The Year of the Yao Directed by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo Starring Yao Ming Classification: PG Rating: * * ½
Could you make a bad documentary about Yao Ming? The first Asian-born player with a chance of achieving superstardom in the National Basketball Association, Yao is the global poster boy for the league, and a charismatic pitchman for companies such as MacDonald's and Pepsi. He's also a symbol of China's economic emergence on the world stage. Handsome, affable and, at 71/2-feet tall, he stands out even in a game of giants.
Unfortunately, his story makes a good advertisement for the NBA, which co-produced The Year of the Yao. Co-directed by James D. Stern (who made another NBA promotional documentary, Michael Jordan to the Max) and Adam Del Deo, the story of the Americanization of Yao is determinedly upbeat. Communists and capitalists, black, white and Asian, and even former U.S. president Bill Clinton, all find different ways of singing Yao's praises.
The first worrisome sign is the voice-over declaration that "China has always been difficult to understand." Fortunately, the generalization is followed by a fluid montage of the history of Chinese-American sports exchanges since the "Ping-Pong diplomacy" of the early seventies and Yao's history as a basketball prodigy in Shanghai. The story properly begins with Yao's June, 2002, selection as first-round draft pick by the Houston Rockets.
Just 22, with a minimal knowledge of English, he found himself thrust in front of the American media. There were skeptics: TNT sports commentator and former basketball star Charles Barkley declared he'd kiss a fellow sportscaster's ass if Yao ever scored more than 19 points; he subsequently planted his lips on a donkey who was brought into the studio. For a long period during the preseason and in early games, Yao made the naysayers look right. In his first game, he didn't score a point. Barely able to understand English, never mind basketball-ese, he struggled.
He wasn't alone. Key to the film's emotional centre is Yao's relationship with his translator, the diminutive Colin Pine, a 28-year-old from Boston who studied Chinese, and decided to forgo law school to work as a translator. He also serves as the narrator for the film, which, in part, is his perspective on Yao's first year in the United States.
Pine is more out of place than Yao in the world of pro-jock machismo, and the two men bond. We see them checking out video games at the Best Buy in the mall, or discussing the American phenomenon of road rage while driving on a Houston highway. There's a scene in a plane after Yao's historic first-season match-up with Shaquille O'Neal's L.A. Lakers (Yao's team won the game), when Yao has a celebratory inspiration: "Do you want to eat some snake?"
The game against the Lakers, in January, 2003, is about as controversial as The Year of the Yao gets. The event was the second-most watched game in NBA history, closely followed back in Yao's homeland. O'Neal earned the ire of Asian Americans when he spoke mock Chinese on air. The match-up was also an important test of Yao's ability to handle the hype, as well as the aggressive physicality of the game, and it's heartening to see him rise to the occasion. The eventual wind-down to the first season, the all-star game and Yao's increasing fatigue ends the film on a deflated note, but the message remains upbeat: Cross-cultural harmony, booming business prospects for the NBA, and an endearing new star.
The Year of the Yao is intriguing in what it does not say. There's nothing about the finagling of American sports agents that led Chinese authorities to hold Yao out of the 2001 draft. And nothing about his two tall teammates from the Chinese national team, Wang Zhizhi of the Dallas Mavericks and Menkge Bateer of the Denver Nuggets. There is also not a whisper in the film about the unusual division of Yao's salary (a four-year, $18-million [U.S.]contract with the Rockets, not including his $10-million a year in endorsements), with 50 per cent of pretax earnings going to the Chinese government, and another slice to his former Shanghai club.
Sure, it's fun to watch big-screen close-ups of Yao battling with O'Neal, though it feels like another ESPN special. There's little context of Yao as a pawn in the great game of globalization: On one side, there's China's struggle to use its gifted athletes as bargaining chips for wealth, knowledge and prestige without relinquishing control. On the other, there's American sports capitalism, finding a key to open the door to a market of 1.2 billion people. The tall young man at the centre is just a small part of a large drama.