|Wednesday, December 18
Updated: January 19, 11:35 PM ET
Rockets continue to show Yao the ropes
By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com
The Big Man liked the Hummer.
"It was like a tank," Yao Ming recalls.
The tank was, and is, Steve Francis', and on the first day he touched down in Houston, Yao found he could fit his 7-foot-5 frame relatively comfortably into the big rig. It is a recurring dream for Yao to buy a car in the U.S. and "drive around with the speakers blaring," as he puts it. But Francis also wanted to talk to Yao about what coming to America was going to mean for him, and for the franchise.
So went Day 1 in the Education of Yao Ming, a tutorial now in its third month. It requires him to take part in pseudo Berlitz seminars, perform pantomime and be a couch potato. He has to hang on the every word of his interpreter, Colin Pine, as he and the Rockets (and Pine) prepare for the soon-coming day when he won't need him. He has a whole team handling his marketing and appearances, but if he wants to check out Houston's nightlife and its numerous, ah, gentlemen's establishments (they're called "felt-free entertainment" around here), he's on his own.
"Um, in his culture, I'm pretty sure they don't hang out at clubs," Francis said. "He told me he never drank a beer."
Oh, and there is this basketball thing he's trying to pick up.
"The city has given me a very warm feeling," Yao said through Pine. "Whenever anybody greets me, they treat me like I'm a Texan, a new Texan. I've been in Dallas before ... and my impression was, 'It's really hot in the summer, the steak is really good, the area is very large and the cities aren't that crowded.' "
That sounds crazy. Dallas and Houston aren't big? But consider ...
Houston, Texas: Population 1.6 million. Big.
Shanghai, China: Population 8.9 million. Bigger.
So here Yao is, living in a huge house with his mom for the season ("No matter what challenges and hardships are outside," he says, "it's really nice to have a warm home to come back to"), down the street from Moochie Norris and Mo Taylor, learning about this new place, America, with its thousands of differences from his birth country. One big difference: Yao would like to come to work by riding on his bike, like millions do in China. But the Rockets don't even want to think about the inherent dangers about setting Yao loose on his 10-speed in a city he doesn't yet know and in some places without bike paths.
He is different, of course, but he is also like millions of other immigrants who come to this country to find their life's work. Some stay cemented in their culture; others assimilate as soon as they feel comfortable. It is an age-old dilemma: jump into the mainstream culture, or observe it at a distance?
"I think both are necessary," Yao said. "Reading about American culture and history ... can give me a basic understanding about the culture, but experience is extremely important and getting out and having contact will give me a deeper impression."
First, there is language. Yao reads USA Today and other American papers and, like Vlade Divac a decade earlier, picks up things here and there by sitting on his butt and watching U.S. television. But also like Divac, Yao has already absorbed more English than he lets on.
"He might not speak it but he understands a lot," said Keith Jones, the Rockets' director of player personnel and athletic trainer. "Colin asked me where I was from and I said 'Originally, from San Antonio, but I've been here for seven years.' And then Yao and looked at me and said 'Originally?' So Colin explained to him in Chinese what 'Originally' is, and Yao smiles and shakes his head. So I said 'Where are you from?' And he said 'Originally, from Shanghai. Now from Houston.' "
"When he got here the first time," general manager Carroll Dawson said, "there were thousands of people at the (airport), and when we got back, everything was said through an interpreter. And finally one of the writers asked, 'Can you make a statement in English?' And he said -- and I will never forget this -- he said, 'I am sorry that I could not stop and sign every autograph and take every picture at the airport, but I am only one person, and I hope these people will give me another chance and I will have another chance to do it well.' "
Basketball has its own language, too. And the Rockets are using a combination of techniques to get Yao where he needs to be. Without the benefit of training camp or summer leagues, he's had to learn Houston's sets and plays on the fly.
"He says he understands me about 70 percent of the time," coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "I don't know how he has done as well as he has done. The good news is he has a feel for the game and he gained respect from his teammates his very first practice, with some of the things he did, even the veteran guys. We really have put him in a tough situation. Everybody wants to form this guy to their own idea, and they are looking for this finished product. And in reality, this guy is a senior in college."
The Rockets have invested time into finding effective non-verbal methods of communication, both for their time with Yao and with one another. Tomjanovich has learned that Yao picks up things quicker when he's shown instead of told. So Houston's huddles frequently become a series of points and gestures, with Yao figuring out what Rudy T wants, without ever saying a word. It's not as grab bag as it sounds.
"The other day, a conversation came up talking about zone defenses," Jones recalled. "They went over to the board during practice, and Yao got the magnets and was moving them around, and him and Rudy connected right there. So his visual aspect of his learning is really strong and I guess especially in this sport, if you can see it on the board and put it in your mind, then maybe your feet will do that on the floor."
Says Cat Mobley: "You tell him something once and he has it, and he tries his best to try and remember everything possible, which is hard, especially for your first (season) and you're dealing with two crazy guards such as Steve and myself."
Yao also has to learn about his teammates as people. For the first time in his life, for example, Yao is on a team that comprises mostly African-Americans. Ballers are ballers no matter where they come from, to be sure. But the group dynamic in Houston is completely different than it was in Shanghai.
"I asked him not too long ago, 'Do you like rap?,' " Mobley said. "He said his girlfriend likes rap so ... I don't know. You just have him hanging with you and give him the 'Wassupp?' and little funny things like that. Just being around him, and letting him be around you, and letting him see your family and vice versa and things like that. I guess he'll pick up on it."
Yao says that Francis and Mobley told him NBA games were like wars and that he couldn't be a gentleman on the floor. They also introduced him to trash talking, but Yao is finding that more art than science.
"It's too hard," he said through Pine. "I still haven't been able to master it yet."
In your line of work, you might take a new employee to dinner or a movie if you want to break the ice and get to know them. But the NBA life doesn't have many offnights or downtime. For now, Yao's offcourt schedule is so tight that there isn't much time for hanging out, but he's told his teammates that his father has a friend in town that owns a restaurant and that he will eventually have the team over. Most nights, though, Yao is on his own.
That just leaves living up to expectations on the floor. The expectations of a city, a league and two nations. And Shaq, waiting.
No pressure or anything.
"I hope," Yao says, "that I can be a very useful player for the Rockets."
David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.