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
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
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.
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.)
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."