In 2002, when the Houston Rockets used their first-round lottery pick to draft Yao Ming, the 7-foot-5 superstar center from Shanghai, it looked very much like one of those making-of-a-sports-legend moments (Lew Alcindor and the Milwaukee Bucks, O.J. Simpson snapped up by the last-place Buffalo Bills). The 22-year-old Yao, friendly and loose-limbed, a genial giant who resembles Elvis crossed with Lurch, was going to put the Rockets right on top. At the very least, he would draw crowds with his dazzling reach and prowess.
The most fascinating aspect of The Year of the Yao, a skillful and winning piece of honest booster portraiture directed by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo, is that Yao, for all his height and talent, starts out not as a hero but as an overrated underdog. Heading onto the court for his rookie season, he fumbles balls and misses shots; he gets elbowed and falls down. He looks like the Great Tall Hype. In his native China, Yao played a game rooted in diligence, honor, teamwork. What he lacks, at least for a while, is the streetwise killer instinct that defines American basketball. As The Year of the Yao progresses, Yao begins to treat his body like a tank, not just making shots but charging. (Facing the battering-ram-in-flight that is Shaquille O’Neal will do that to you.) Since he remains, off the NBA court, a modest and gracious presence, there’s something moving in his transformation. Watching The Year of the Yao, you glimpse what the future of globalized sports will look like: players from every nation inspiring, and taking over, each other’s spirits.