clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Year of the Yao

Scott Savitt

With all the contentious news lately, I wanted to share a feel-good
story about cultural bridge-building and basketball.

I just came from a premiere showing of the new feature film "The Year
of the Yao." The film documents the entire process of Yao Ming's
first year in the NBA--from his reaction in Shanghai to being chosen
first in the NBA draft to his final showdown with Shaquille O'Neill
for a coveted playoff spot. I am almost ashamed to admit it, but by
the closing credits this battle-hardened China hand had shed a few
tears. This is a very well-made film (trailer at As a random sample I brought both
non-China and non-basketball fans, and they all concurred that this
piece of work humanizes China in a way that thousands of newspaper
column inches cannot. This was not just about China, the U.S., or
basketball, but common humanity. Memorable scenes include: Yao's tiny
bedroom in his apartment in Shanghai, juxtaposed with the mansion
awaiting him in Houston. The bureaucratic send-off for him by the
Shanghai Sports Association (complete with requisite cadre speech
about "winning glory for the Motherland." You can see the conflict in
Yao's eyes; sadness at leaving home, but resentment at government
officials having so much control over his life). Yao's unique and
hilarious relationship with his new African-American teammates,
complete with jokes about Chinese and Soul food (with requisite comic
revulsion at eating fish heads, Yao's first Thanksgiving turkey, and
the surreptitious serving of snake to an unsuspecting teammate).

The film revolves around the relationship between Yao and his young
American interpreter. They live together, experience every waking
moment of the madness that was Yao's first year in the NBA together
(complete with throngs of Chinese fans treating him like the savior
from Shanghai in every city he plays in), and form a special, moving
bond. Their relationship is familiar to anyone who has fallen in love
with a foreign culture, but especially serves as a personification of
the still relatively new and complex--but deeply emotional and
mutually respectful (if the politicians would stay out of the
way)--connection between the U.S. and P.R.C.

There is so much in this film that will be familiar and touching to
Americans who have lived in a foreign country. You get the picture,
and should see the movie.