The Center of Attention

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Yao's first six games were a disaster. He averaged fewer than 4 points and was frequently out of position on defense. He made highlight films the world over when a crossover dribble by Phoenix Suns guard Stephon Marbury fooled him so badly that he crumpled to the floor like a shot giraffe. Then in a November game against the Lakers, Yao came alive. He hit all nine of his shots, scored 20 points and grabbed six rebounds. Shaquille O'Neal, with an injured toe, missed Yao's coming out, but Shaq was back by the time the Rockets and Lakers squared off again on Jan. 17, in what turned out to be the NBA's second-highest-rated regular-season game ever on cable. Yao blocked five of O'Neal's shots — almost half as many blocks as Shaq had suffered in the previous 26 games — and finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds. (Shaq scored 31 and was his usual unstoppable self, but the Rockets won the game in overtime.) "All I was hoping was that by Christmas, he'd be able to play 20 minutes a game," says Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "You could say I've been pleasantly surprised."

If it seems the bar for Yao was set low, it's because the modern NBA has seen a parade of giants from exotic corners of the world, and few have made the grade. A small number, like Lithuania's 7-ft. 3-in. Arvydas Sabonis, have made effective use of their height; most, like reedy 7-ft. 7-in. Sudanese Manute Bol and wobbly 7-ft. 7-in. Romanian Gheorghe Muresan, have stuck out like Giacometti statues in a gladiator ring. "Unlike Bol and Muresan," says Memphis Grizzlies coach Hubie Brown, "this guy is strong. And he's got great touch."

That's because, unlike many earlier imports, Yao grew up playing basketball. His 6ft. 3-in. mother, Fang Fengdi, a high-ranking official in the Chinese sports-research institute, was on the national team, as was his 6-ft. 7-in. father, Yao Zhiyuan, an engineer with the Shanghai harbor administration. "He's been taught well," says Pete Newell, who runs the respected Big Man Camp for college and professional giants in Honolulu. "He's very, very sound fundamentally." Still, no one, not even Yao, can explain why he suddenly started playing like an All-Star. "I don't know what happened," says Yao through his interpreter, Colin Pine. "It's a testament to my coaches and teammates. They've helped me very much."

Yao's parents are also helping. Unlike most other rookies, who must simultaneously cope with the rigors of the NBA's nonstop schedule and the novelty of living alone for the first time, Yao, an only child, shares a four-bedroom Houston manse with his mom, dad and Pine. ("I do have my own bedroom," jokes Pine, 29, a former U.S. government document translator.) "The fact that my parents are here," says Yao, "has made my adjustment to American life much easier, although, really, there hasn't been anything that difficult to get adjusted to."

Remove the language barrier, and Yao is your standard 22-year-old jock. He loves pizza, ribs, wings and Frappuccinos — in addition to his mother's soup and dumplings. He wears a bracelet from his basketball-playing girlfriend in China. He spends much of his free time sleeping and the rest jumping between gratuitously violent computer games and gratuitously violent action flicks. (A recent night in with Yao: watching The Bourne Identity on dvd while playing Counter-Strike. "He sat in the corner with his computer," says Pine, "and said, 'Just tell me when there's a fight.'") In Shanghai Yao rode a bike, but now he's practicing turns in a Toyota Sequoia.

Before Yao arrived in Houston, the Rockets — a young, inconsistent team fighting for a play-off spot — ranked 18th out of 29 teams in road attendance. Now they're seventh. Yao has packed the house in cities with large Chinese-American communities, like Oakland and Seattle, but he's attracting people of all origins everywhere, and they're coming not just to gawk. "There's something about the guy," says Tomjanovich. "He's got a warmness about him, a sense of humor." Yao is already one of the league's better quotes. Asked whether he can speak English better than he lets on, Yao turned to Pine and said in Mandarin, "I still don't understand a lot of things. If I did, you would have been fired a while ago."

Yao has even dealt deftly with his first media mini-controversy. Last summer Shaquille O'Neal asked a reporter to "tell Yao Ming, 'Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh.'" In an Asian Week column early last month, the remarks were repeated, and Yao was asked for a response. Tongue in cheek, he said that Chinese was a hard language to learn. (To defuse any controversy, Yao had also sent Shaq a Christmas card, not a typical Chinese gesture.) Before the two played in Houston later in January, Shaq apologized, using the Mandarin dui bu qi. Yao invited Shaq to his home for dinner, and though O'Neal declined because of a family commitment, he congratulated Yao on his All-Star selection. Yao joked that he was relieved O'Neal couldn't come for dinner: "I was afraid my refrigerator wasn't big enough."

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