American Idol

Updated: October 14, 2004, 9:55 AM ET
By By Ric Bucher, ESPN The Magazine

As harbingers go, this is a doozy. Yao Ming is enjoying his new favorite getaway from the swirl that has engulfed him since he landed in Houston four months ago: slowly circling the Westside Tennis Club's parking lot in his week-old silver Toyota Sequoia. This is the Rockets' practice site. It's also Yao's training ground as a driver, since he has yet to earn his license.

This story appears in the latest edition of ESPN The Magazine, on newstands this week. To get more from The Magazine, check out

  • Subscribe to The Mag
  • As Yao rolls past the crowd of reporters and onlookers that gathers wherever he appears, he does a look-no-hands maneuver and smiles a smile that needs no translation before pulling into a space and carefully shifting into park. That's when a female Chinese reporter leans in the window. "You can't really drive," she taunts in English. "You just go around in circles."

    Yao motions for her to climb into the passenger seat. Then he throws it into reverse and backs outinto another SUV.

    As he pulls forward again, then inspects the damage, all sorts of nagging questions run through his head. Whose car has he just hit? What will his advisers say? Will he get in trouble for driving without a license? How much will this cost?

    One saving grace: For the first time in weeks, the questions have nothing to do with backing into Shaquille O'Neal. That battle, hyped for weeks, is 24 hours away.

    "Congratulations!" says Yao's marketing director, Bill Sanders of BDA Sports, arriving a few minutes later to take Yao across town for a commercial shoot. "Welcome to America!"

    And America, welcome to Yao's World, where a crunched fender is actually more troubling than facing the strongest center on the planet, if only because Yao is 22 and has never owned a car before, or crashed into one, or dealt with the repercussions. It's a world where talk of hitting a rookie wall is so simplistic Yao can't help but smirk when the subject is raised. Try dealing with a completely foreign culture, or answering questions posed in a language that you understand just well enough to know how easily one wrong word can create a misunderstanding. Or being the first foreign-born-and-developed No.1 pick who can challenge just about every opponent's basketball manhood and birthright. Or enduring the endless media and commercial requests, inspired in part by a humble, team-first attitude that blows through the NBA like a blast of fresh air into a collapsed mine shaft.

    Then try playing basketball while knowing that everything you do not only is big news in this country but is closely scrutinized in your own, a land of 1.3 billion that has all but staked its honor on you being the best basketball center in the world. And knowing that all this is only the first four months of what your life could be like for the next 15 years. Oh, and while you're at it, could you provide a few clever lines for the media every day, too?

    So ask Yao how he's doing, as we did before a Nov. 27 game at Golden State, before a Dec. 29 game against New Orleans and once again before a Jan. 14 TV interview, and his answer is always the same: "I'm tired."

    "I don't know how he's done it," says Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich.

    Neither do we. That's why The Magazine decided to find out, bird-dogging him for a week through a head-to-head Rookie of the Year tussle with the Suns' Amare Stoudemire, his first battle royale with Shaq, a 10-hour commercial shoot (not his first) and then back-to-back road games against two divisional rivals, the Spurs and Mavericks.

    Not to mention his first fender bender.


    WEDNESDAY, 1.15.03
    The Compaq Center, Houston, 11:03 a.m. The second Yao walks onto the floor for the morning shootaround, he is practicing 18-footers from his favorite spotsleft wing, left baseline. Tonight's game against the Suns is important, matching two of last season's lottery teams shooting for this season's playoffs behind prize rookies. Yao stops only to ask his interpreter, Colin Pine, about his request for three extra tickets. They are for the director, producer and manager shooting him in a commercial for China Unicom, a Chinese phone company, the next day.

    Pine, 29, is a former translator for the State Department. Blond and bespectacled and about 5'10", he met Yao four months ago, and accompanying him through this crucible of a season has forged a friendship that might otherwise have taken years.

    "Relax," Pine says.

    "What is relax?" Yao asks.

    Pine doesn't have a word for it in Mandarin. By now the rest of the Rockets have arrived, including Moochie Norris, who also has a special bond with Yao. Norris is perched on the scorer's table, his shoes sitting beside him. Yao picks one up, pretending to admire its construction, and then lopes to the far basket and places the shoe on the back iron. "Yao's a bully!" Norris shouts. "Give me my shoe! I haven't dunked since Oreos."

    An hour later, Yao is checking out Moochie's Mercedes two-seater on his way out of the building. He decides to sit in it, something that requires several attempts. With the passenger seat cranked all the way back, knees tucked into his chest and head bowed so he's staring into his lap, he's able to fit. Norris, laughing, changes his assessment: "That Yao is a comedian."

