BEIJING -- Yao Ming's expected retirement could diminish the NBA's once-burgeoning popularity in China, with many fans saying they would no longer watch games.
"What's the point of watching NBA now?" asked an online user called Lubingxia on Sina Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like site.
An online poll on Weibo by Monday lunchtime showed that 57 percent of respondents would stop watching the NBA after Yao's retirement.
The 7-foot-6 center is expected to announce July 20 at a news conference that he's retiring from the NBA after nine seasons because of leg and foot injuries.
He boosted the popularity of the basketball league in China and throughout Asia, spiking merchandise sales and TV ratings for games after the Houston Rockets made him the top overall pick in the 2002 draft.
"He is one of the most influential people in today's society -- especially to those born in the '80s," said Ren Bo, a 25-year-old sports trainer. "It's probably going to be a while until we see another Yao Ming."
Yao, who turns 31 in September, was the top overall pick in the 2002 draft, but his promising career was hampered by injuries. He has missed 250 regular-season games over the past six seasons.
He sat out the 2009-10 season, then lasted only five games in 2010-11 before sustaining a bone bruise and fracture in his left ankle. He underwent surgery in January, and was hopeful to return to Houston this season, even though his contract expired.
Yahoo! Sports first reported that Yao is retiring. A person with direct knowledge of his decision confirmed to The Associated Press that Yao decided the risk of another injury and subsequent rehabilitation was too great.
"There is no way he will come back," the person wrote in an email. "His body can't hold that, and if he plays again, there is risk to get hurt again. Yao does not want to take another surgery. He is done."
John Huizinga, one of Yao's American agents, would not confirm the early reports of Yao's decision to retire, out of respect for Yao's privacy.
"The guy has worked very hard, he's put up with a lot, carried a lot of burden for a lot of people," Huizinga said. "I think he would like to run this part of his life the way he'd like to run it. I understand other people don't feel that way. I don't like it, but I'm not going to be able to change it."
The news upset fans in China, where he has been praised as a role model for the past decade, and strengthened that image by carrying his country's flag during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"It is Yao Ming who makes the kids in China like basketball and it's also Yao Ming who makes the kids know how a real professional basketball player should be," said Xu Jicheng, a longtime basketball commentator.
"I'm not thrilled about his retirement, but I will still support him. Millions of Chinese still idolize him," said 24-year-old Guo Ju Fei, a small business owner.
Some online comments conveyed sadness that his retirement would mean the end of a great era and that they would not get to see him at the 2012 London Olympics. There also was some anger that his injuries kept him from reaching his peak.
"I still haven't recovered from the fact that Yao is retiring. The feeling is worse than being dumped," wrote one online user going by the name of Xie Chen.
Others hoped a "miracle" would occur and that Yao would change his mind.
Many comments expressed gratitude to the player for being a Chinese icon and an athlete they could be proud of.
Online comments and newspapers also singled out his wit, humor and humility.
"Yao Ming is like an ambassador. With a basketball player's height, a comedian's humor, post-80s generation's freshness ... one does not know how many foreigners' impressions of the Chinese he has changed," wrote the Chinese Business Morning View, based in Shenyang city in northeastern Liaoning province.
Yao broke his left foot late in the 2007-08 NBA season, but hurried his recovery so he could play for his team in the Beijing Olympics. Yao guided China to the quarterfinals, averaging 19 points and 8.2 rebounds in six games.
Yao also donated $2 million to set up a foundation to rebuild schools destroyed by the earthquake in Sichuan province in May 2008.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.