Chinese basketball star Yao Ming, standing 7 feet 5 inches tall, made waves across the pacific when he was chosen by the Houston Rockets as the first pick in the NBA’s (National Basketball Association) 2002 draft. Yao was a towering figure and acknowledged for his skill, but there were quite a few naysayers who doubted his ability to play the rough and tumble style of American professional basketball. Also, life in the United States would be a dramatic departure from that in China. Yao would have to embrace an entirely foreign culture while adapting his game to the NBA’s. This is the premise of “The Year of the Yao”, a documentary from filmmakers Adam Del Deo and James D. stern. They shadowed Yao for his entire rookie season, from the moment he left China to the Rockets last game. Their cameras capture the overwhelming pressure that Yao faced to succeed and the fierce loyalty he inspired in the people around him.
As the film begins, we meet Yao’s 28 year old interpreter Colin Pine, who would be instrumental in acclimating Yao to everything American. This was Colin’s first gig as an interpreter and he looked more nervous than Yao. Their relationship serves as the anchor for the film. They develop a deep friendship and stumble through all facets of NBA life together. It’s actually very funny and sometimes touching. Colin lived with Yao and his family, so their interaction quickly grew beyond a business relationship.
Yao’s difficulty adapting to life in Houston and the frenetic pace of the basketball season makes for fascinating viewing. Beyond the pressure of living up to his billing as the number one draft pick, Yao’s every move is also being watched by millions of people in China. He’s an unofficial ambassador between the two countries and is constantly scrutinized. Any failure or misstep would be seen as an embarrassment for China. Yao realizes this and takes great pains to be diplomatic, even though he clearly disliked the media attention and having to sign endless autographs.
Anyone who watches basketball knows that Yao was not a bust. It took a while for his game to develop, but he turned into a juggernaut for the Houston Rockets. The funniest part of the film is watching TV host and former NBA star, Charles Barkley; pay his comeuppance for doubting Yao’s ability. The film also does a good job of documenting the intense media frenzy over Yao’s first meeting with Shaquille O’ Neal, the center for the Los Angeles Lakers and dominant player in the league. It was a marquis match-up and garnered the spectacle that the NBA had been hoping for.
The Year of the Yao is an obvious commercially oriented film. It’s part financed by the NBA and is meant to promote basketball as well. China offers a rich market for the league and Yao’s stardom is key to that venture. That being said, The Year of the Yao is a tremendously entertaining film. It’s a absorbing journey and Yao Ming is easy to root for. He’s extremely likeable and handles a situation that most people would crumble under. It’s easily the best basketball film I’ve seen in years.