    Rockets vs. Suns at the Compaq Center, 7:37 P.M. If the assistant coaches aren't careful, Yao will run full-court sprints before games to warm up. Tonight, it's just baseline jump hooks and high-post jump shots.

    When the Rockets go to Yao on their second possession, he scores on Scott Williams with a fake-to-the-paint, spin-to-the-baseline, underhand scoop off the glass. Next possession he sets up on the other block and loses Williams with another spin to the baseline and a stagger step-through for a dunk. Only Stoudemire meets him at the rim and forces a miss. Later, at the other end, the Rockets' Kelvin Cato and Eddie Griffin both get a hand on one of Stoudemire's dunks, but he simply hammers it through them and draws the foul.

    Yao and Stoudemire are a startling contrastan encyclopedia of moves vs. brute, ferocious strength. While Yao is setting up on both blocks and lofting jump hooks with either hand, dropping 18-foot jumpers from everywhere and spinning to either baseline, Stoudemire is simply turning right and dunking over anyone in his path. Amare's 24 points and 13 rebounds this night will earn him a few Rookie of the Year votes compared to Yao's 11 points and seven rebounds, but there's really no comparison. Yao has four blocked shots to Stoudemire's zero, two assists to Stoudemire's zero andmore importantzero turnovers to Stoudemire's three. Houston wins, 102-96.

    Afterward, a media crowd of 15including the two reporters on permanent assignment from Chinaengulfs Yao as he sits in a recliner in front of his locker. Yao leans so far back he's nearly supine, which still only brings him to eye level with his inquisitors. Yao's grasp of English is good, but he doesn't like speaking on camera without Pine, for fear he won't understand the question or will misspeak. The questions have already switched to his upcoming matchup with Shaq.

    "I think I need a suit of armor," he says via Pine.


    THURSDAY, 1.16.03
    The WestSide Tennis Club, 11:36 a.m. Anthony Falsone, the Rockets' strength and conditioning coach, bangs through the weight-room door onto an empty practice court. "I'm looking for a big Chinese guy," he says. "He's got a date tomorrow."

    A few minutes later Yao follows Falsone into the weight room. "Get ready. Shaq's comin' to town," Norris says, throwing fake blows at Yao's midsection as Yao does an ab routine. Maurice Taylor joins in, and the two pretend-wrestle Yao the way they suggest Shaq will.

    Once practice starts, the Rockets work on a play to get Yao either a backdoor dunk or a high-post jumper. "Dream's favorite play," Tomjanovich says, referring to the former Rockets center and soon-to-be Hall of Famer, Hakeem Olajuwon. Steve Francis believes they'll run it once all season.

    Assistants usually handle one-on-one drills and teaching, but not today. Yao has missed eight of his last 16 free throw attempts after shooting 87% (78-for-90) in December. Rudy T has noticed that Yao's head is too far back, causing him to fade rather than follow through. After a quick tutorial, Tomjanovich shifts subjects to defending Shaq. "If he gets here," Tomjanovich says, standing in front of the basket, "you're dead. Now you can let him get here, but he's going to dunk on your head."

    No translation needed.

    The post-practice media throng has swelled to 50, 10 times the normal size. Yao is pinned against a mural of Pete Sampras. In order to communicate with Yao and have everyone else hear his translation, Pine perches on a ladder a few feet away. As impressive as Yao's touch and technique are, nothing tops his ability to handle no-win questions. Earlier in the week, when faced with either chastising Shaq for speaking mock Chinese in a TV interview or alienating the Asian-Americans offended by Shaq's attempt at humor, Yao said he didn't feel Shaq meant it as an insult but that he could understand why some Asian-Americans might be offended. His capper: "Chinese is hard to learn. I had trouble with it when I was little."

    Not as much trouble, of course, as he has with the Sequoia. Practice is over and everyone heads for their cars. Teammate Juaquin Hawkins leans out of his Navigator and jokes, "I'm calling the police to report a 7'10" man on the loose." Yao studies the Sequoia's crumpled left rear fender and the dented left corner of a black Expedition that belongs to Houston Comet Kelley Gibson. His first call is to Erik Zhang, a second cousin, U. of Chicago business student and perhaps the most influential member of Team Yao. Yao wants to assure Zhang that Pine, who also serves as Yao's chauffeur, is not to blame. Then he hurries back inside the building to find the car's owner and to promise to pay for the damages.

