Yao Ming edged Kobe Bryant as the top votegetter in fan balloting for the 55th NBA All-Star game Thursday, and Shaquille O'Neal became the fifth player in league history to earn 13 consecutive selections for the midseason showcase.
Yao and Tracy McGrady give the host Houston Rockets two starters in the Feb. 19 game. They were joined on the Western Conference squad by Bryant, San Antonio's Tim Duncan and reigning MVP Steve Nash of Phoenix _ who will be a first-time All-Star starter.
Cleveland's LeBron James was the top Eastern Conference votegetter, edging O'Neal by 15,155 votes. It's the second straight All-Star trip for James, who says he's still drawing motivation from being snubbed during his rookie season.
``What happened two years ago, that really motivated me to come out and play even harder,'' James said.
Added Cleveland coach Mike Brown: ``It's an honor to be around him, it's an honor to work with him and I'm excited for him and his family because he definitely deserves it.''
Philadelphia's Allen Iverson, Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal and first-time All-Star starter Dwyane Wade of Miami rounded out the East's starting five.
``Hopefully, I can become a staple, like my teammate Shaq,'' Wade said. ``I'm grateful that NBA fans think so highly of my game.''
Jermaine O'Neal will miss the game with an injury; Detroit's Rasheed Wallace finished third in the voting among East forwards, meaning he'll likely be a strong candidate for that starting spot. But no Pistons were voted into the starting lineup, despite the team's 38-6 record _ the NBA's best by a wide margin.
Yao edged Bryant by 71,107 votes for the top overall spot in the balloting, despite missing 21 games following surgery to clean out an infection in his left big toe. It's the fourth All-Star trip for the 7-foot-6 center from China and the eighth for Bryant, who leads the NBA in scoring and had an 81-point effort _ the second-biggest night in NBA history _ last month in the Los Angeles Lakers' win over Toronto.
Yao finished with 2,342,738 votes; Bryant had 2,271,631 in the closest finish among the top two players in All-Star balloting since Vince Carter, then of Toronto, edged Miami's Alonzo Mourning by 33,385 votes in 2000.
``It's every player's personal goal, to make the All-Star team,'' McGrady said. ``It's a personal accomplishment guys want to make to get a chance to participate against the elite players. Every player in this league wants to be there.''
Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, however, doesn't think players on losing teams should make it. Houston (16-29) has the worst record in the Western Conference.
``One of the things I really do believe is _ and it would've affected our two guys this year, so it wouldn't have been good _ I don't believe anybody on sub-.500 teams should be in the All-Star game,'' Van Gundy said. ``It should be all a reward for winning. Now that would affect our guys which, I'm glad no one took my advice for this year.''
Nash, meanwhile, is a first-time starter after improving the numbers that earned him MVP honors a year ago. Nash is averaging a career-high 19.1 points and an NBA-leading 11.3 assists this season, the first player since Magic Johnson in 1990-91 to average as much in both categories.
He finished with 1,818,230 votes for the second Western guard spot behind Bryant. McGrady had 1,818,932 votes to lead the West's forwards, while Duncan had 1,518,796 _ 39,410 more than Minnesota's Kevin Garnett, who was a starter seven times in his first eight All-Star trips.
Detroit's Flip Saunders will coach the East and Dallas' Avery Johnson will coach the West on Feb. 19 in Houston. The All-Star reserves will be announced Feb. 9.
James got 2,207,697 votes _ about 1 million more than Jermaine O'Neal for the other forward spot on the East roster. And although James said there may be a time when his excitement level over the All-Star Game dips a bit, he thanked the fans for their backing.
``Without them, there's no us,'' James said.
Iverson had 2,062,206 votes and Wade had 1,499,664 for the guard slots, and Shaquille O'Neal had 2,192,542 to easily outdistance Detroit's Ben Wallace for the center spot.
``It's an honor. It's tough enough to make an All-Star team,'' said Iverson, last season's All-Star MVP. ``When you're a starter it says a lot about being one of the faces of the NBA because the fans pick you.''
Since entering the league, Shaquille O'Neal has been chosen as an All-Star every season. Jerry West, Karl Malone, Bob Cousy and John Havlicek are the only other players to earn at least 13 consecutive All-Star spots. West and Malone did it 14 times.
``Each time I'm selected as an All-Star, it's more special than the year before,'' Shaquille O'Neal said. ``It shows I can compete at a high level on a consistent basis year in and year out. ... Hopefully, I will see a few more as my career moves on.''