|Thursday, January 23
Updated: January 29, 2:47 PM ET
Kobe the top vote-getter with 1,474,386 votes
NEW YORK -- When the ball goes up for the opening tip at the NBA All-Star Game Feb. 9 in Atlanta, Yao Ming will be the center trying to win the jump ball for the West.
The 7-foot-6 Houston Rockets rookie from China will be starting for the Western Conference after defeating Shaquille O'Neal by almost a quarter-million votes in final fan balloting totals released Thursday.
In the closest race, Kevin Garnett of Minnesota edged Dirk Nowitzki of Dallas for the last starting spot among Western Conference forwards. Garnett received 1,086,780 votes -- 7,355 more than Nowitzki.
Yao will become the first rookie to start in the All-Star Game since Grant Hill in 1995. He is the 16th rookie in NBA history to be named an All-Star starter and the sixth center, joining O'Neal in 1993, Elvin Hayes in 1969, Walt Bellamy in 1962, Wilt Chamberlain in 1960 and Ray Felix in 1954.
Because Yao will start, Spurs guard Emanuel Ginobili will replace him in the Rookie Challenge game Feb. 8. Ginobili, originally drafted by the Spurs in 1999, played the last four seasons in the Italian League. This season, he is averaging 5.1 points and 3.11 steals.
"I am honored. I hope to play well in the game. I think I might have to take a sleeping pill before I can go to sleep tonight," Yao said. "To have this rare opportunity is a rare opportunity."
Bryant was the leading overall vote-getter with 1,474,386 out of more than 4.5 million ballots cast.
The Eastern Conference starters are Iverson and Orlando's Tracy McGrady, Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal and Toronto's Vince Carter at forward, and Ben Wallace of Detroit at center. McGrady was the leading vote-getter in the East with 1,316,297.
The fans' selection of Carter, who has missed 33 games because of knee injuries, was the most debatable.
"I'm thrilled. I just have to say thank you to the fans," Carter said. "It's been a rough season. A lot of people have been taking shots at me once again. It makes me feel better to know the fans believe in me. They know what I'm capable of regardless of what the other side thinks.
"I need some games under my belt or I'll look very bad out there,'' said Carter, whose team has five games between Sunday and the All-Star Game."
The 26-year-old Garnett will be making his sixth All-Star appearance, tops among the starters. Bryant and Duncan were chosen for the fifth time, Carter and Iverson for the fourth time; McGrady his third, and Francis and Jermaine O'Neal to their second.
Reserves will be announced Tuesday following balloting by the 29 NBA coaches, who must vote for seven players in order of preference but are not allowed to vote for players from their teams. The selections must include two guards, two forwards and a center. Two other players are chosen regardless of position.
Isiah Thomas of Indiana and Rick Adelman of Sacramento will coach the two All-Star teams.