The learning, predictably, is pretty much one-sided, American athletes being notoriously indifferent to other cultures and lifestyles. While Yao has picked up the language and the basketball argot—though not a taste for rap music; he still favors Chinese pop rockers Zhou Jielun and David Tao—the only Rocket who has learned any Mandarin is Francis, who will say zhudong yedian, a phrase that roughly translates to "be more aggressive." Yet Yao's spirit has rubbed off on all of them. Here's a man who, having been repeatedly roughed up during one early-season game, sat down on the bench and said, "That is not an honorable team." (No one would say which team Houston was playing.)
Here is a man who, before and after almost every game and countless times in between, has to recount his personal history, weighing the context and subtext of each question before patiently navigating with Pine the tricky course of translation. Here is a man who grasps the absurdity of all the attention being accorded him and tries from time to time to infuse his answers with humor, a precarious cross-cultural leap. "I felt like I was underwater, and now I can breathe," he said when asked afterward about Friday's game. Of the dinner engagement with Shaq that didn't happen, Yao said, "I was afraid my refrigerator wasn't big enough." That's not bad.
And here is a man who played down the potentially incendiary remarks of O'Neal, who mouthed off to a radio reporter last June: "Tell Yao Ming, 'Ching, chong yang wah ah so.' " (The incident drew renewed attention when a Jan.3 column in Asian Week decried O'Neal's racial in-sensitivity, and Shaq apologized for his remarks last week, even using the Mandarin word dui bu qi for "I'm sorry.") When asked if he held animosity toward Shaq for the ethnic slur, Yao said, "We're all basketball players. We all live together on this earth." It sounded right, something that a citizen of the world would say. "It's hard to describe what Yao has meant," says Mobley, "but it's been great—I mean great—having him around."
That feeling extends beyond the team, of course, to many of Houston's 104,000 Asian residents—12% of the Rockets' group-sales ticket buyers are Asian, a jump of 11.5% from last season—as well as to Yao's homeland. The 10:30 a.m. broadcast of Friday night's game reached an estimated 112 million households in China, and a dozen or so reporters from his native country will be in and out of Houston this season to chronicle the Ming miracle. It is unfair to ratchet up the pressure on Yao by attaching so much cultural weight to his progress as the NBA's first Chinese star, of course, but that is what's going to happen anyway. Besides, at this early juncture it seems that he's the right man to carry that load.
"Yao has given a new Chinese image," says Xi Kiaohe, a reporter for China Sports Weekly, the country's largest sports magazine. "People thought of Chinese people as short and skinny, not fierce, unable to play competitive sports. Yao has shown that is
wrong. But he's also stayed kind and friendly and warm. I think a lot of people know that about him now." And more are learning every day.