- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

Yao Ming sat at his locker after an overtime victory over the Boston Celtics, surrounded by shopping bags.
It was Asian-American night at FleetCenter in Boston, and a sellout crowd had come to get a glimpse of the NBA's first Chinese star.
They didn't come empty-handed.
A local chef brought Yao a warm dinner of Peking duck. Others brought gifts of a more traditional and less-filling variety, enough things to fill up the three bags next to Yao. Fans in the crowd held up handmade signs lettered in Chinese and posters bearing the likeness of Yao's face.
The 7-foot-5 rookie center for the Houston Rockets also drew the attention of the Celtics, who double-teamed him every time he touched the ball and banged his slender frame at every chance. After the game, Yao met with the media, just as he does before and after each game in each city he visits.
The constant attention is draining for the 22-year old phenom, who is tired after another emotional and physically difficult game in a seemingly endless season.
Yao fulfills his obligation and speaks to some 15 media members including several from Chinese newspapers who ask questions in his native Mandarin but the charismatic smile that made him a Madison Avenue darling is nowhere in sight.
"The cost of enjoying the season is being very tired," Yao said through an interpreter. "Every game there is a new challenge. Facing up against every different player presents new problems. And each city also has new media problems, too."
One reporter launched into a long-winded question that doesn't seem to have a point. Yao interrupted and said in clear English, "Are you going to ask a question of me?"
He is asked how he will unwind following the tense victory.
"The best way is to get out of here a little earlier and avoid the media," Yao said, with a deadpan expression. The comment makes his interpreter laugh, but it is clear the constant scrutiny has taken a toll.
Yao acknowledges he is homesick. He rarely goes out in public because he draws too much attention. He lists naps as one of his favorite hobbies and rarely leaves his hotel except for team functions. The media and public circus stop only when Yao is out of sight.
"Sometimes on the road, some of us will go to dinner," Houston guard Cuttino Mobley said. "Yao brings too much attention, so he can't come. I have never had that kind of pressure. The only one who has is Michael [Jordan]."
Yao has heard the comparisons to Jordan, not because of his game but because of his marketability. Yao was a big hit in the recent Visa "Yo-Yao" commercial and in a spot with Verne Troyer ("Mini-me" from two "Austin Powers" movies) for Apple computers. But no more commercials will be shot until after the season in an effort to limit Yao's schedule to NBA commitments.
In New York, he is questioned about being the marketing heir to Jordan.
"I don't really understand the perspective of that," he says. "I'm a basketball player, not a businessman."
Although Yao can be overwhelmed by the endless attention, his sense of humor helps him deal with it. Before the Boston game, a petite Asian woman asks how he got to be so tall. "Can you tell me why you are so small?" Yao replies with a sly grin.
When asked about the result of the Visa check commercial, he answers, "Next time I bring a check and buy the Statue of Liberty."
He also jokes with his teammates. Before the Boston game, he was reading a Chinese newspaper that had a picture of him that took up most of the back page. When Mobley walked by, Yao tried to hand him the paper.
"The jokes that he does know, he tells very well [in English]," forward Glen Rice said. "And they are some pretty harsh jokes. To everyone's surprise, he's a funny guy. He gets in there with all of us. When we laugh and joke and talk about the clothes the other guys are wearing, he's right there with us"
But although he apparently speaks better English than he lets on particularly to the media there is a huge cultural gap between him and his teammates. To most of the Rockets, he is still a bit of mystery, just like he is to the public.
"A lot of us are from the same neighborhoods except Yao," said Mobley, who has held off on teasing Yao except for his dramatic falls on the court. "He has his moments when he jokes, he hugs you. He's playful. He's just a real gentle dude."
That easygoing personality, his workmanlike approach and team-first mentality have helped smooth Yao's transition from the Shanghai Sharks of the China Basketball Association to the NBA.
"There is something about him that is just so warm. We love him," Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "When the world finds out about this guy, you are going to fall in love with him. He's easy to smile, has a sense of humor, his values are right on the money. He is almost a throwback to a different era.
"I think he understands pretty much what [the attention] is. He does it with common sense and balance. We talked a little bit about that. It's just sort of the way it is in China don't get too overexcited or too low."
Yao lives in Houston with his parents and translator Colin Pine. The basketball prodigy recently bought a Toyota Sequoia and initiated it by denting the rear fender backing up in the Rockets parking lot.
He has developed a fondness for Texas steaks but doesn't care much for America's version of Chinese food. Yao enjoys playing video games and watching movies, particularly action and comedies.
"He keeps up with [Chinese current events] on the Web a lot," said Pine, whose job includes helping ease Yao into American culture. "We'll talk about American government. We'll talk about China. We talk about Chinese politics. … The last movie I think we watched was 'The Bourne Identity,' but he got bored. I ended up watching it alone."
That's the quiet part of a crazed life that Yao couldn't have imagined when he came to Houston in October. He has gotten a crash course in fortune and fame that shows no signs of slowing down.
"I didn't really have a conception of what the NBA was like, because I never played in it," he said. "Everything is new and fresh to me the game and the NBA lifestyle."
And unquestionably Yao is new and fresh to the NBA.


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