Basketball: China's diplomatic all-star bows out of NBA

At 7ft 6in, the 30-year-old was the tallest player in the league, and brittle bones in his lower body forced his retirement
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Taiwan, human rights, a massive trade imbalance – much weighs upon relations between China and the US. And yesterday one of of the most powerful links between the two countries disappeared as well. Yao Ming announced his retirement from US basketball.

In his eight-year career with the Houston Rockets of the National Basketball Association, Yao became not only one of the league's most admired players, but also arguably his country's most effective ambassador in America, delighting fans and dispelling stereotypes in equal measure.

The Chinese, it was widely believed when he joined the Rockets in 2002, were hopeless at any sport that mattered. Instead, he helped Houston to the play-offs four times, and was regularly named to the NBA All-Star game, whose players are chosen by the fans. In 2005 Yao received 2,558,278 votes, breaking the record set by Michael Jordan.

At 7ft 6in, he was also the tallest player in the NBA – and his height may explain the brittle bones in his lower body that forced his retirement at the relatively early age of 30, after being plagued by injury for years.

Yao played his last game for Houston in November 2010. A month later the Rockets announced he would miss the rest of the season. Yesterday, at a press conference in Shanghai, Yao rang down the final curtain on his career.

In both China and the US, his presence will be sorely missed. His on-court skills, affable manner and relative proficiency in English quickly endeared him to American fans. In China itself, Yao was not just an athletic phenomenon, but a financial one as well. His every

move here was tracked by a posse of Chinese reporters, relaying his deeds to an avid audience back home. The US cities the Rockets visited played their part, often organising a "Chinese Appreciation Night" to honour their guest.

Thanks to Yao, the NBA has been by far the most popular US major sports league in the world's largest and most rapidly-expanding market, with operations there worth some $2.3bn. But that could now shrink: according to a recent informal poll on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, 57 per cent of fans said they would stop watching NBA games on television if Yao retired.

Right now, the NBA can hardly afford that sort of hit. Twenty-two of its 30 teams are losing money, and the league is currently shut down after owners imposed a lockout on players when talks broke down on a new labour contract. It is feared that part, or all, of the 2011-12 season will be lost.

But Yao is not leaving the game entirely. David Stern, the NBA's commissioner, is to offer him a job promoting league initiatives in China. Nor will he be lost to Houston, his "second hometown" as he put it in Shanghai yesterday. "I feel I'm a Houstonian and I will always be with you." Many fans feel the same way, urging the team to erect a life-size bronze statue of the player outside the Rockets' home arena.