Of the 116 players selected in the last two NBA drafts, 22 were from foreign countries and six others were from an even stranger and more alien place—high school. The resulting amalgam of heterogeneous dialects has produced not only a wondrous locker room babble but also a secondary labor force of assistant coaches, advisers, translators, dieticians and all-around cultural tutors brought aboard to guide the young 'uns, foreign and domestic, through the NBA minefield. Colin Pine, who was hired to ease the transition of the Houston Rockets' No. 1 pick, 7'5" Yao Ming, attends practices and sits behind the bench during games, yelling over the crowd noise and music in Mandarin to Yao if the player, whose grasp of English is limited, doesn't understand a stratagem. Plus, he lives with him. Yao's agent, Erik Zhang, defines Pine's role as "translator-slash-chauffeur-slash-personal manager-slash-tutor."
While the Rockets plan to keep Pine around the pine for as long as Yao needs him, the Denver Nuggets have been weaning their Brazilian rookie, Nene Hilario, off his translator, Joe Santos. But at least Hilario got that initial help. The first wave of Europeans to come into the NBA in the late '80s ( Alexander Volkov of the U.S.S.R., Zarko Paspalj of Yugoslavia and Sarunas Marciulionis of Lithuania) was hurt by having a limited support system. "Teams didn't realize how hard it was to make all the basketball adjustments and the cultural adjustments," says Vlade Divac of the Sacramento Kings, a Yugoslav who spoke almost no English when he was selected by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1989.
Not to mention dietary adjustments. Months after the Chicago Bulls landed high school phenoms Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry in the 2001 draft, they hired a dietician and chef and charged them with introducing the teenagers to offerings other than those in the burger-and-fries food group. In addition former Bull Bill Wennington was brought in specifically to mentor the youngsters. "Players used to be more interactive and helped each other more," says Wennington, who came into the league in 1985. "Now these young guys go off on their own, and there's a lot more to be learned." Wennington reports to a shrink, Steve Julius, who heads the Bulls' player relations program. Twelve other NBA teams participate in a similar program run by the league, most employing former players in the Julius role. "When I came into the league, my orientation was Walter Davis and Alvan Adams telling me not to get in trouble," says Miami's player-development rep Ed Pinckney, who was a rookie in '85. "Now the orientation guide is 12 inches thick."
Player assistance is cost-effective, too, particularly considering the salaries (Chandler and Curry will have made a combined $19 million by the end of the 2003-04 season unless they renegotiate upward) that are being paid to young players. For all his slashes, Pine, 28, makes an estimated $70,000—that to ease the transition of Yao, who looks as if he will be a franchise player some day.
The best part of Yao's support system is that his parents have moved from China to live with him and Pine "For a player to have people around who love him is best," says Mike Bantom, head of the NBA's player relations department, "but that's not the reality. Making sure we hire people to help the player is the next best thing."