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In most respects, however, Yao has adapted to American culture. He hasn't used an interpreter since his third season, and his English is good, if at times choppy. (In a recent conversation, he did not know the word competitive.) To some, this comes as a surprise because of the misconception that Yao knew no English when he arrived in the U.S. In fact, at their initial meeting in 2001, Dawson recalls, "The first thing he said was, ' Coach Dawson, welcome to China.' I was amazed."
Yao also possesses a dry wit that has served him well in the locker room--asked what he is best at besides basketball, he offers: "Maybe make jokes?"--though it doesn't always translate in print. For example, when a reporter inquires whether Yao might add a new move in the off-season, he replies, deadpan: "We think about dribble the ball coast to coast for slam dunk."
It is now late March, and after missing 32 games, Yao is back in the lineup. The league, caught up as it is in the Mavericks-Suns rivalry, has not taken notice yet, but Houston is making a push. The Rockets have won six of eight since Yao's return, and there is reason for more optimism. When the starting five of Yao, Tracy McGrady, Shane Battier, Rafer Alston and Hayes have played together, Houston has outscored opponents by an average of 32 points per 48 minutes, by far the top margin in the league. The caveat: Because of injuries, the Rockets' quintet has logged only 275 minutes together. Still, the team feels good about its chances of passing the Utah Jazz for homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. On this night the opponent is the Indiana Pacers.
As he does before every game, Yao arrives at the arena at 9 a.m., an hour and a half before the shootaround. As always, Thibodeau is there to meet him. The coach begins by going over tape, showing Yao how he will be defended by a pair of 6'11" Pacers, center Jeff Foster and power forward Jermaine O'Neal. After 45 minutes, the two men head to the court, where Yao runs through shooting drills for another 45 minutes. Then, sweaty and breathing hard, Yao joins his teammates, some of whom have just arrived and are still sleepy-eyed, for the shootaround.
Yao is also the first on the floor at the Toyota Center that evening, hitting the court at 6 p.m. for an 8:30 game. He begins with spot shooting, circling through nine locations, seven on the perimeter and the two "short corners," 15 feet to either side of the basket along the baseline. The goal is to hit eight of 10 from each spot; if Yao fails, Thibodeau gives him a second chance. Most of the time, he doesn't need it.
Yao makes nine of 10 from the left elbow, then only seven of 10 from the wing.
"F---," says Yao, under his breath. On other misses he grimaces or shakes his head. Alston calls Yao's approach "almost perfectionist," while Rockets forward Juwan Howard says it's "extreme, in a good way." To watch him shoot is to see the motion at its most refined. He keeps the ball high and releases it with his right hand in a short flicking action. He does not jump and barely even moves his legs. It is almost robotic.
Next Yao steps to the line, where he hits all 10 of his free throws. Through Sunday he was shooting 86.0%, second only to Kobe Bryant among players who were averaging eight or more attempts per game. Yao's percentage not only led the team (he frequently shoots the Rockets' technicals) but also was nearly six percentage points better than that of any other center. In fact, there has never been a back-to-the-basket center as accurate from the line. ( Jack Sikma shot 84.9% for his career--almost three points higher than Yao's five-season average--but he was a 6'11" jump shooter.)
"O.K., post moves next," commands Thibodeau.
Yao sets up on the right block, practicing jump hooks, then turnarounds. It is part of his continuing education as a low-post player: developing counters, taking angles, rooting for position. "What people forget is that he was an elbow player when we got him," says Dawson. "He had a lot of finesse things in his system, and we felt like power moves were what he needed."