Yao edges Shaq in closest race

NEW YORK -- For the second straight year, basketball fans around the world have let it be known that Yao is now.

Yao Ming overtook Shaquille O'Neal in the final balloting and will be the starting center for the Western Conference in the NBA All-Star Game for the second straight year.

The undeniable popularity of the 7-foot-5 Yao has been proven in All-Star balloting over the last two years as he has received more votes than the sport's biggest star, relegating O'Neal to
reserve status in the league's mid-season showcase.

"That's cool," O'Neal said. "Where he's from, there are 2 trillion people."

After the third returns were announced earlier this month, Yao trailed O'Neal by roughly 26,000 votes. But the second-year center of the Houston Rockets may have benefited from a calf injury that sidelined O'Neal.

O'Neal, however, received more electronic votes from fans around the world, while Yao, a native of China, had the advantage in paper ballots available in the United States and Canada.

Statistically, it should have been no contest. Despite his injury, O'Neal remains one of the most dominant players in the game, averaging 19.6 points and 11.3 rebounds for the Los Angeles Lakers. Yao is averaging 16.3 points and 9.3 rebounds.

Yao received 1,484,531 votes. The 7-2 O'Neal collected 1,453,286 but should make his eighth All-Star appearance -- and come off the bench in his hometown.

The 53rd All-Star Game is Feb. 15 at Staples Center in Los Angeles. It will feature the same 10 elected starters as last year's game.

The leading vote-getter again was Toronto Raptors swingman Vince Carter, who received 2,127,183 votes and will start at forward
for the Eastern Conference.

It is the fourth straight time Carter has been the league's top vote-getter. This year, he outpolled Detroit Pistons center Ben
Wallace by nearly 150,000 votes. Michael Jordan and Julius Erving are the only others to receive the most votes at least three times.

Joining Carter and Wallace in the Eastern Conference frontcourt is Indiana Pacers forward Jermaine O'Neal. The backcourt features Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers and Tracy McGrady of the Orlando Magic.

The other Western Conference starters are guards Kobe Bryant of the Lakers and Steve Francis of the Rockets and forwards Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves and two-time NBA MVP Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs.

Bryant should feel much more welcome at this year's game. A
six-time All-Star, he was the MVP two years ago in his hometown
of Philadelphia, where he was stung by boos from fans
remembering his Lakers defeating the 76ers in the previous
season's NBA Finals.

This has been a trying season for Bryant, the Lakers' leading scorer (21.7 ppg) who is facing sexual
assault charges in Colorado and has been the target of jeers and
catcalls in virtually every arena he has visited this season. He also missed six games because of a sprained right shoulder. However, the All-Star Game will be in his backyard.

The 29 head coaches will vote for the reserves in their
respective conferences. Those results will be announced Feb. 3.

Indiana's Rick Carlisle will coach the Eastern Conference
All-Stars. Flip Saunders of the Minnesota Timberwolves will lead
the West.

Information from SportsTicker and The Associated Press was used in this report.