An eight-time NBA All-Star, Yao had been leading efforts to commercialize the top-tier 20-team Chinese Basketball Association Management Co. since his appointment in 2017.
A notice on the CBA’s website thanked Yao for his service. It gave no indication of the reason behind Yao’s departure other than that the board of directors had determined it was time for new leadership.
Yao was one of the first Chinese athletes to become an international household name when the Rockets drafted him with the first pick in 2002. The 7-foot-6 center played eight seasons in the NBA before retiring in 2011, citing chronic injuries.
Allegations of corruption have dogged the CBA in recent years. Two teams, the Jiangsu Dragons and Shanghai Sharks, were ejected from the league finals last month after being found to have engaged in unsporting conduct over a series of turnovers that resulted in a come-from-behind win by the Sharks.
The outcome was judged as suspicious and resulted in a swift investigation and punishments for both teams. Managers and coaching staff from each team have been barred from the league for up to five years.
China’s basketball and football leagues have drawn foreign talent and commercial endorsements, but are weighted down by uncertain ownership lineups and the influence of government. Some officials have been placed under investigation for taking bribes and other forms of corruption.
Yao’s replacement is veteran sports journalist Xu Jicheng, who served on committees bidding for and overseeing management of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and last year’s Winter Games.
Basketball remains enormously popular in China, largely because of Yao’s storied NBA career. That’s despite a year-long ban on NBA games being shown in the country after a team executive angered Beijing with remarks supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.