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How Now, Yao?

Everyone wants a progress report on 7-5 Rocket rookie, who is coming along slowly.

November 17, 2002|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — The Chinese are coming, the Chinese are coming.

Not that anybody said it would be easy ... or fun ... or fast ... or that it might not get embarrassing. Or, how do you say "crossover" in Chinese, Cricket?

Seven games into his NBA career, Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets' 7-foot-5, 296-pound Gift From the East, finds himself guarding the Phoenix Suns' Stephon Marbury, who is a foot-and-a-half smaller but has been using chumps like this all his life.

Marbury crosses his dribble over from his left hand to his right

Like a freshly harvested shock of wheat, he falls straight back onto his rear end. Marbury goes on by while players on the Suns' bench fall into each others' laps, convulsed in laughter.

Of course, the next time Yao might figure out he has to drop back an extra step. Meanwhile, when they venture into his vicinity, he'll still be 7 foot 5 and they'll still just be whatever they are.

As 6-8 Amare Stoudemire noted later, after getting toasted trying to guard Yao, "He's tall."

Yao is a lot of things, besides. As far as his NBA career goes, he has only come out to warm up.

It isn't easy being Yao, with the fate of his new team on his shoulders, not to mention "SportsCenter's" nightly highlights, Charles Barkley's big mouth, and the hopes of 1.2 billion countrymen.

The way it works these days when prospects arrive at tender ages from far-flung lands, everyone acknowledges that this will take time

While Yao might be on schedule, all things considered, even his biggest fans think this is going kind of slowly

"I think some Chinese are a little disappointed," says Yang Yi, a correspondent for the Beijing Youth Daily, who is traveling with the Rockets.

"You see here [noting the game notes before the Rockets play the Suns on Friday], Yao Ming is averaging 3.3 points and 3.7 rebounds. But I think Chinese people know they have to be patient for half a season."

Of course, this is America's game, so sophistication runs higher here ... or not.

Before the draft, Barkley, Turner's human-cannonball analyst, recommended that the Rockets take Duke's Jay Williams, even if their best player, Steve Francis, was also a point guard.

Last week, Barkley said if Yao ever scored 19 points, he would kiss studio partner Kenny Smith's, uh, cheek.

Word was relayed to Yao, resulting in a furious effort to translate the jibe. The Chinese have no corresponding phrase (remember, their civilization is a lot older than ours).

Yao was mistakenly told that Barkley said if he scored 19 points, Charles said he would kiss him.

Said Yao, who is the most unaffected person in the whirlwind that surrounds him:

"Then I'll just score 18."

Yao is making strides in the few minutes that Coach Rudy Tomjanovich gives him. After scoring 13 points in five games, he had seven in No. 6. Friday marked his first time in double figures with 10 points in 14 minutes.

The reality is better than the numbers. As it was at the World Championships, the pattern among NBA players continues to be: sneer first, marvel later.

"Yao played great tonight," the Suns' Penny Hardaway said. "I haven't seen a lot of him, but all the clips they show on ESPN, all the news stations, it's kinda like they want to embarrass him a little bit, like he can't really play. But tonight, he showed a lot of flashes of greatness....

"He can run the floor and he can move down there.... I didn't expect that."

Tell Charlie to get ready, it shouldn't be too long.

*

From China With Love

If Yao seems an anomaly in the NBA, which is made up of extremely tall men, and increasingly more from foreign lands, imagine what a phenomenon he represented among the Chinese.

Born to basketball players (his father was 6-10, his mother a 6-4 center on the national team), Yao started out gawky and weak but a fast learner.

As a teen, he attended one of Michael Jordan's summer camps and opened eyes, while getting his own opened.

"When I went to America, I didn't like to dunk much," he told ESPN magazine's Cal Fussman, through an interpreter. "It's not the Chinese way.

"In America, I'd get the ball near the basket, shoot a layup and the coach would be saying, 'Dunk the ball!' But I was used to laying it in. Finally, the coach said, 'If you get the ball in close and don't dunk it, all of your teammates are going to have to run laps.' But I couldn't help it. I was very accustomed to laying the ball in the basket. All of my teammates were running laps, begging me to dunk. Finally after about a week and many laps, I began to dunk it every time."

His pro career began when he was 16 and, like his NBA career, started slowly.

"When he came to the Chinese league five years ago," Yang Yi said, "he played against Wang Zhizhi, who was the best player in China.

"It was like Yao Ming's first night in the NBA, in Indianapolis, when he could do nothing [no points, two rebounds in 11 minutes].... But in five years, Yao Ming went step by step to becoming the most dominant player in China."

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