|New life: Yao holds his daughter as he announces his retirement at a press conference in Shanghai [Reuters]
Yao Ming, who ignited China's interest in the NBA and became one of Asia's best-known athletes, has announced his retirement from basketball.
A towering sports figure on and off the court, Yao not only proved himself a force in the National Basketball Association, he was also a source of pride and symbol of China's emergence as a sporting giant.
The seven-foot, six-inch (2.3 metre) Yao became the first international player to be made top pick in the NBA Draft when the Houston Rockets called his name in 2002.
He measured up to the high expectations before injuries cut short his promising career and left supporters wondering, 'What if?'
Yao, 30, was the tallest player in the NBA when he left the league, but he was more than a mere giant wearing size 18 sneakers.
He was a skilled hoopster with a deft shot, an eight-times All-Star who helped power the Rockets into the playoffs four times.
He averaged 19 points and 9.2 rebounds per game over eight seasons, though he played in just five games in his final two years.
The first Chinese to thrive in North American team sports, he made more than $90 million in salary, became a popular frontman for major firms and popularised the league in China.
Yao was declared the richest celebrity in China for six successive years by Forbes Magazine, but he took the greatest satisfaction in representing his country.
He carried the Chinese flag at the opening ceremony of the 2004 Athens Olympics and four years later, despite another NBA season aborted because of surgery on his left foot, would not be denied his dream of playing in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Yao rejoined the Chinese team, carried the Olympic torch into Tiananmen Square as part of the torch relay and carried the Chinese flag during the opening ceremony.
However, the legs and feet of the 310 pound (140 kg) Yao took a lot of wear and tear.
After missing two games in his first three NBA seasons, Yao broke down over his final five years.
Broken bones in his left leg, surgery on his left big toe, a right knee injury, and ankle injuries sidelined him.
He missed the entire 2009/10 season with a fractured bone in his left foot and played just five games last season before being forced off court with a stress fracture in his left ankle.
Yao, the son of former Chinese professional basketball players Yao Zhiyuan and Fang Fengdi, excelled from an early age.
He joined the Shanghai Sharks juniors at 13 and played on the senior team for five years in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), winning a championship his final year.
He also won three gold medals and three Most Valuable Player awards with China at FIBA Asian Championships (2001, 2003 and 2005).
Yao, married with a baby daughter, shared his story in a memoir, "Yao: A Life in Two Worlds," published two years after he joined Houston.
Tale of two countries
"Not many people have tried to do what I am doing, to be part of America and China at the same time," wrote Yao in collaboration with NBA analyst Ric Bucher.
"At least not so many have tried to do it with so many people watching."
They watched closely, and drew strength from the courage he showed in coming to the United States without knowing English.
"I think he represents a symbol to all the Chinese people, breaking barriers," college student Andre Hu said at a book signing by Yao.
"Not just in sports, but in all areas."
He was an instant hit in the NBA, adored by fans and rival players alike.
"You're one of the greatest players ever to come out of China. You're one of the greatest players, period," said recently-retired NBA great Shaquille O'Neal.
"I'm going to miss you, brother. Enjoy retirement. Let's go on vacation, bro. Me and you."