James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo
Fine Line Features presents an Endgame Entertainment/NBA Entertainment Production. Produced and directed by James D. Stern and Adam Del Rio. Running time: 88 minutes. Rated PG (for some mild language).
The Great Wall of China is a remarkable achievement. It’s scope and size are awe-inspiring. Originally, it was built to ward off the invading Mongolians. But it also had an inherent effect on the nation itself – isolation. The Wall made China a self-contained, Communist country; western ideology and influences were not tolerated.
Then something funny happened in the 1970s. The simple game of ping pong changed the country’s dynamic. Who ever thought that a table, a net, two paddles and a small white ball could open up talks between the United States and China.
More than thirty years later a ping pong ball would change the landscape of both China and the National Basketball Association (NBA). In 2002, a number of bottom tier teams were a part of the NBA lottery. One of the teams was the Houston Rockets. In the 1990s the Rockets won back-to-back championships (1993-94 and 1994-95). The second championship was an astonishing feat; the team’s sixth seed standing is the lowest ranked seed to ever win an NBA title. Later in the decade the Rockets were on the cusp of the NBA finals again, making it to the Western Conference finals. The nucleus of that Rockets team was Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon and the Houston fans were sad to see him opt to sign with the Toronto Raptors. The Rockets franchise entered a rebuilding period and signed Steve “The Franchise” Francis to lead Houston to another shot at a championship. Sadly, his leadership was uninspiring and the 2001 season spun out of control.
So with breaths held during the NBA lottery a white ping-pong ball dropped favoring the Houston Rockets, giving the team the number one lottery pick in the draft. While other commentators (ahem, Charles Barkley) thought the Rockets should pick Jay Williams or another perimeter player, the Rockets remained steadfast and picked a 7-foot-6, 22-year-old Chinese big man named Yao Ming. Houston was unquestionably ready for “something big,” but how about the rest of the NBA? The answer can be found in The Year of the Yao a documentary that chronicles the gentle giant’s first season in the NBA.
“The Great Chinese Hype” was in for a rude awakening when he arrived in the States. Heading onto the court his rookie season Yao would make a lot of mistakes; shooting bricks and fumbling passes; and moving slow up and down the court. Basketball in the States is more up tempo with emphasis placed, in some regards, on individual achievement, not teamwork. Still, with the world spinning around him, Yao Ming had a confidant to communicate his bewilderment – Colin Pine.
Standing five-foot-nine-and-a-half, Colin has worked for the U.S. State Department and worked as a teacher in China. Fluent in the Mandarin-dialect, he was employed by the Rockets organization to be Yao’s translator. As Colin Pine conferred with the public relations director for the Rockets, he saw a behemoth of a man walking down the terminal to meet his mother (who took an earlier flight out of China). When the two are introduced Yao Ming says to Colin, “I thought you would be older.” (Colin is in his twenties.) Their handshake marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Over the course of the regular season Colin and Yao were joined at the hip, inseparable from one another. The same can be said for the cameras that followed Yao for an entire year. Trying to get Yao assimilated to the western culture, Colin took him to Best Buy. In the video game section he showed Yao a Playstation 2 game that is similar to Street Fighter, a staple to the arcade-fighting genre.
Yao’s teammates also tried to help him grow, both on and off the court. Head coach Rudy Tomjanovich explained the pick-and-roll play and defensive playmaking in basketball lingo to both Yao and translator Colin. During training camp Colin says that he now knows three languages – English, Chinese, and Basketball. In the locker room shooting guard Cutino Mobley tried to explain soul food to Yao by touching his hand. For Thanksgiving the Rockets had a big dinner while in Seattle and Yao experienced turkey for the very first time.
During his rookie year, Yao Ming had many obstacles to overcome. After his few games many NBA insiders thought Yao was a bust; a waste of a draft pick. Then a transformation started taking place. His coming out game is against the Los Angeles Lakers. Shaquille O’Neal was out with an injury so Yao Ming had free reign as a dominating presence inside.
As The Year of the Yao progresses, Yao is uncontrollable; a big man with a killer instinct. So much so that when he meets a healthy Shaquille O’Neal, the game is hyped like a championship fight main event. “Yao vs. Shaq.” Though, watching the film I couldn’t help but think that NBA fans will never get another chance to see gladiators such as these two face one another. Shaq is nearing that age where he may want to hang up his size 18’s. Yao has many more years left ahead of him.
Sadly, The Year of the Yao by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo, only captures Yao’s first season in the NBA. Since his rookie season, the Houston Rockets have gone through many changes. Tomjanovich, Francis, and Mobley are all gone. Besides Yao, only one Rocket player remains from the 2002-2003 roster. New faces and a new head coach have changed the look of the team. (As if Yao didn’t already have enough to worry about.)
With all these changes, however, Yao’s best bud Colin is there by his side. These two complement each other perfectly. As their friendship continues to blossom we, the viewer, seek a connection. One can start to feel for these two. Watching Yao leave on a plane for Shanghai at the end of the season it’s easy to see the pain resonate in Colin’s eyes. He knows they will communicate daily via the Internet; but he’s sad because he won’t get to see his friend for many months.
There is a bright side to Yao’s departure, however. Yao said he’d help Colin find a girlfriend when he returns to Houston.