It's the human and fun side of our sports heroes

Ex-NBA star Yao Ming attends basketball friendly in N. Korea

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By Agence France-Presse

Former NBA star Yao Ming attended a friendly basketball match between China and North Korea in Pyongyang on Thursday amid warming ties between the neighbours.

The eight-time NBA all-star is visiting the North Korean capital this week as part of a high-level Chinese sports delegation.

Choe Ryong Hae — one of the closest aides to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — and China’s sports minister Gou Zhongwen also watched the men’s friendlies at the Ryugyong Jong Ju Yong stadium.

Kim, an avowed NBA fan who met former Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman several times in Pyongyang, was not present.

After the match, ex-Houston Rockets centre Yao Ming posed for photos with both Chinese and North Korean players.

Relations between Pyongyang and Beijing have gone through a rough patch in recent years, with China backing United Nations sanctions to punish its Cold War-era ally for its nuclear activities.

But ties have recently improved as Kim met President Xi Jinping in China three times this year.

While the Chinese leader has yet to return the favour with his own visit to Pyongyang, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said this week that Xi is expected to visit the North “soon”.

Yao Ming, at 2.29 metres (7 foot 6), was one of the tallest players in the NBA and became a global ambassador for the sport during his eight NBA seasons.

He continued promoting the game after he was forced into retirement by repeated foot injuries and is now the head of the Chinese Basketball Association.