    With the Sequoia only cosmetically damaged, Pine takes the wheel. Yao rides shotgun and Sanders, the marketing director, squeezes into the backseat for the ride to the commercial shoot. As Pine and Yao discuss in Mandarin how to have the car repaired, Sanders gets a call from one of Shaq's representatives telling him that, with genuine regrets, Shaq can't accept the invitation to dinner at Yao's house. Yao lives in a Houston subdivision with his father, Yao Zhi Yuan, and mother, Fang Feng Di, both former players in China, and Pine. Shaq misses out on a multicourse meal cooked by Mom, featuring Shanghai chicken, her specialty and Yao's favorite. Turns out, Shaq had plans to see his 6-year-old daughter, who lives in Houston with her mother.

    A CD by Singapore singer Xu Meijing is playing on the car stereo. Yao nods out. "Hey!" Colin says, but Yao doesn't budge.

    The Houston Independent School District Sports Complex, 4:42 p.m. The Sequoia pulls into the massive high school lot and parks behind the fieldhouse.

    "Traffic in Houston sucks," says Pine.

    "Traffic in Houston," says the more philosophical (and worldly) Yao, "is normal."

    Yao is here to shoot the China Unicom commercial. A junk food buffetsoft drinks, subs, potato chips, cookies, doughnutssits courtside as a Chinese director huddles with Yao and Sanders, with Pine translating for Sanders this time. Yao surgically removes the sliced black olives from a sub sandwich with a toothpick. TV commercials may come off as 30 seconds of whiz-bang graphics and action, but hours of drudgery go into their making.

    At one point, a stagehand stands on a ladder and checks Yao's height with a tape measure, then for some reason asks: "How tall are you?"

    Yao: "Without shoes, 7'5''."

    Stagehand: "What about your hair?"

    Yao: "What do you mean?"

    This is Yao's third commercial shoot in three weeks. The first was the Apple Computer ad with Vern Troyer (a.k.a. Mini-Me). He flew to LA on New Year's Eve for that one. The second, a Visa Super Bowl commercial that included Yogi Berra, was shot in New York. Team YaoZhang, Sanders, agent Bill Duffy and U. of Chicago business professor John Huizingahas turned down five endorsement offers for every one it has accepted, and scheduled commercial shoots only for two-day gaps in the Rockets' schedule, so Yao's never on a set the day before a game. Both David Letterman and Jay Leno have been turned down, as have all the national morning talk shows and 60 Minutes.

    The rules are being stretched a little for this shoot. Yao is supposed to put in a couple of hours today but his practice gear isn't what the director had in mind. After 90 minutes of watching a sound crew record the sneaker squeaks and dribbling of a local stand-in, Yao heads home. "Saturday will be hard workseven, eight hours," the director warns.

    Before they leave, Sanders gives Yao's wish list for Saturday's shoot: a PlayStation with action/adventure games, Gatorade, a New York-style cheese and mushroom pizza, a place to rest.

    "And frappuccino with cream," Yao adds.


    FRIDAY, 1.17.03
    The Compaq Center, 11:25 a.m. The usual shootaround crowd of five has swelled to 150, solely in anticipation of the first Shaq-Yao showdown, now nine hours away. The Rockets are already warming up when a stocky man in a 2002 NBA All-Star jacket, white Disney terry-cloth shirt, bright yellow Lakers fishing hat and glossy black Shaq shoes marches up to the baseline and introduces himself to Pine. It's Philip "Sarge" Harrison, Shaq's stepfather. Unbeknownst to Shaq, Sarge has driven all night from Florida for two reasons: to watch tonight's game and to determine if the Christmas card in his hand really came from Yao. The personal note inside reads, "Thanks for the encouragement. You're the only one I look up tobe like Shaq!"

    Yao and Sarge talk briefly, and Sarge walks away, smiling. "Be like Shaq!" Sarge says. "Isn't that something? I'm going to frame this."

    Yao also sent cards to every center he faced before Christmas, to every GM who attended his predraft workout in Chicago last May and to Michael Jordan. He personally handed cards to the Rockets' front-office staff and bought gifts for Tomjanovich, GM Carroll Dawson and Michael Goldberg, the team counsel who helped negotiate clearance with the Chinese Basketball Association and the Shanghai Sharks for Yao to play here.

    "First and only Christmas card I'll ever get from an NBA player," says one team official.

