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Yao Ming retires, ready to take "next step"

By Greg Stutchbury

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China's Yao Ming, who opened up the world's most populous country to the NBA and became an Asian sporting icon, officially announced the end of his basketball career on Wednesday.

The towering 30-year-old had been plagued by foot and ankle injuries toward the end of his eight seasons in the National Basketball Association, playing just five games in the past two seasons for the Houston Rockets.

Yao said he had been steeling himself for this day and thanked his family and friends for helping him handle the decision to stop playing.

"I am ending my athletic career and am retiring from basketball," Yao said through an interpreter at a plush Pudong hotel on Wednesday. "Basketball has given me so much. It has led me to a bigger and brighter stage to showcase my abilities."

Yao, who had been widely expected to retire after telling the Rockets he would not be returning, said persistent foot injuries had forced him to retire.

"This process has been quite lengthy. I got a lot of support from my family and friends in making this decision," he added.

"When I started playing basketball, my parents told me: 'Do your best but one day things will have to come to a stop and you have to think about the next step'.

"So I have been preparing for this day for 18 years, although today comes a bit fast."

In 2002, the seven foot, six inch (2.30m) Yao became the first international player to be top pick in the NBA draft and wasted no time making an impression with the Rockets with his foot speed, positional play and silky shooting.

However, it was the way Yao so easily straddled East and West that appealed to the NBA and its legion of fans, his laconic, easy-going manner and quick wit making people warm to him almost instantly.

'EXTRAORDINARY BRIDGE'

The NBA also got a foothold in China thanks to Yao and saw a surge in television coverage and apparel sales in the country.

League Commissioner David Stern said Yao's retirement was the NBA's loss.

"Since entering the league ... Yao Ming has been a transformational player and a testament to the globalization of our game," Stern said in a statement.

"His dominant play and endearing demeanor along with his extensive humanitarian efforts have made him an international fan favorite and provided an extraordinary bridge between basketball fans in the United States and China."

A household name in China even before he blazed a trail to the United States, Yao is also known for his humanitarian work and uses his image to raise awareness about issues close to his heart.

He donated $2 million to survivors of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and created a foundation to rebuild schools in the area.

As China's flag bearer at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics he walked hand in hand with nine-year-old earthquake survivor Lin Hao, which became one of the most memorable images of the extravagant opening ceremony that stamped China's arrival on the world stage.

Yao said he would continue his philanthropic work as he "opened the next door" in his life.

Fans were disappointed they would no longer be able to see Yao in the NBA, but recognized his influence.

"I started playing basketball because of Yao Ming. I watched him play in the NBA and then decided to learn basketball," 15-year-old student Li Ao told CCTV. "Yao Ming's achievements in the NBA got more and more young and old fans involved in the sport in China."

Others had hoped he might continue playing.

"I wish he could play two more years and make more contribution to Chinese national basketball team," 16-year-old Jian Yisen told CCTV. "He proved that Chinese are good at playing basketball and established the China brand in the NBA.

"Even he retires from the NBA, I believe he will still help to improve and develop the Chinese basketball."

"Even though I am leaving the basketball court I will not be leaving the game. The Shanghai Sharks is how my professional life will continue and I am continuing to learn to manage the team." (additional reporting by Samuel Shen in Shanghai and Sabrina Mao in Beijing)

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)