My Rookie Year

When I arrived in Houston before my rookie year, I was 22 and I was quiet.

Steve Francis was not quiet.

Steve was the first person to greet me when I visited the arena. He walked across the locker room and gave me the hardest high five I’d ever felt. He put his entire body into it. You really could feel his muscle. My hand stung.

That was 14 years ago. Everything went so fast my rookie year, but I remember the first few weeks very clearly. You always remember first impressions. On that day, my coaches were showing me my new locker. I was so excited to see my name on my new Rockets jersey. That was a big thing for me because I had never had my name on a jersey before. There were a lot of big things that were different when I came to the NBA, but I remember the little things like that the most. For example, everyone called me “Yao” — they thought it was my first name. In China, our surnames come first and our given names last. To my Chinese friends, I was Ming. Now I was just Yao. Once everyone started saying it that way, I never corrected them. I was too shy.

Steve was very warm and very passionate. He was determined to introduce me to everyone on the team.

This is Cuttino.

This is Glen.

This is Moochie.

As he said each name, I tried to spell the name in my head so I wouldn’t forget it. My mind was racing. Each guy gave me a high five, too, but no one’s was as strong as Steve’s.

My English was very limited at that time, but I could understand more than I could speak because, like all Chinese students, I had started studying English when I was six years old.

“I’m so sorry, I’m a little bit shy,” I said to Steve.

“Don’t worry,” he said, and then he gave me a big friendly hug, “We’ve been waiting for you. We need you.”

In the Chinese tradition, when you meet someone for the first time you stay back a little bit. You say hello, shake hands, but it is very formal. Over time, like a pot of water that slowly heats up, you get to know someone and get more comfortable. Steve wasn’t that way. Steve was boiling water right away. On the court or off the court, Steve was 200 degrees all the time. I instantly liked him.

I didn’t know this at the time, but before I arrived, the Rockets had hired a Chinese professor from a local university to teach the team about Chinese customs. Everyone was so friendly and trying very hard to show me that they knew some things about Chinese culture. They showed me that they even knew little things, like how Chinese people hold a business card with two hands when we exchange it. I laugh when I think about it. At the time, all I wanted was for everyone to treat me the same as any other NBA player. But it was those small things that made me feel their warmth toward me.

My first week in Houston, the Rockets were having a charity golf event and Steve offered to drive me to the course. I had not played a game or even attended a practice yet.

“Let’s take my Hummer,” Steve said.

“Hammer?” I asked.

I didn’t understand him.

“No, man, Hummer. My Hummer. We’ll take it to the golf course.”

I did not know what he was talking about.

“My ride,” he said, pointing to a car that looked like some kind of military jeep.

I had never seen this kind of car. It was high off the ground but it had low ceilings. Terrible legroom. I could barely fit.

I thought, Was this a popular car?

I still was not very confident with my English, but I was happy that Steve wanted to include me. The golf course was only 20 minutes away. I got in the Hummer. It was uncomfortable. Luckily, Steve was great at making conversation, and I was excited to listen. We started talking about the NBA. He was telling me what things I could expect in my rookie year.

“You have to play fast … but the most important thing is, you have to be aggressive.”

Aggressive. I knew that word.

Steve repeated it over and over, maybe a dozen times. Aggressive, aggressive, aggressive.

It was a lesson I never forgot.

“Another thing,” Steve continued, “if you are close enough to the rim to dunk the ball, you better dunk the ball.”

He flexed his right arm and repeated the word aggressive a few more times.

He was talking so fast that I had to ask him to turn down the radio so I could hear every word. He told me about his rookie year, when he didn’t play very much. He said he lacked confidence.

“I used to get pushed around in the paint,” he said.

“The paint?”

“The key. That’s what we call the key.”

I wanted to ask why he called it the paint, but I just nodded.

“When you catch the ball at the elbow,” Steve continued, “you gotta face up and keep the ball high so guards like me can’t steal it from you.”

“The elbow?”

He explained what he meant by elbow — the points where the free throw line meets the lane.

Steve looked at me and laughed.

“Sorry about the legroom, man. You’re a big boy.”

I shook my head. No problem. I wasn’t thinking about the legroom anymore. I was so happy to just talk about basketball. The previous few months had been so full of expectation and speculation about me coming to the Rockets. I was glad to be talking a common language.

Then Steve surprised me.

“Do you have a girlfriend?” he asked. I didn’t expect him to ask me a personal question. I told him I had been dating the same girl since high school.

“I met my girlfriend in high school, too!” he told me.

In my limited English, I asked him about his girlfriend and he told me all about her.

I learned a lot in those 20 minutes in Steve’s Hummer. I will always respect that he took interest in me and welcomed me. When he got traded to Orlando, I missed him a lot. He was a good teammate and a good friend, and he was one of the reasons I felt at home in Houston my first year.

Coach Tomjanovich was another reason. He gave me a very soft landing in the NBA. There was so much happening. I was trying to learn the plays, get to know my teammates, get used to the NBA schedule — not to mention the language barrier. Even though I could understand some things people were saying, I still had a translator with me all the time for the first year.

Rudy was patient with me. I needed it. He gave me time to make adjustments to my game in that first year. He would always tell me to slow down in the paint, that I was playing too rushed.

He gave me room to make mistakes.

“Don’t blame yourself too much — everybody makes mistakes,” he told me.

I tried to listen, but I was frustrated that I wasn’t adjusting faster.

That is when I learned not to listen too much to critics.

Rudy gave me very important advice: “Don’t waste any energy on the things you cannot control.”

In the first half of my rookie year, I had a lot of ups and downs. I didn’t play my best. I figured out that people will compliment you and people will criticize you no matter what you do on the court. Rudy helped me a lot in that way.

And Steve was right about the word aggressive. The difference between the Chinese Basketball Association, 20 years ago, and the NBA was not skill only. It was a different understanding of basketball. I had to change my understanding of the game. In the CBA, my height scared people. When they saw how tall I was, they gave me space to work. In the NBA, every possession was a fight. I learned that big men have to play faster. Back then, in the CBA, the game would usually slow down to the big man’s pace. In the NBA, it was a sprint from the very, very beginning. If you could not run at same speed as the guards, you could not compete.

In February of my first year I was getting more comfortable on the court and I was getting to know my teammates. For Chinese New Year, the Rockets arranged a surprise party in my honor. It was a game day, and they knew that in China everyone would be getting one or two weeks of vacation, like Christmas. I didn’t know they were planning anything. Right before the game, Nelson Luis, our p.r. manager, asked me to come to his office to answer some questions. He was just trying to stall me. When I walked into the locker room after leaving his office, there was Chinese New Year’s music playing and everyone was singing. It was a true surprise.

Rudy walked up to me and handed me an envelope.

I pulled out the one dollar bill that was inside. Everyone laughed. Steve gave me one of his high fives. My hand was stinging again. I couldn’t stop smiling.

All these years later, it is still a very, very warm memory.