The Year of the Yao

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
The Year of the Yao
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Chinese basketball phenomenon, 7’ 5” Yao Ming, made his American NBA debut as the first round draft pick for the bottom dwelling Houston Rockets during the 2002-2003 basketball season. Documentary filmmakers Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern tell about that momentous year as seen through the eyes of Yao’s diminutive translator, Colin Pine, as the rookie helped make the sport a truly international one in The Year of the Yao.”

Documentary features have a tendency to be message-oriented tomes that deal with serious, sometimes earth-shaking subject matter. Even the mirthful “Super Size Me” had its serious statements to make about obesity in America and the harmful effects of too much junk food. “The Year of the Yao” is different.

Docu filmmakers Del Deo and Stern provide a straightforward chronology beginning with Yao Ming’s arrival in the US as the last place Rockets’ first round draft pick and the hope for the revival of Houston. With his brand new translator, Colin, in tow, Yao wades through the enormous hype over his coming to America, the sports reporters and paparazzi and his new, adoring fans –all before he plays his first game.

Speculation runs high as sports casters make predictions, good and bad, over Yao’s debut – such as Charles Barkley wagering that he would kiss his sport program co-host’s ass if Yao ever scored 19 points (a bet that Barkley amusingly pays off). The first game is a bust for the Chinese superstar and he doesn’t score a single point. The nay Sayers revel in their smug rightness and discount Yao as merely a PR gimmick. But, as anyone who follows pro basketball even a little bit knows, the faith of nearly 300 million Asian fans and Yao’s new American fans paid off.

Yao’s rookie year, as seen through the eyes of Colin Price, is a real roller-coaster ride for the NBA’s biggest-ever player. As he scores points and helps move Houston to the playoffs, we also see his life as China’s unofficial ambassador-at-large, media idol and all around nice guy. Yao plays the game for all it is worth, both on and off the court, sometimes driving himself to exhaustion trying to do and be everything to everyone. There is also the side story of what affect Yao’s rookie year had on Price, where basketball had to become his “third language,” and his growing friendship with the rookie star.

Docu-feature newcomers Del Deo and Stern keep things meat-and-potato as they follow Yao, get copious video footage of him and his fellow teammates and other players, like Shaq, many talking head interviews, including basketball legends Rudy Tomjonavich and Bill Walton. The excitement on the court and the banter and good-natured ribbing in the locker room is handled by the book by the behind the camera crew.

Maybe there is some seriousness imbued in “The Year of the Yao.” After all, the 22-year old, 7’5”, 310 lb youngster bore the burden of the hopes of hundreds of millions worldwide. But, hey, the kid has broad shoulders and I think he can handle the load. I give it a B

The Houston Rockets made a bold gamble with their first draft pick in 2002 - they chose the 22 year old non-English speaking Shanghai Shark, Ming Yao, not only for his athleticism, but for his 7' 6" 310 lb. frame.  Armed with an equally green translator, 28 year old Colin Pine, the rookie NBA player turns a very wobbly start into "The Year of the Yao."

Actually, the film could as easily been titled "My Giant," as codirectors James B. Stern and Adam Del Deo present their material almost entirely through the eyes of translator Pine.  B'ball fanatic Stern (IMAX's "Jordan to the Max") recruited his former producer Del Deo, a non-sports nut, to codirect this East meets West cultural clash on and off the sports court, but while their subject is amiably charismatic, the filmmakers fail to fully get beneath his skin.  Still, this entertaining flick provides a real bird's eye look at the tremendous pressure - Yao was a Sports Illustrated cover boy before playing a single NBA game - and bewildering weirdness that Yao endured during his rookie year.

The filmmakers open with a brief rundown of China's historic isolation as epitomized by the Great Wall and its gradual relaxation to the West beginning with the Ping-Pong Diplomacy of 1971.  They astutely use this event to segue to the ping pong balls used for the NBA's draft pick lottery and the Rocket's controversial choice, before introducing us to Colin Pine, who will act as a guide throughout the film.  Pine, who chose this assignment over law school because his love of all things Chinese, is extremely nervous, being unfamiliar with both the role of translator and the sport he's about to become intimately involved with ('Chinese was my second language, basketball my third').  As Colin awaits Ming's arrival at the Houston airport, we're given a quick history of the Chinese center who began playing professionally at the age of fourteen.

Yao and Colin both have shaky starts.  The player must face not only new terminology, but the speed and aggression of the NBA.  The interpreter faces a whole new world as well - sports. Ming is quickly dismissed by the press, who regard him as an awkward oaf, with Charles Barkley proclaiming on a television sports how that he'll kiss ass live if the player ever manages to score nineteen points, but the Rockets and Coach Rudy Tomjanovich remain supportive. Always looming in the shadows is the much anticipated matchup between Yao and Shaquille O'Neal, the NBA's former tallest player at 7' 1" and 325 lbs.  Shaq's sidelined for the first Rockets/Lakers game, but Ming amazingly backs Barkley into his own corner and all bets are off.

Stern and Del Deo do a great job contrasting the East/West divide in both sport and culture.  It is surprising to learn that the Chinese revere basketball so much that it survived the cultural revolution because they felt the sport was their own, but team playing, vs. individual heroics, are emphasized there.  Even sports medicine is radically different, as is made humorously evident when Colin tells Ming 'They want to put electricity in you' and Yao tries to tout the benefits of acupuncture instead. Perhaps even more extreme is the cultural divide - hearing Colin explain road rage accentuates just how insane the American lifestyle really is.  A yen for a bite of snake is compared with Ming's first Thanksgiving turkey and the bizarre nature of Western celebrity is hilariously noted in Ming's first commercial for Apple Computer, with "Austin Power's" mini-me himself, Verne Troyer.

The film climaxes with the drama and deadening schedule of an All Stars Weekend, followed by the absolute mania that meets the first Yao vs. Shaq game, which equates to world soccer final frenzy back in Shanghai, before the film trails off on an ambiguous note.  The filmmakers have succeeded in making a buddy movie of sorts, the attachment between Yao and Pine palpable, but when it comes to Yao's family and friends, we learn little to nothing.  We know Ming's parents were also professional basketball players and that he therefore had some advantage growing up.  His modest bedroom in the family's Shanghai apartment is a far cry from their new Houston digs, but money, a huge consideration in professional sports today, is never mentioned. Yao's parents remain blank bystanders and Ming quickly diverts cameras from the picture of his girlfriend which adorns his nightstand.  The film is also hurt by the dated feeling of watching a third-year player's rookie year with no addendum.

Still, "The Year of the Yao" is a solid portrait of a most unusual and likable guy. It's a sports documentary that can be enjoyed by anyone interested in the human race.

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