    Yao starts for the locker room when Houston Texans quarterback David Carr appears and Rudy T pulls Yao back onto the floor for a photo op. With cameras rolling, Carr presents Yao with a Texans helmet and conducts an impromptu interview.

    "Do you follow football?" Carr asks.

    Yao looks around uncomfortably. "A little bit," he says.

    Yao finally heads for the door, carrying his Texans helmet in one hand and a Yao Celebriduck in the other. The Rockets have had some wildly popular players before, but for the first time the organization limits pregame access to the morning shootaround. "It's been like this since I got here," Yao says of the crush. "Some days I don't think there will ever be an end."

    Lakers vs. Rockets at the Compaq Center, 6:47 p.m. As Yao warms up, Pine is on his cell phone with a friend in Shanghai. The friend tells him about a line of 300 kids there who have been waiting for three hours to get into a viewing party to watch the game on TV. The buzz in the building rivals that for the Finals: capacity crowd, overflow media, national and international television audience. Officials arranged a pregame summit of four legendary centersOlajuwon, Moses Malone, Shaq and Yaowho are photographed together just outside the Rockets' locker room. Signs in the stands read "Hey, Shaq, Who's Yao Daddy?" and "Yao Ming Will Chop Suey Shaq Fu!" and "Shaquille O'Kneel Down to Yao!"

    Yao has played well this season, especially during one eight-game stretch in December when he had seven double-doubles and 25 blocked shots. But the Rockets know he's been fading under the weight of all his demands for nearly two weeks now. Shaq and the Lakers, meanwhile, come in on a roll, winning five in a row and looking like they may have finally regained their championship stride.

    The reaction to Shaq's TV interview comments has been a constant drumbeat in this game's buildup, and Shaq let it be known he planned to tell Yao "I am sorry" in Mandarin right before tip-off. Now, as the game is about to start, Shaq whispers in English, "I love you, we're friends." The greeting strikes Yao as so affectionate he later jokes, "I thought of reminding him he just got married."

    The opening minutes fast-forward the Rockets' dreams of being the league's next dynasty. Shaq easily wins the tip-off, gets the ball on the left side, turns and drives straight for the basket. Yao swats the ball the instant it leaves Shaq's hand. Bedlam. The roar doubles when Yao then scores over Shaq on a jump hook in the paint. Then he snuffs another Shaq attempt and scores again on fastbreak layup. In the first three minutes, he has three blocked shots and six points. Shaq is scoreless.

    But after the initial burst of adrenaline, the fatigue returns. Yao airballs the same baseline turnaround jumper that was automatic a few weeks earlier and front-rims a top-of-the-key J he drains easily in practice. When he gets his first rest, he sits between Hawkins and Bostjan Nachbar.

    Yao: "He's 350 pounds."

    Hawkins: "That's all right, stay aggressive. Make him guard you."

    Yao: "He's 350 pounds."

    The Rockets haven't played such a high-profile game in years. The Lakers take advantage, leading by as many as 11 before taking a six-point lead into the second quarter. After the opening burst, Yao won't score again until late in the fourth period. Mom and Dad sit 20 rows behind the Rockets' bench with quiet, concerned looks as Shaq begins to manhandle their son on his way to 31 points and 13 rebounds.

    But thanks to the heroics of Stevie Francis, the game goes into overtime. And when Yao dunks to seal the Rockets' 108-104 victory, his mother smiles for the first time, waves her fist, and as the arena PA plays "Mony, Mony," even gets a little jiggy. Francis is the game's star with a career-high 44 points. Yao's final line: 10 points, 10 rebounds, 6 blocked shots. Houston has the game's two most important positionspoint guard, centerfilled for years to come. "What I liked," assistant coach Jim Boylen says, "is that he showed no fear."

    Pine translates for Yao at the postgame press conference, but in the locker room Yao uses his own English to describe Shaq to Team Yao.

    "Like a meat wall," he says.


    SATURDAY, 1.18.03
    The Westside Tennis Club, 1:22 p.m. The Rockets have the day off. Not Yao. Ever been too tired to sleep? That was Yao after facing Shaq. "He tossed and turned all night," Pine says. The last time Yao felt this tired was after his first game against China's Army Team. He remembers the day: Dec.11, 1997. The Sharks lost by 40. "Four-zero," he says for clarification.

    "Normally after a game, I'm like this," he says, snapping his hand up and down as if it's a mouth. "Last night, like this," he says, clamping the mouth shut.

