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Yao still involved in basketball, just not on the court

By Steve Ginsburg

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Yao Ming looks like he could still tangle with Dwight Howard under the basket but the former National Basketball Association number one draft pick clearly has put his playing days in the rear-view mirror.

The eight-time Houston Rockets All-Star left the game following the 2010-11 season after the final five years of his career were filled with injuries, most notably to his foot and ankle.

"I'm not going to try to come back, I'm not Grant Hill," he told Reuters with a laugh, referring to the 40-year-old Los Angeles Clippers forward who has returned to the court following a series of career-threatening injuries.

"He's unique. He keeps coming back no matter how many surgeries he's had."

Yao, 32, was a judge for the NBA Slam Dunk Contest on Saturday in the run-up to Sunday's All-Star game, returning to the city where he played since being selected as the number one overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft.

A 7-foot-6 center with soft hands, Yao still works with the NBA, promoting the game in his native China, and owns a team in the Chinese Basketball Association. But he is also involved with his foundation, which helps needy children in the western part of China.

The third Chinese to play in the NBA, he is also back in college to complete his degree and lives in Shanghai.

Without the injuries that derailed his career, Yao might have ultimately landed a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He was not crushed, however, when he left the game.

"If you look at the timeline, I didn't have a career-ending injury," said Yao. "I had multiple injuries. The end of my career was something I prepared for.

"Obviously I still wanted to play but I knew I had to let it go. You know that it's going to end."

Yao, who could still make the Hall of Fame as a contributor, believes there are several players in China that could have a shot at an NBA career.

"There are a few young athletes that are pretty talented," he said. "I think they have the potential to play in the NBA in the future. It all depends on how they develop."

Yao, who averaged 25 points a game during the 2006-07 season, said he plays basketball "just a little bit" these days.

"Nothing more than HORSE," a smiling Yao said of the non-contact game, played mostly by children, that involves just shooting.

(Editing by Gene Cherry)

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