Getting one-on-one time with Yao Ming—for, say, a SLAM cover story and photo shoot—means going through Team Yao, a collection of agents, marketers and specialists who guard Yao’s free time as though it were the Imperial Seal. Scores of magazines and media outlets have already been turned down, but Yao gave SLAM time. I spent nearly a week in Houston, shadowing Yao, Steve and the Rockets, and I discovered that talking to Yao is a sport in and of itself, a curiosity and a blessing. Answers come in Mandarin, mostly, and English occasionally, and thanks to Yao’s bone-dry humor, he often comes across like a mix between Confucius and Yogi Berra. Yao laughs a lot, and if he isn’t feeling a particular question, he might make a funny face or roll his eyes.

After shootaround one morning, walking through a tunnel below the Compaq Center toward the players’ parking lot, I ask Yao how he gets around Houston. Before Colin can translate the question into Mandarin, Yao points at Colin and says, in English, “Driver, translator…”

Thinking Yao has suddenly and masterfully grasped the English language, I look way up at him and ask, “What else is Colin?” Yao gives me a panicked look—he obviously didn’t understand that. I hold out a fist and point it at Colin, then hold out a finger and say, “Driver,” then another finger and say, “Translator…”

Yao nods understanding, then adds, “Cooker.”

“No!” Pine protests. “I can’t cook!”

Speaking in English, Yao begins slowly, “I can cook. But my mom is here, so I don’t cook.”

“I’m not a cooker,” Pine gently corrects in English. “Not cooker, eater.”

“Eater,” Yao repeats. “Eater.”

Phoenix point guard Stephon Marbury ended up sitting next to Yao on the bench during the Rookie/Sophomore game at All-Star Weekend. “I was just sitting there,” Steph says, “and all of a sudden he turned over and said, ‘Hey, you’re not a rookie. Get off our bench,’ I thought he was serious, but then he started laughing.”

It’s probably a good thing that he doesn’t speak much English, as the language barrier has lent a sense of mystery to Yao and his background. But he’s really a lot like everyone else. He arguably has the best pedigree in the NBA, being the only child of Yao Zhi Yuan, a 6-7 former forward for the Chinese Men’s National Team, and Fang Feng Di, a 6-3 former member of China’s Women’s National Team. Yao’s parents showed him the game on their local courts. “My parents didn’t teach me basketball like it was a profession,” he says. “They taught me for fun.”

As a kid, Yao also played table tennis. (I ask if he also played soccer, the most popular sport in China. Before the question can be translated into Mandarin, Yao says, “No,” in English, punctuating it with a Mutombo finger wag.) The NBA started airing regular season games on Chinese TV in ’89, and the first NBA game Yao ever saw was between the Knicks and Rockets in the ’94 Finals. Growing up, he watched two NBA games a week. “I liked watching Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Sabonis—but he wasn’t playing in the NBA when I watched him,” Yao says. “And of course I knew Michael Jordan.” Just like kids all over America, Yao says he would watch NBA games and then try to imitate the moves he’d seen.

He started playing ball professionally just three years later, signing at 17 with his hometown Shanghai Sharks in the China Basketball Association (CBA). In ’97-98, his rookie season, Yao played 21 games and averaged 10 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Last season, Yao played 34 games and averaged 32.4 points, 19 boards and 4.8 blocks per.

Late last June, the day after Yao was the first pick in ’02 NBA Draft, a column ran on ESPN.com that called him a “disaster waiting to happen” (three times in one paragraph) and said he possessed an “inability to play in the low post.” For about two weeks, it looked like ESPN.com would actually be right about something. In his first six games, Yao totaled 20 points, 22 boards and 8 turnovers. “He’s just a basketball player,” Francis explains. “I think coming in he thought he knew what to expect, but he really didn’t.”

Yao admits his nerves got the best of him. “It was different than I thought,” he says. “I think I made it out to be more difficult than it was, and I made myself nervous thinking about it. The most important thing is that now I’m not nervous anymore. I’m getting used to the routine.”

What’s not visible on the stat sheet, however, is that Yao has been exhausted for much of this year. He’s answered more questions than Ari Fleischer, with the same IMAX crew that made Michael Jordan to the Max following him around. He filmed three national TV commercials (Apple, Visa and Gatorade) before his NBA career was six months old. All of which may explain why he says his favorite thing to do in Houston is “sleeping.”

“Even having just two days off at Christmas was nice,” Yao says. “But you have to understand that if you give me one day to rest I want two days. If you give me two days I want three. Sometimes I feel like a tire that hasn’t had air put in it for a long time.”