    The day's agenda: his weekly Mandarin radio interview from the Rockets' locker room, a magazine cover photo shoot and the commercial. He's dressed in his standard off-court gearblack sweat pants, black fleece zippered top, black socks, black Jordan casual kicksand is rubbing the first knuckle on his left hand, which he injured on one of those early blocked shots the night before.

    By 2 p.m. he's posing for the cover shoot in front of a Houston office building five minutes from the tennis club on an eight-lane boulevard. Within minutes, cars are screeching to a stop, honking their horns, or both. Within 10 minutes, a crowd has gathered for autographs.

    Twenty minutes later he's back in the Sequoia, contorting himself as he changes from his Rockets uniform into his black ensemble in the front seat as Pine drives. "Locker room," Yao says, grinning.

    Pine suddenly realizes the Sequoia's tank is nearly empty. "Where's the gas lever?" he asks after pulling into a station.

    "Left," Yao says. "Under your seat." Rather proudly, he adds: "That's my car. I know it."

    Before Pine can shut the engine off, a middle-aged black woman nearly drives into Yao's SUV, pulls to a stop, then motions a request for Yao's autograph. Yao motions back that he needs a pen and paper. Then he turns to the back seat and asks if LeBron James will get in trouble because of the Hummer H2 his mother bought him. Probably not, he is told.

    "But what about his school?" Yao asks. "His team?" Possibly, he is told. Yao nods, and climbs out of the car in search of a bathroom. He has ducked through the gas station's door frame before Pine realizes he's gone. Pine rushes in after himhe doesn't need a mob scene. The woman is still sitting in her car, evidently waiting for Yao to find his own pen and paper, sign an autograph and hand it to her. As Yao walks back to his car, he tells her, "Sorry, I have no more time."

    The Houston Independent School District Sports Complex, 6:36 p.m. After three hours on the set of the commercial shoot, action shots of Yao spin-dribbling begin. After 20 minutes of that, he heads for the complex's training room to wait for his next call. He'll spend more time here than on the floor, though the wish list has come up short. There's no PlayStation, so Yao makes do with a Mandarin version of The Emperor and the Assassin, a movie about China's first emperor, which he watches from a ceiling-mounted, 18-inch TV.

    He's seen the movie countless times and points out the actors he likes most. He watches while holding an ice bag on his right wrist, shaking his head when asked how he hurt it. Two pizzas and a big plate of chicken wingsthe staples of Yao's diet when he's out of range of Mom's cookingare delivered, and he digs in right away. Even while he relaxes, a photographer with the film crew snaps away.

    By 7:30, Sanders and the production manager are arguing over how long the shoot will take. The production manager says they'll need until at least midnight. Sanders doesn't want to go past 10. A compromise is struck, but it won't matter.

    Yao is back on the floor, leaning against a wall, hands on knees. "What time is it?" he asks. It's 9:20. A group of semipro players, including a 7'4" center named Johnathon Pete who is looking to play in China, are instructed to crowd around Yao. The director wants Yao to spin-dribble past them and dunk. At 10 p.m., Yao's phone rings in Sanders' pocket. (Yao had handed him the phone earlier, along with about $200. "I'll want this back," he said, adding dryly, "there's 10,000 there.") Now Sanders reads the phone's display and tells Yao it's his mom.

    "Mom?" Yao says. "I call her later."

    At 10:40 p.m., the director says they have only one more scene to shoot. A separate crew shooting a documentary about Yao asks if it can do a segment with him on the fieldhouse concourse while he waits. The frappuccinos with cream finally arrive, and he sucks one down immediately after the interview.

    "This is a bad day," he says, his face in his hands. "Last night I only had to play Shaq for 38 minutes."

    At 12:51 a.m., it's finally a wrap. Before leaving, Yao autographs balls for all the semipro players and shakes hands with everyone on the crew. "We've promised Yao that he won't have anything off the court between the All-Star Game and the end of the season," Sanders says.


    SUNDAY, 1.19.03
    The Westside Tennis Club, 1:20 p.m. The Rockets have been practicing for an hour when Yao ducks into the training room to get the mysteriously injured right wrist taped. Francis, still worn out from his 48 minutes against the Lakers, has been given the day off. Yao is matched up in a half-court scrimmage with 11th man Jason Collier, but he can't hold onto the ball, and Collier even gets past him several times. GM Dawson sits in his office upstairs, well aware that Yao is flatlining. "I've been in this long enough to know when a player is half a beat slow," he says. "He missed four layups the other night against Phoenix. We've really had to work with him about getting his rest and eating enough. He just has a hard time saying no to anybody. This is a regular week for him, and it wore me out."

