Published May 01, 2005Yao Ming is a big freak of nature. This is not simply because he's the tallest player in the NBA at seven-freakin'-six but because instead of crumbling under the immense pressure of being the first Chinese player in the league (picked first in the '02/'03 draft no less), Yao became an all-star while preserving his gracious and genuine personality. The Year Of The Yao follows its subject throughout his rookie year, from Shanghai to Houston, a city looking for a new hero and a Rockets team looking for a championship. Upon arrival, the hype machine pegs the 22-year-old as the next "big" thing even though he hasn't learned any English. And then there's that little thing that over a billion people back home are watching his every move.
Because Rome wasn't built in a day and the Rockets didn't make the playoffs that year, the climax of the film is the big match-up between Yao and Shaquille O'Neal, who (while still with the Lakers) smacks of bravado. Yao is all about humility and respect but knows he has to stand up for himself. Slam-dunks aside, this is as much a buddy movie as a basketball documentary, with the addition of Colin Pine, Yao's rookie translator who narrates the year's events. He instantly becomes indispensable to Yao by translating the coach's directions, communicating with the media, teaching him English and helping him navigate through some very extreme culture shock. When the season is over and Yao returns to Shanghai, he and Colin almost start crying at the airport. Year Of The Yao doesn't delve deep into Yao's psyche or ask any tough questions, but then he's not Kobe after all. The film's charm is centred on its star's own natural charisma, a man-child learning how to survive in the world of pro sports. (Alliance Atlantis)