No failure to communicate

Last season, the Houston Rockets were playing one of a myriad of their regular-season games when an unnamed referee sidled up to 7-foot-5 rookie center Yao Ming and uttered some directions.

Yao did not respond.

At first, the official thought, he was too far away from a man standing that tall, whose ears were two feet away from the offical's mouth. So the referee yelled louder. Still, Yao did not respond, and the referee thought that perhaps the language barrier with the native of China was having an effect.

So the official called Yao by name to get his attention. Still, nothing.

Thinking that Yao was being aloof, that he already had been indoctrinated into the Rasheed Wallace-led us-vs.-them mentality of the NBA, the official sauntered over to the Rockets' bench and asked the coaching staff what was up with the new guy.

"He can't hear out of his left ear," the official was told.

It's a little-known fact about a man who has had more written about him in the past year than any Chinese citizen since Rikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo.

Yao said that when he was eight- or nine-years-old, he became sick and was prescribed a medicine. He ended up being allergic to the medicine, which robbed him of about 60 percent hearing in his left ear.

He said it was not much of a problem growing up and is not a great deal of a problem now that he plays in the NBA.

"It affects me a little bit," Yao said. "Sometimes, when it's really loud on the court, I can't hear clearly. But it's not really a problem anymore."

Yao downplays the handicap, and in truth it does not make a noticeable difference in his game. However, his interpreter, Colin Pine, a former U.S. government worker who was
picked from literally hundreds of applicants, said it was enough of an issue that he was told immediately about the deficiency.

"When I met him at the airport the first time, I was told to stand on one side," Pine said. "Then, later on, we had to fill out medical stuff, and it came out."

Pine said in Yao's rookie season he would have to make concessions during timeouts.

"I hardly ever have to do that anymore, but before, when he was a rookie, and we would be in the huddles, and when I would do interviews, I would always make sure I was on his right side," Pine said. "There aren't really any effects of it anymore. Except occasionally, like the referee said, someone will yell at him and he won't hear. He makes up for it during timeouts by sitting in certain places so he can hear."

In something of an odd twist, Rockets point guard Steve Francis said he also has a hard time hearing out of his left ear, a result of the painful migraine headaches he experienced that kept him out of games in the 2001-02 season. As a result, the Rockets use hand signals to call plays rather than communicating verbally.

As for that referee who thought Yao was ignoring him, well, Yao says the incident has slipped his mind (wink wink).

"If I remember," he said with a smile, "than obviously I would have been ignoring him on purpose. So I don't remember."

  • I have to plead mea culpa for my dire prediction for the Utah Jazz, who I thought had a pretty good chance of being the worst team in NBA history, given their roster is festooned with players named Ben Handlogten, Raul Lopez and Sasha Pavlovic.

    However, Jerry Sloan has the Jazz playing unbelieveable basketball, so well in fact that they already have won nine games and are only 1½ games out of first place in the Midwest Division.

    Sloan has them playing Princeton-style basketball, with a lot of hard screens, backdoor cuts and solid defense, and the Jazz are 9-1 at home after Monday's win over New Jersey. Plus, Sloan has not mellowed, a testament to his singularly successful style.

    The other day, Sloan substituted for Greg Ostertag, who showed his maturity by throwing a towel into the stands, which prompted Sloan to suspend Ostertag for the next game. Then the human part of Sloan came out. Raised extremely poor, with no idea when or from where the next meal was coming, Sloan always is reticent to take away a player's money.

    So when he learned that the collective bargaining agreement does not allow a player to be suspended with pay, he unsuspended Ostertag, allowed him to dress but kept him chained to the bench even as the Jazz routed Seattle by 20 points.

    Frank Hughes, who covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.