Heisler usually writes good articles when he reports. When he tries to analyze, stay away...
How Now, Yao?
Everyone wants a progress report on 7-5 Rocket rookie, who is coming along slowly.
By 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 ... then back to his left ... and that's -- oops -- one too many reversals for Yao.
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 ... and then on day two, they want to know how he's doing so far ... and in a week, if he hasn't fulfilled his potential, they're starting to get impatient.
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."
By Yao's third pro season in China, he had popped up on NBA radar screens. If he entered the draft after his fourth season, he probably would have gone No. 1 ahead of preps Kwame Brown and Tyson Chandler.
Instead, Yao stayed in China. In the meantime, in the way of the NBA and its attendant media, people who had been building him up wiled away the hours until they actually laid eyes on him by deconstructing him.
He was compared to foreign players as limited as Rik Smits, or U.S. players as disappointing as Shawn Bradley.
Even admirers thought he was behind the play, didn't react well, and played the foreign finesse game, rather than the NBA attack-the-basket game.
He came to Chicago last May to hold a workout, showing his touch and mobility, but the question everyone asked was whether he could get off the plane and play Shaquille O'Neal on even terms.
Said Jerry West, who had recently taken the job in Memphis, asked to compare Yao to O'Neal or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: "He's not any of those guys."
In a sign of how things were going, an NBA release listing Yao's measured height and weight at Chicago, included a typo that made him 236 pounds, rather than his actual 296.
When the Rockets drew the No. 1 pick, there was speculation that they might take someone more ready to play, that the Chinese government might not let Yao come for a full season or would demand half his salary.
It was actually a no-brainer. The Rockets didn't need Yao to be as good as Shaq, just better than Kelvin Cato.
"I'm here for the ride," Tomjanovich said. "There's no way we were looking at him [Yao] that I said, 'Automatically he's going to come in and take over.' "
Whatever happens won't be automatic, but the ride has started.
Coming to America
"That was the first time I saw him want to dunk on as many people as he could every time he touched the ball. When you saw him act like that -- forget the skills, the size, the talent. It was like, 'Whoo!' There was a disposition to dominate.
"When you see a man of that size with that mentality ... you start to think he has the ability to be a franchise player. And you don't throw that term around loosely."
-- San Antonio
personnel director Brett Brown
after watching Yao last summer
"There aren't too many guys who have made me feel short, but, wow, he's big. He made me feel short and small."
-- Spur 7-1 center
Now for the matchup you've been waiting for ...
Samaki Walker vs. Jason Collier?
It was supposed to be Shaq vs. Yao tonight at Staples Center, even if it would have been a ritual, with Shaq coming out just about the time Yao entered for his seven-minute stint.
With Yao's other disadvantages, he was obliged to play for China in the Asian Games, setting his arrival in camp back until Oct. 20, nine days before the season opened.
"Nobody's gone through what this kid's gone through," Tomjanovich says.
"He missed the whole summer. Summer league's so important, just our style of play.... The two months after that when you process that stuff in your individual workouts with your coaches. And then, the most important time for anybody, the first two weeks of training camp when you put in your nuts and bolts.
"So he missed all that. He comes in, there's just media flying all over the place.... It's been a real tough thing.
"He's handled it great. He's had some real good games and he's had some games that weren't that good. He gained respect from his teammates in the first practice [with] his passing, some of the moves he made. He's just a good, team guy."
For the moment, Yao is a reserve team guy. With Cato out Friday, Tomjanovich started Collier.
Smits, who would become an All-Star, was painfully slow with chronically injured feet. Bradley was enticing but showed little in the way of a work ethic or fondness for the game.
"Nobody knows what the future is going to be and I definitely don't," Tomjanovich says. "My gut feeling is, I can say confidently, with time he [Yao] will be a good NBA player. There's something special about him, how he does things, that there's a chance he could be better than that.
"A lot of it is nervous system, situations, injuries. But he's got a feel for the game. I think he loves the game, has a passion for the game. But again, it's with time."
These days, when Yao is near the basket, he hammers the ball home. His nervous system looks fine.
Perceived as a stranger in a strange land, he's frequently asked if he has been able to find Chinese food, as if that were difficult.
Actually, he loves steak. In Shanghai, his favorite restaurant was Tony Roma's.
He goes through news conferences at each new city, grinning, firing off lines.
To a question about how much English he speaks, he says, through the interpreter, that if he understood more, he would fire the interpreter.
To a question about scrutiny from the Houston Chronicle beat man, Jonathan Feigen, he says he's aware of it, because he sees Feigen at every game.
He isn't quite Billy Crystal, but the room keeps breaking up, probably because the young man seems so likable.
"He is cute," Yang Yi says. "He is humorous. I have never seen a player from China who is so cute. I think it helps him make good relationships."
Finally, asked about his highs and lows, Yao says, "The happiest moments are when I get to go home in the evening, and the hardest are when I leave the house."
It has already been a long season for him, with 90% of it to go. The Rockets will be back to play the Lakers on Feb. 18, though that's still early for a duel of titans, as opposed to an introduction.
Of course, Yao will play the Lakers in L.A. twice a year for the foreseeable future, when the gulf between him and Shaq-Fu may close.