It seems unlikely that any American outside of a cloistered, sports-averse, PBS-watching film reviewer would have failed to notice the 2002 arrival of Yao Ming, the seven-foot-six gentle giant also known as China's national basketball hero and, in the U.S., the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft -- especially since, immediately after his plane landed, Yao appears to have dominated sports coverage for months on end. So, let me begin by saying that I'm sorry I didn't know who he was, though I had noticed a very tall Chinese man in a commercial, asking if he could write a check. Next, please allow me to assure you that now, after having seen The Year of the Yao, a delightful, warmhearted documentary about Yao's first season with the Houston Rockets, I love him just as much as everybody else does.
And I've got company. Apparently, China has about as many basketball fans as America has people -- 270 million -- and almost all of them love Yao. Stateside, he's charmed us by the hordes, inspiring songs, cheers, bobbleheads, advertising campaigns, thousands of Web sites, and, most important, people. Americans feel good about Yao. They respect him and his obvious work ethic, and, of course, they're blown away by his stature. Mysterious though Yao may be (he seems shy and modest even at his most comfortable), he inspires abundant goodwill. And after an hour and a half in his virtual company, it's no surprise. That boy's got class.
In The Year of the Yao, directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo (the latter of whom admits, incidentally, to a relative lack of interest in sports) follow their subject through his first seven months on American soil. The film begins as Yao leaves China and ends as he returns to the mainland for the off-season. In between, we watch as the world-famous recruit is thrust into a maelstrom of culture shock, media attention and intense professional pressure and, remarkably, avoids a psychotic break. Yao misses the Rockets' rookie orientation and must attempt to assimilate their plays, jargon, drills, routines and slang in a matter of weeks, all in a foreign language and with great expectations -- from both the Rockets and the people of China.
One of the great things about The Year of the Yao is that it has not merely one hero but two. In fact, the film is really the story of two rookies, both Yao and his translator, Colin Pine, a charmingly green twentysomething equally stunned by the blinding headlights of obsessive media attention. Committed to easing his client's transition, Pine introduces Yao to the fundamentals of American culture: video games, road rage and shopping. Pine also supports Yao emotionally, offering him encouragement during his initial struggle. The directors make a wise choice in using Pine's lengthy interview as a voiceover through much of the film. His narration is graceful and kind, never exposing anything private about Yao and instead focusing on his own experience of their first seven months together.
Because of Pine's presence, Year of the Yao deepens considerably, portraying a real friendship between two young men -- a relationship forged quietly amid a deafening storm of distraction. The mutual respect and gratitude are clear and, well, heartwarming. That Yao has such a loyal American companion is a comfort to anyone who worries, about two thirds of the way into the film, about the player's increasingly furrowing brow and sinking shoulders. The severely taxing schedule seems to be doing him in, and it's hard to watch -- but at least he has Colin.
Another bonus of The Year of the Yao is the access inside an NBA team. We're shown quite a bit of what happens behind the scenes with the Rockets -- at the practices, in the locker room, as the players sit around yapping and getting "stim" (electric stimulation) on their muscles and nerves. At least on camera, Yao's teammates show surprising sensitivity toward him, giving him room to adjust and grow. One Rocket even waits to good-naturedly tease Yao until he's sure that teasing exists in China too. Sure, it's a tad ignorant, but respectful nonetheless. Clearly, Yao's teammates like him, and they understand his humility and initial lack of aggression to be cultural differences -- though the latter issue must be addressed. In a great moment, one player explains to then-coach Rudy Tomjanovich that they've got to teach Yao how to enter "kill" mode.
The Year of the Yao doesn't exactly have a story arc, but it does have dramatic highs and lows -- Yao's first NBA game, in which he bombed, followed by his first game against then-Laker superstar Shaquille O'Neal, in which Yao triumphed. Between the sweet story of his friendship with Colin and the thrilling displays of his talent on the court, The Year of the Yao is eminently watchable. It goes by in a flash.