And now the Chinese basketball giant is retiring.
Yao Ming, the 7’6" center for the Houston Rockets basketball team, announced his retirement Wednesday.
"Today is an important day for me and holds a special meaning for both my basketball career and my future," he said in comments translated into English. "I will formally end my career."
He has become a symbol of growing China’s aspirations. Sports Illustrated ranked him in June as the fifth-highest paid non-US athlete in the world.
His face is plastered on billboards and magazines across China.
Says Sports Illustrated blogger Chris Mannix:
“But what Yao gave to the game can't be measured in wins and losses, points or rebounds. China was relatively uncharted territory for the NBA back in '02. Yao was the league's way in. Deals with CCTV, Shanghai TV, Beijing TV and others were quickly cut, exposing the NBA -- and its merchandise -- to hundreds of millions of people eager to embrace it. They signed sponsors, built courts -- some 800,000 are constructed or being constructed in rural villages -- and began playing preseason games in the country's major cities. Yao's face was everywhere in China and the NBA milked every possible marketing opportunity from it.
Yao’s role in helping to make the game accessible for 1.3 billion people was “unparalleled by anyone, ever,” Daryl Morey, general manager of the Rockets, told CCTV ahead of Yao’s announcement.
“He’s the most important player in the NBA,” Mr. Morey said.
Yao said he planned to work for his former Chinese team, the Shanghai Sharks. But it won’t be the end of basketball for him.
"Since I'm retiring, one door is closed, but there will be new doors opening," Yao told reporters in Shanghai. "A new life is waiting for me. I left the basketball field, but I will not leave basketball. I am trying to manage this team and bring happiness to the fans."
While Chinese fans in Texas plan to send around a petition asking the Rockets to build a bronze statue of Yao, news outlets back home are abuzz with news of his return.
“Shanghai welcomes her favorite son Yao Ming home as the NBA star announced his retirement from professional basketball on Wednesday,” read the first line of a story in the English version of Xinhuanet.com