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Only Yao can make next call

The sad news of Yao Ming's latest setback raises questions about the future of the NBA's most important international star. Will Yao decide to retire at the young age of 30?

Yao's latest stress fracture has been discovered in his left ankle -- the same foot that underwent reconstructive surgery to sideline the Houston Rockets' center for all of last season. No one but Yao can resolve whether he is willing to subject himself to risk of further injury by attempting to come back yet again.

Many league executives have long questioned whether Yao can withstand the pressures of attempting to run the floor at 7-foot-6 and 310 pounds. A variety of injuries had caused Yao to miss 173 regular-season games over the previous five full seasons coming into this year. He had played in five games this season before he was shut down Nov. 10 with an apparent bone bruise in the left ankle.

Yao is in the final year of his contract at a salary of $17.7 million. Should he commit to another comeback, the Rockets will have to decide whether to invest in him and at what price. The anticipated lockout next July could give both Yao and the Rockets more time to decide how best to proceed.

Yao has already fulfilled his duties as a public representative of China and the NBA. As the most popular athlete of his native country, he served as the face of Beijing's hosting of the 2008 Olympics. His unrivaled status has also afforded the NBA inroads to build its business in the world's most populated market.

Throughout his career Yao has heard the warnings of NBA experts that he needed to cut back on his training with the Chinese national team in order to enable his body to rest. Are these injuries a result of overwork?

In any case, no one in the Chinese basketball federation or the NBA could claim that Yao owes anything to either party after all of the prestige and income he has created for basketball around the world.

That's why any decision to return from this latest injury must be a highly personal choice made by Yao alone. He has advanced to the second round of the playoffs once in his nine-year career, and this season marks the fifth time in six years in which he will have played fewer than 60 games.

I would be surprised if Yao were to decide to retire. His pursuit of excellence has been defined by his stubborn, tireless and patient approach, and his love for basketball is unquestioned. But will he view this as another setback worth overcoming? Only he can make that decision now.

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