Basketball star Yao Ming, who opened up China to the NBA and became an Asian sporting icon, was given a warm send-off in his homeland after he announced his retirement, with netizens and official media lauding him for boosting his country's image.
"Poor guy," commented Sina Weibo user @xiaoya on a post showing a photo of Yao pausing in a moment of emotion at a news conference in Shanghai announcing his retirement from professional basketball on Wednesday following recurring injuries.
"Yao will be departing the battlefield, leaving behind only the regrets of his fans," wrote user @chunyexiaoying.
According to an online poll on the sports channel of popular chat service QQ, 34 percent of respondents or 261,310 people agreed that Yao's retirement was "the end of the NBA era for Chinese fans."
And 23 percent of respondents believed that Yao's retirement would weaken interest in the NBA among Chinese fans.
However, 57 percent of those polled said they would carry on watching NBA games because of the other stars.
Many commenters said they had grown up with Yao's NBA career, and that his departure meant the world would never be quite the same again.
"Huh. Now he's gone, the NBA will be much less interesting," wrote user @zhenwenweihenkuming.
Many hit out at Chinese officials, who blocked Yao's mother from view in a group photograph, while the player's family were included in a photo with U.S. basketball dignitaries.
"You can block out his mom, but you can't block out Yao Ming," quipped one user.
Meanwhile, China's official media lauded Yao's contribution to "soft power" diplomacy and his country's image overseas.
The Communist Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, said the former Houston Rockets center had projected a wholesome image of contemporary China and boosted the country's "soft power."
The player's modesty, humor, and tolerance had impressed the international community and helped resolve misunderstanding across cultures, the paper said.
For Yao, standing seven-foot, six inches (2.29 meters) tall, basketball was an "international language" through which to introduce China to the outside world.
Xinhua commentator Xu Jicheng praised Yao for having won the dignity and respect of China's younger generation.
By serving as a bridge of communication, Yao had helped to allay misconceptions about China, the commentary said.
"Yao has brought the Chinese younger generations a renewed confidence," meaning that they no longer "blindly worshipped" Western culture.
Meanwhile, sports studies expert Jin Shan told the China Youth Daily that Yao had acted as a cultural ambassador for China.
And former top basketball official Li Yuanwei was quoted as saying: "Yao, who has impressed the world by his humor, perseverance, and sense of responsibility, has helped many foreigners to better understand China and the Chinese people."
Yao, who will be 31 this September, played for eight seasons in the NBA after being the top overall pick in the 2002 draft. He averaged 19 points and 9.2 rebounds and has been named in the NBA All-star team eight times.
Yao was named as one of the top 100 most influential people in the world by the Asian edition of Time magazine.
He told the Houston Chronicle after the news conference that he was at peace with his decision following a series of foot injuries.
"I prepared for this," the paper quoted him as saying. “Somehow, I was ready for this a long, long time ago."
"I don’t like too much attention on me," Yao told the paper. "This is the kind of life I want—away from the spotlight. But when you are 7-6, it’s hard to hide."
Reported by Luisetta Mudie.