It’s not official just yet, but word is out that Yao Ming will be hanging up his No. 11 jersey this summer. In celebration of the big man, we’re running all four of his SLAM features this week, beginning with the SLAM 69 Yao/Steve Francis cover story below. Enjoy.

by Lang Whitaker / portraits by Atiba Jefferson

The Houston Rockets locker room is small by NBA standards, a concrete square retrofitted with carpet and lockers. Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley, the Rockets starting backcourt, have the two seats in front of the door, and as the team’s de facto spokesmen—though Franchise is 26 and Cat is 27—they’ve usually drawn the bulk of the media attention. But a significant Asian media contingent has settled into Houston this season, here to follow, pick through and dissect the rookie season of Yao Ming, the 22-year-old, 7-5 center from Shanghai, China, who’s taken America by storm. While the other Rockets sit around in various states of dress, the Asian media wait respectfully in the hallway. For now, at least.

When talk in the locker room somehow turns to actors’ poor career choices, Mobley leaps to his feet to point out that Julia Roberts once appeared in Mary Reilly, and that Leonardo DiCaprio followed up Titanic with The Beach. “Come on,” Cat exclaims. “After Titanic, you go and do The Beach? What is that? Can anyone tell me?”

In one corner, Yao sits with a blank face. Though his English has improved rapidly since he came to Houston in October, Yao doesn’t often let on when he understands what’s going on; the language barrier not only keeps people from bothering him pregame, but also lets him listen and learn at his own rate. Pretty much everything he has said to any member of the media this season has come through his American translator, Colin Pine.

Yao picks up an empty water bottle and tightens the cap. He stands, transfers the bottle to his right hand, does a slick 180 away from the locker and stops cold, facing up to a trash can in the back of the room. He bends his knees and releases a lovely, high-arching jumper. Just then a ballboy rounds the corner and swats the bottle to the ground, then yells, “You just got blocked by a midget!”

It’s not clear if Yao understands, but he calmly walks over, picks up the bottle and walks back to his original spot. He jacks up another shot that bangs off the lip of the can and clatters loudly to the floor. His head down, Yao walks over, picks up the bottle and drops it into the can. Softly, in language everyone in the room can understand, Yao mutters, “Shit!”

From 30,000 feet up in the air, the great state of Texas is just as wide and long and grand as everything you’ve read would suggest: tremendous fields bisected by dirt roads and country lanes. The city of Houston defines urban sprawl, retail strips tumbling out past the interstates with malls sprinkled throughout. With the Rockets grounded for repairs the last few years, Houston residents had turned elsewhere, mainly to baseball and expansion football.

Then about six months ago, a Chinese rocket touched down in Houston. And now the whole world is fighting to get a good seat.

“It sounds like church music in here! Do you hear that? You hear it?”

Steve Francis is on the Rockets practice court hollering at himself, draining threes while sliding back and forth around the arc. Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich is off to the side, surrounded by Asian reporters, struggling to understand questions and keep them happy.

“Last night,” a girl from a Chinese sports newspaper begins, “Yao Ming was not so effective down the streech, and…”

“Down the what?” Rudy interrupts, craning his neck toward her.

“Down the streech?” she asks cautiously.

Silence. Swish. Swish.

“Oh!” Rudy erupts. “Down the stretch! It’s the stretch, the stretch. That was very good, though,” Rudy says, always the coach, actually patting the flustered girl on the back.

While Yao Ming was making strides in his game and winning a fan base of 1.3 billion on the other side of the Pacific, the Rockets were reloading, and Rudy was there. As Houston’s coach since ’92, Rudy has presided over the Rockets’ renaissance, overseeing two championship teams and the team’s offense as it evolved from paint-based to perimeter-oriented and, now, to something with a little more balance.

The offense became a backcourt dream in the summer of ’99, when the Rockets swung a deal to get the rookie Francis for salary cap filler from the Vancouver Grizzlies. Steve teamed up with Mobley, and the electric duo set Houston’s backcourt in stone for the next decade. Steve’s rookie averages were remarkable (18 points, 6.6 assists, 5.3 boards), and he has stepped up his scoring each season since.

Francis missed a lot of time last season with headaches caused by a mysterious inner ear condition, eventually diagnosed as Meniere’s Disease. After changing his diet and visiting more specialists than Grant Hill, he’s been able to control the illness this season, while playing well enough to get voted a starter in the ’03 All-Star Game. “I’m still playing the same, just with more experience,” Steve says. “I think I’m shooting the ball a lot better, as far as threes and from the field. I think it’s just basically being a leader. I’m definitely the leader of the team. The way you do that is by displaying that, by being at practice every day, all day.”

As he says that, Stevie looks around the gym, realizing it’s totally empty. He was the first Rocket to arrive, five long hours ago when practice officially started. He is the last one here. He is leading. “This is what I’ve always wanted,” he says, strapping an ice bag onto each of his knees and sitting beside the court. “Always wanted to be a leader. My rookie year I wanted to be the leader of this team, and it’s just taken four years to evolve. We have to believe in ourselves and believe we can win. That’s all that’s left right now.”

“We have the second-youngest team in the League,” Rudy T. had said minutes earlier. “Nobody talks about that. Denver and Memphis, we’re just like them. Young teams never win. I’m not using that as an excuse. We’ve got to keep it somewhere in the middle, so when we’re winning it’s not way up here and when we’re losing it’s not way down there.”

Steve thinks the Rockets’ consistency will come, eventually. “It took Cat a while to find his groove this year,” Steve says. “He missed eight games early with an injury, and once he gets that groove back, we’ll be sitting real pretty.” Until then, Francis has taken Yao under his wing, ordering him clothes, teaching him English, even planning a trip to China next summer. “As a team, us improving comes with watching and being around the game and learning…and with the Lakers playing down, the West is wide open. A team like us, if we can get hot, come March or April, we can get going. You never know.”

With that, Steve stands up and sort of limps back on the court, his custom X Beams unlaced. He hobbles to the free throw line and motions for a ball. Since I’m the only other person in the gym, I run one down and fire a pass to The Franchise.

Swish.