced his retirement in a ceremony and news conference in Shanghai, citing the repeated injuries to his left foot and ankle.
“At the end of the last year, my left foot had a third fracture,” Yao said. “Today, I need to make a personal decision. I will stop my basketball career and I will formally retire. Today, thinking back and thinking of the future, I have been very grateful. First of all, I need to be grateful to basketball. It has brought happiness to many people including myself.
“Life is my guide. Just follow it and it will open doors. Out of each door, there will be beautiful world outside. Since I am retired, one door is closed. But a new life is waiting for me. I have left the basketball (court), but I will not leave basketball.”
He also will not leave Houston, and sent a message to his “second hometown.”
“I’d like to thank you for giving me a great nine years in my career,” Yao said. “Nine years ago, I came to Houston as a young, tall, skinny player. An entire city and team changed me to a grown man, not only as a basketball player. I gained my first daughter over there. I feel I’m a Houstonian and I will always be with you.”
Yao thanked former national team teammates including his longtime friend Liu Wei and former Bucks and Wizards player Yi Jianlian, and former Rockets teammates Chuck Hayes, Kyle Lowry, Aaron Brooks and Luis Scola, and said there are many others to thank.
“They will all stay in my heart,” Yao said. “I thank all my beloved and my friends. I will do my best. I will not leave you. Yao Ming will stay with my friends forever.”
While Yao moved on, the NBA could not quite let go.
Rockets owner Leslie Alexander said he was still “sad” that Yao’s career would end too soon, short-circuited by the injuries he could not avoid.
Rockets chief executive officer Tad Brown, who had grown particularly close to Yao, was still “in shock.”
NBA commissioner David Stern said he would soon offer Yao a place in the NBA, likely working with the league’s initiatives in China that have taken off since the Rockets made Yao the first pick of the 2002 NBA draft.
“It’s sad,” Alexander said. “He had such great potential. He fulfilled it, really, but we would have been a great team with him. It’s sad for him because I know he wants to play very badly. It’s sad for the Rockets.”
The day after Yao was drafted, Alexander had said that Yao would become the greatest sports star in the world. That seemed to be hyperbole at the time, driven by the excitement of landing a 7-6 tower of potential. As Yao’s retirement announcement would in many ways remind again, Alexander’s expectation, grand as it was, turned out to be prophetic.
“At his peak, he was that,” Alexander said. “If he had been healthy and we would have won championships, he would have been even bigger. But he had the most name recognition in the world. He was a sports icon.
“His impact on the NBA was dramatic. He opened up the Chinese population. Two or three hundred million people would watch Yao’s games in China, many more than watch games in America. He was a worldwide figure.”
Stern also flashed back to Yao’s first giant steps to the NBA and the night it all started. He knew then that Yao’s impact would stretch far beyond the court, even if he could not have predicted then the growth of the game in China that Yao would inspire.
“I remember the exhilaration of calling his name as the first pick … and contemplating that he would be a bridge between Chinese fans and American fans,” Stern said. “That all happened with a wonderful mixture of talent, dedication, humanitarian aspirations and a sense of humor. What a wonderful combination.
“It’s unfortunate he did not get to enjoy the fullest possible career. But it was nevertheless an extraordinary career. He was an extremely talented player and he was so much more than that as an icon between two countries.”
Stern did not elaborate on his hopes to work with Yao, but indicated that it could involve the NBA’s efforts in China. Yao owns his former team, the Shanghai Sharks, and could also continue to work with the China Basketball Association.
“I’m utterly thrilled that we’re contemplating working with Yao as we continue to grow the sport of basketball,” Stern said. “We have a full force in China. We think Yao is equally committed. I think we’ll find ways to work together. We know him and we know his hopes for Chinese basketball.”
Alexander said he would like Yao to continue to work with the Rockets, but was not sure that would be Yao’s preference.
“Yao’s got so much going for him worldwide, I don’t think he’s the kind of person who would work with one team,” Alexander said. “He’s bigger than that.”
Brown, however, said that Yao’s relationship with the Rockets, like his legacy, will endure.
“I’m still kind of in shock, actually,” Brown said. “I can’t imagine the Rockets without Yao Ming. I’m sad. I’m really disappointed for Mr. Alexander and the franchise, but I’m hoping Yao is at peace with his decision and certainly look forward to being in his life.
“I look forward to having him be a part of the Rockets family for years to come. He’s larger than life. He’s a global icon. He’s going to continue to be in his retirement. It’s going to be exciting to see what the future holds for such an intelligent, proud man.”