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Published: Monday, 5/26/2008

Yao shaken by China's earthquake tragedy

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Yao Yao
MIKE McCARN / AP Enlarge

CONCORD, N.C. - Yao Ming wakes up each morning and immediately heads for the computer to get the latest on the earthquake that devastated China.

The Houston Rockets all-star center and China's most recognizable athlete awoke yesterday to more bad news: A powerful aftershock had killed one person and destroyed 70,000 homes.

"Every day the number is going up. This morning it was over 62,000 people killed," Yao said. "We are very sad for the people we have lost in the earthquake."

Yao was at Lowe's Motor Speedway, shooting hoops with NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers and getting a lesson on changing tires from Kyle Petty's pit crew as part of a promotion with Coca-Cola. But a somber Yao was clearly focused on the devastation to his home country.

"We have a long way to go to create a new place for the people who don't have a place to stay right now," Yao said.

Yao has donated $290,000 and filmed public service announcements through the Red Cross for the relief efforts. He also led the crowd in a moment of silence for China's victims before the Coca-Cola 600.

"The best thing you can do for the government is to send money there, and people there to help them," Yao said as he sat in a motor home parked in the track's infield. "But we also need to warm them. They're hurt mentally by the earthquake. I heard some kids cannot sleep, because they're scared. Any kind of help - it's more than just the money."

Yao said he has one friend who lives in the Sichuan province most affected by the magnitude 7.9 quake that hit May 12. His friend called him three days later to say he was OK.

"It's really sad over there," Yao said. "His city is affected, but not major damage. But after a couple of minutes he said, 'I've got to go. The house is shaking again.' "

Yao was expected to be play an ambassador's role this summer as his country prepares to host the Olympics for the first time.

Determined to be ready to lead his country's basketball team, Yao has been busy rehabbing his left foot after undergoing surgery in March to repair a stress fracture. The injury caused him to miss the final two months of the NBA season.

Yao began running last week and said he's pain free. He hopes to begin playing in some light-contact basketball scrimmages in a couple of weeks. Yao says he remains on schedule to play in a couple of exhibition games before China's Olympic opener against the United States on Aug. 10.

"I don't want to push that too much because we need to do that in a safe way, but the Olympics are only 70-some days to go," Yao said.

The earthquake tragedy has tempered China's nationwide celebration. The Olympic torch relay was halted briefly and shortened, and Yao is particularly concerned about the thousands of schools that were damaged or destroyed.

"Number one right now is to save people's lives," Yao said. "On May 12 people forgot about the Olympics. People forgot about the torch. Let's focus the government and the people on saving as many lives as we can.

"We still lost a lot. We will limit the celebration a little bit because of those we lost."

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Authorities in Gainesville have charged Chicago Bulls forward and former Florida star Joakim Noah with possession of marijuana and having an open container of alcohol.

Gainesville police said Noah was arrested around 1:50 a.m. yesterday after an officer spotted him on a sidewalk holding a plastic cup containing an amber drink, a violation of city law. During a search at the station, officers found marijuana in his pocket.

Noah was released after signing a notice to appear before a judge - standard procedure for such offenses.



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