At the moment, next summer seems like an eternity away. To the untrained eye, it’s as if progress on the set is moving slower than a junk in quicksand. Yao’s dunked the same way six times now. Make that seven. Because of a fear of shadows, gawkers are scurried out of the camera’s way, into a tunnel to watch the filming on little TVs. Several members of Reebok’s PR team are huddled around the sets. There’s plenty of cookies and Popeye’s chicken. Yao dunks it again. This time the light hits his custom, dragon-inspired Reeboks just right. Bam! They call that “The Shoe Shot.”
Yao approaches the chair he’s become so used to during the shoot. A security guard who’s been on Ming most of the day begins talking with him. Somehow military combat, one of Yao’s favorite subjects, comes up. Yao’s not wrapped in the carnage; he just appreciates the historical aspects of it all. “I enjoy listening to stories,” clarifies Ming. “Maybe you don’t lead a whole country, but you can learn something. Don’t say I like war. I like war stories.”
You can’t blame anyone for wanting to converse with Yao. He’s that much of a likeable young man. Though he occasionally stumbles with his English, for the most part Yao gets the language, is attentive and is even quite humorous.
“How much longer do you need me?” the big fella asks the director. It’s well after 5 p.m. That wasn’t meant to be funny.
The Rockets played Phoenix the night before the taping. Yao went four for 17 with 12 points and six boards in the 10-point home loss. Again, not funny. As Steve Nash said afterward, “He’s got an obvious size advantage on us, so we try to use some quickness to make it difficult for him.”
Still, like a team leader, Yao accepts blame whenever he has a poor showing: “I want to cut down turnovers. That’s been very frustrating my last two years. My turnover rate is going straight up like the elevators.”
Of course, his other numbers are steadily increasing, too. Five years ago Yao Ming appeared nothing more than a 7-6, 300-pound prop. Now he’s sculpted his body (son’s a lot more muscular than you’d think) and game into a nice, well-rounded package that seems destined for greatness. And understand, the opposition is taking notice. “We wanted to frustrate him,” Suns center Amare Stoudemire said after the game. “We wanted to make sure we were all on the same page and tight defensively.”
Yao adds, “When you play at a [certain] level, you’re going to be double-teamed and triple-teamed as soon as you catch the ball. They’re coming, just like we do to another team. We will not let Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett catch the ball and leave our teammate to guard on him. When I see them coming, I know my next move is to find an open teammate and move the ball out.”
Incidentally, when the Suns and Rockets teams met again 11 days later, Yao would go for 31 and 13 in a win.
If the five-time NBA All-Star keeps surrounding himself with the right supporting cast, he’ll only get better. Former Houston Rocket legend Hakeem Olajuwon is already in the circle. “I had two workouts with him,” Yao recalls. “He told me, ‘You’re the biggest man on the court. You have to dominate.’ He sent me a very strong message.”
New Rockets coach Rick Adelman is another. “He’s really good for listening to players and what they want,” says Yao of his third NBA coach. “He didn’t just move 100 percent of what he did in Sacramento to the Houston Rockets. During the training camp, he let us play for free and he learned who could do what.”
Yao’s wife of about six months, Ye Li, is still another. Though relatively private about his personal life, Ming doesn’t flinch in telling that marriage is “a big step for me—even though I stayed with my wife for seven years already. When I drive in the middle of the night, I know to slow down a little bit. It’s not big changes. Small changes. Hey, you’re a married man now. You need to slow down, calm down a little bit.”
Ye Li won’t have to worry about Yao getting home tonight. After the commercial shoot mercifully comes to a end for the day, Yao does a wardrobe change and exits for his limo. During the ride home, the free-spirited giant chimes on everything from KG leaving the conference (“That’s not just good for us. That’s good for all the West”) to swimming (“I tried out for the water polo team”) to critiquing the summer hit Transformers (“Bumblebee is a Beetle, not a Chevrolet!”).
The car finally pulls up to Yao’s house in a swank Houston neighborhood. Dude’s front entrance is humongous. He rings the bell. The driver is set to exit the driveway, but nobody comes to the door. Dang, this wasn’t in the script. Everyone waits another minute. Suddenly, the door opens and Yao Ming waves the limo off. It’s a good thing the director isn’t around—he most definitely would have asked for another take on that one.