At 7-foot-6 inches, Yao Ming is undoubtedly huge. But in his native China, he is larger than life.
News that he is suffering a stress injury in his foot which will end his NBA season has sent shockwaves through China.
"This is an earthquake for fans," said Beijing sports reporter Sunny Zhang.
Yao is the face of the Beijing Olympics, the center of the Chinese sports world, and a national treasure. Even the thought that he may not recover in time to represent China at the Games has the country on edge.
The Chinese Basketball Association convened an urgent meeting to discuss alternative plans, but officials are hopeful their star center will be in the starting lineup come August 8.
At a news conference Bai Xilin, manager of the Chinese national team said, "We will overcome the difficulties and continue to do well in our preparation training for the Beijing Olympics."
The Chinese blogosphere was flooded with comments from worried fans and Yao supporters. "I would rather lose my job or girlfriend," read one blog, "than lose Yao Ming from the Olympics." Another blogger lamented, "This is the winter of Chinese basketball."
One sports newspaper pointed the finger at the Houston Rockets for overplaying Yao. (In Houston, some fans turned the tables and insinuated that the Chinese pressured Yao to sit out the season so he could rest up for the Games).
But none seemed more disappointed than the gentle giant himself. At a Houston news conference, Yao said, "If I cannot play in the Olympics for my country this time, it will be the biggest loss in my career to right now."
At a popular Beijing sports bar, the Goose & Duck, Yao supporter Li Ang said, "He is an idol for many young people in China. Many Chinese consider Yao Ming's injury a big blow."
The NBA enjoyed popularity in China long before Yao Ming came onto the scene, but the All-Star center has inspired a generation of young basketball hopefuls.
"Yao Ming in many ways is a little Johnny Appleseed and a little Tiger Woods and a little Michael Jordan," says ABC sports analyst Christine Brennan. "Put all that together and that's what this man means to China."
Sunny Zhang says it goes beyond sport. "He is a national hero. His success overseas is encouraging to many Chinese people," she says. "His injury worries us because it would be like a fallen hero."
All the worry may end up being premature. Doctors say Yao likely faces a three to four month recovery after surgery, which would give him time to recover for the Olympics. Some have even suggested that the injury may be a blessing in disguise because Yao will have more time to rest before the Games than he would have had he finished the season with the Rockets.
Yao said at the Rockets news conference that he doesn't even want to think about how disappointed his Chinese fans would be if he had to sit out the games in his home country. The hopes of a nation of 1.3 billion are pinned on him, but Yao said when his injury was announced to his team, "it was quiet. Like nobody was there, and you just feel alone."