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‘Year of Yao’ fun but not too revealing

A year in the life of Chinese NBA star Yao Ming
/ Source: The Associated Press

You may think you know — as the rock stars and starlets and stud athletes say when they invite cameras into their homes on MTV — but you have no idea.

And after watching “The Year of the Yao,” which plays like a feature-length version of one of those MTV “Diary” episodes, you won’t have much more of an idea, but at least you’ll have a good time.

The documentary about Yao Ming — the 7-foot-6 Houston Rockets center and instant pop-culture icon — follows the National Basketball Association’s first Chinese player from his selection as the No. 1 draft pick in 2002 through his rookie season.

Because co-directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo made the film with help from NBA Entertainment, you’re not exactly getting a warts-and-all depiction. But Yao, who was 22 then, nonetheless is a fascinating subject, if only because he’s such an anomaly.

He has the eyes of a billion people back home watching him as a cultural symbol and international ambassador. He has the insatiable American media scrutinizing his every move (Charles Barkley is especially vocal in his own uniquely unfiltered way — more on that later). He has a new language to learn as well as coach Rudy Tomjanovich’s complex coding system for calling plays.

And then there is his day job: actually competing in the NBA, where he finds a far more aggressive physicality than he’s ever experienced. Even the obligatory hand shake-shoulder bump greeting he receives upon meeting his new teammates looks awkward on him.

But Yao handles all this with grace and good nature — that we see, at least — thanks to some help from his parents, both former basketball stars in China who largely remain in the background, and from his interpreter, a relationship that proves to be the film’s most compelling element.

Colin Pine, a then-28-year-old Baltimore native with a love of Chinese culture and language, starts out helping Yao answer questions during news conferences, but becomes his tour guide through American culture and eventually functions as a confidant and brother figure.

Colin also becomes our tour guide in Yao’s world, serving as narrator and walking us through the season, from the pressure of big games against Shaquille O’Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers to the mundane details of daily life like eating pizza and playing video games. They’re totally different people from vastly different worlds, but they become close through sheer necessity and a shared love of basketball and new experiences. It’s a sweet, unexpected thing to watch to their friendship develop.

Watching Yao’s game develop, though, is something else entirely. After playing his whole life with a culturally ingrained sense of teamwork, he comes off as somewhat of a bust at first to American fans and pundits. He is simply too nice.

“I guess people might have thought he was a big clumsy oaf,” Colin concedes after Yao’s weak showing during the Rockets’ season opener against the Indiana Pacers.

Barkley, himself a former Rockets star, takes it even further. “Yao Ming made Shawn Bradley look like Bill Russell,” he says on TNT, and pledges to kiss co-host Kenny Smith’s butt if Yao ever scores 19 points. (He finally does, and in one of the film’s funnier scenes, Barkley is forced to follow through by kissing a donkey’s posterior on live TV. To his credit, Yao laughs it off, and consistently seems comfortable making fun of his larger-than-life image.)

But “Year of the Yao” is also enthralling in the same way much of celebrity reality TV is — for the voyeuristic guilty pleasure of watching famous people at home, or during unguarded moments. Yao doesn’t reveal much, but we do get to see the sort of toll his frenzied American schedule takes on him, especially during festivities surrounding the All-Star Game, where he beat Shaq in voting to win the spot as starting center.

Then at the end, “The Year of the Yao” feels truncated. It would have been helpful, for example, to see some sort of epilogue detailing the stats for his rookie year. Yao simply gets on a plane for China, you see him and the Rockets play the Sacramento Kings in an exhibition game in Shanghai last October (the first time two NBA teams had played each other in the country), and that’s it.

Simply from watching the movie, you’d think this was a one-year deal — “Yao Ming’s Big Adventure,” if you will. Meanwhile, he’s averaging 18.3 points and 8.4 rebounds a game as he leads the Rockets into the playoffs. Again.