    Before heading to the airport to catch the Rockets' charter flight to San Antonio, Yao mows through three plates of chicken wings and watches the start of the Eagles-Buccaneers game.

    "You like football?" a photographer asks.

    "To watch," Yao says. "Not play."

    La Mansión del Rio, San Antonio, 5:52 p.m. When he arrives at the team hotel in San Antonio, he does a 20-minute interview with the NBA's in-house magazine, Inside Stuff. Then it's over to the house of Spurs center and national teammate Mengke Bateer for an authentic home-cooked Chinese meal that includes lambgoat is too hard to findand spicy noodles. He's back in his hotel room by 10.

    "The only bad thing about having dinner with Mengke," Yao says, "is he can tell the Spurs how to play me."


    MONDAY, 1.20.03
    Rockets vs. Spurs at the SBC Center, San Antonio, 4:13 p.m. It's two minutes into the game, and Yao is struggling to catch his breath as he runs back on defense. On one possession he never crosses halfcourt. He's shooting only lefthanded jump hooks at first; when he does try a righthanded shot, it's short. "Ayyyy!" he yells after being called for goaltending on a layup by Spurs guard Stephen Jackson. It's a rare vocal display of frustration.

    The Spurs are ahead by 13 after three quarters, and Tomjanovich decides to save Francis and Yao for the next night's game in Dallas. Francis finishes 1-for-12 with four points. Yao has 11 points and eight rebounds. Both sit the entire fourth quarter as the reserves tie the score three times before losing, 87-82.

    In the postgame interviews, an Asian reporter asks Yao about speculation that if his games are televised regularly in China, kids will skip class to watch them. He sighs and rolls his eyesthe most exasperation he's expressed at a question all season. "They should put a TV in the classroom," he says.


    TUESDAY, 1.21.03
    The Adolphus Hotel, Dallas, 9:32 a.m. The Rockets roll out for a rare shootaround before the second of back-to-back games. They are concerned with the Mavericks' zone defense and potent offense. Yao declines a golf-cart ride from the bus to the locker room. Francis doesn't. "Tendinitis," he says, whizzing by.

    Ten minutes before the shootaround ends, Tomjanovich pulls aside Pine. "CP, how's the big guy doing?" he asks as they walk to the tunnel.

    After a catered breakfast of eggs, muffins and pasta in the locker room, the team returns to the hotel. "Now, no pizza and hot dogs," Francis says to Yao in the hotel lobby. "Get some protein. Some meat. Vegetables."

    Yao orders a bowl of chocolate ice cream from room service. There's a second knock on the door. It's a bellhop with a 5XL black jacket and pants made by We R One, the clothing line Francis owns along with Sam Cassell and Nick Van Exel. Steve is hoping Yao will wear the suit during All-Star Weekend. The pants are two inches too short. Yao gives the suit back to the bellhop. Moments later, the phone rings. It's Francis. He wants to know what Yao is eatingand what's wrong with the suit.

    Rockets vs. Mavericks at the American Airlines Center, Dallas, 6:09 p.m. Assistant coach Dean Cooper puts Yao through his pregame shooting drill. The jump shots that fell so easily a month ago are all short and flat. "Get it up!" Cooper yells. "You're shooting as you turn. Turn, then shoot."

    Yao dominated Shawn Bradley in late November, so Mavs coach Don Nelson starts Raef LaFrentz. He's no match either, but after an early putback dunk, Yao fades quickly again and logs only 22 minutes, finishing with six points and as many turnovers as rebounds (five) as Houston loses again. Three times during the postgame press conference he's asked whether he's tired. "No," he says each time.

    Outside the locker room, the same question is posed to Tomjanovich. "I'm sure he is tired," Rudy T says. "He's done a lot, on and off the court. He just needs to get his battery recharged."

    Francis, who went through similar demands as a rookie, promises to talk to Yao about cutting back off the court. "I did everything too," Francis says. "He just has to learn what his body can take. But we can't just go away from him. If he's done, we're finished."

    On the flight back to Houston, Pine is trying to figure out what he might be able to squeeze in socially at the upcoming All-Star Weekend in Atlanta, then finally concedes that escorting Yao won't leave any time. The Rockets' plane lands 10 minutes after midnight. Yao and Pine trudge to the still-dented Sequoia. They had hoped to have it repaired while they were out of town, but as always, there simply wasn't time. They climb into the SUV and wait for the windshield to defog. A 45-minute drive home is still ahead of them. Along with half a season.

    This article appears in the February 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.