May 06, 2005

The Year of the Yao

Directed by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Even if you don't follow basketball, Yao Ming has probably caught your attention in those witty Visa and Apple Powerbook ads. The 22-year-old, 7-foot-6, Chinese wunderkind has quickly ascended from butt of American sports-radio jokes to bona-fide phenomenon. As No. 1 overall NBA draft pick of the 2002/2003 season, he shoulders tremendous weight from Rockets devotees, the city of Houston, China's 1.3-billion population and pretty much Asian fans worldwide who expect him to live up to the hype. And as the NBA's tallest player, commentators also thrive on pitting him against formidable superstar Shaquille O'Neal. (One even likens the rivalry to Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell.) Yao's turbulent rookie season is the subject of James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo's documentary The Year of the Yao.

From initial language barriers and culture shock to adjusting to a different set of basketball philosophies, Yao certainly has his work cut out for him. Despite a disappointing beginning, he quickly charges through the learning curve. He relies on relatively young and inexperienced interpreter Colin Pine to assist him in daily life, and the two become almost inseparable. Pine also narrates the film, though it is often difficult to discern here whether he is speaking for Yao or supplying his own commentary at any given point.

The film feels like an extended profile as shown on Rogers Sportsnet or TSN. It's mostly a reheated serving for avid basketball fans, while its feature length and theatrical confinement will likely deter the uninitiated. With NBA Entertainment as one of its producers, the film isn't exactly a piece of objective reportage. It certainly doesn't address all the licensing fees and merchandising revenues the NBA might generate by tapping into the vast Chinese market through Yao.

Realizing early on Yao's promise as a cultural ambassador between China and the States, Stern and Del Deo replay that aspect from every possible angle. But they score only a few tangible points such as glimpses of Rockets coaches and teammates randomly shooting off a word in fluent Mandarin or thoughtfully reflecting on Chinese culture. The co-directors' explanations for the team's less-than-stellar playoff performance that season also seem desperate, first hinting at Yao's burnout before finally placing blame on the cancer battle and untimely departure of coach Rudy Tomjanovich. Yao's history making and barrier breaking are undeniably significant, but The Year of the Yao just seems incomplete.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.