- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

Colin Pine's plan was to enter law school at George Washington University in the fall. Mr. Pine traded in that plan for a very tall order: serve as the English voice of one of the world's most popular basketball players, 7-foot-5-inch Yao Ming.
Mr. Pine is there for every victory, loss and tiresome question experienced by Yao, the Chinese basketball star playing his first season in the NBA.
"It's been a whirlwind," said Mr. Pine, a 29-year-old Baltimore native who graduated from James Madison University. "I never imagined all the things I would get to do and have to do. It's been exciting, demanding and tiring."
Every time Yao speaks with the media, Mr. Pine translates between Mandarin and English. He sits behind the Houston Rockets' bench during games and listens in the huddle, making sure that coach Rudy Tomjanovich and Yao understand each other.
But Mr. Pine's job extends beyond the basketball court.
He lives with Yao and the player's parents in a house in Houston (For the record: Yao's father, Yao Zhi Yuan, stands 6 feet 7 inches tall, and his mother, Fang Feng Di, is 6 feet 3 inches tall). The two men have become close friends. They travel together, eat together Yao dislikes America's version of Chinese food and discuss everything from sports to politics. They also watch movies, a recent one being "The Bourne Identity."
"He got bored," Mr. Pine said. "I ended up watching it alone."
The interpreter is the main link between Yao and his teammates and the media, but he also presided over Yao's introduction to American life.
That is no small matter for the 22-year-old Yao, the first Chinese player to become a star in the NBA. Yao has captivated fans and impressed coaches with his skills and long-term potential. He also has impressed the corporate world, striking endorsement deals with such heavyweights as Apple Computer and Visa.
Mr. Pine has been essential to helping Yao make the transition to a different culture and meet the demands and pressures of top-level athletics and the big-dollar business world.
The translator, in the process, has become a minor celebrity himself, thanks to the media frenzy that follows Yao wherever he goes. On Tuesday, Yao sat in front of 50 reporters in a cramped room in Madison Square Garden. To his right was Mr. Pine, performing the arduous task of translating English questions into Mandarin and Yao's replies in rapid fashion.
"I have never been a person who wanted to have a high profile and be in the public eye," said Mr. Pine, who drew a handful of reporters himself after Yao finished. "And I am only here because of him. It's interesting to have to go in front of people and speak for somebody else."
Mr. Pine became interested in Chinese culture because he had Chinese-American and other Asian friends at James Madison, where he got his degree in English. After graduation, he asked his parents for a crash course in Mandarin and a plane ticket to Taipei, Taiwan.
The short trip abroad that Mr. Pine planned turned into a three-year stay. He prepared English-teaching materials for grammar school children and taught English at night. He studied at National Taiwan University to master the language.
"I fell in love with the culture and the language," he said. "I picked up Chinese just living there. But I wanted to go the next level."
Mr. Pine returned to the United States in 1999 and worked briefly for a commercial real estate company in Bethesda.
"I couldn't stand it," he said. "I was miserable not speaking Chinese."
He got a job as a translator for the State Department. Then came Yao.
Mr. Pine first learned of the job with the Rockets when a friend forwarded an e-mail advertising an opening. He was particularly excited about it for another reason: He is a big Maryland Terrapins fan, and former Terps star Steve Francis is on the Rockets team. Mr. Pine sent a resume but figured it was a lost cause when he didn't get a reply after a month.
Then, suddenly, he was meeting with Yao over a Chinese dinner and moving to Houston.
"I learned a lot about myself and made a great friend," Mr. Pine said. "I've been able to do things that a lot of people only dream of."
Yao rarely lets his guard down or goes out in public, but he is at ease with his new American friend. The playful center was asked before the Rockets' trip to New York to play the Knicks how he felt about visiting the United States' biggest city.
"If Colin treats to pizza, I will be even more excited," Yao said, flashing his now-famous smile.
Mr. Pine has a one-year contract with the Rockets and is again considering attending George Washington this fall. He might return to work with Yao another season. But he knows he will be needed less as Yao becomes acclimated to his new country and learns more English.
The role as Yao's translator is challenging, and Mr. Pine walks a tricky line each day between reporters, coaches and Yao, who can get testy as he is required to speak before and after each game. It's all part of being the English voice of one of the world's most popular basketball star.
"It's difficult and tiring," Mr. Pine said. "But at the end of the day, it's a lot of fun."


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