HOUSTON – The photographers pressed against each other, two rows deep, nearly 20 in all. The Chinese dignitaries also had taken their places about 30 feet away, flanking the man of the evening, the Houston Rockets' towering center, Yao Ming.
Together, they waited. This was supposed to be the standard NBA photo op: grip, grin, get out. But as a few minutes passed and the group continued to stand at midcourt, it became evident something was missing.
"A rookie," Yao would later say, a smile beginning to stretch across his face, "should not do that."
Yi understandably still has a few things to learn about the NBA, and remembering to respect his elder statesman should be high on the list. But if Friday night was any indication, the 20-year-old will figure out everything soon enough.
"I hate to say this," Yao said after watching Yi score 19 points and take nine rebounds in the Bucks' 104-88 loss to Houston, "but he may be better than me."
That's certainly not the case yet. After totaling 28 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks on Friday, Yao is looking like a serious MVP candidate, provided he can stay healthy. Yi, however, didn't completely cede the stage in the first meeting between China's top two players, scoring 17 points in a second-half performance that not only should have entertained the estimated 200 million-plus viewers in China but also encouraged them about their national team's chances in the upcoming Beijing Olympics.
"I certainly know all the people in China who were watching have a lot to be proud of," Bucks coach Larry Krystkowiak said.
Despite the loss, the Bucks also should have reason to smile. Yi has looked increasingly comfortable on the court. On Friday, he hoisted an air ball wide left on his first shot, but never lost confidence, coolly setting his feet and drilling a three-pointer to bring Milwaukee within two points midway through the final quarter.
While Bucks officials had few questions about Yi's skills when they drafted him with the sixth overall pick, they didn't know he had as firm a grasp of the English language as he has shown.
"I would be surprised if there are many rookies who have a more cerebral understanding of what's going on and a comfort level there," Krystkowiak said. "In that regard, he's not your typical rookie. I'm pleasantly surprised."
Yi has been overmatched at times when the Bucks occasionally have assigned him to defend smaller forwards, but he has impressed scouts with his quickness and overall athleticism. His hands are soft, and his jump shot is even softer.
"I think he's the most athletic 7-footer in the league," said Del Harris, the Dallas Mavericks' consultant who coached China's national team in the 2004 Olympics. "I don't think any 7-footer can beat him in a race. I don't think anybody can jump higher. It's one thing to jump, but if you're there too early or too late, it's no good."
Yao said he knew Yi was headed to the NBA the first time he saw him play during China's training sessions leading up to the '04 Games. Harris, whose son Larry is the Bucks' general manager, initially envisioned Yi as a future second-round pick but said Yi quickly exceeded those expectations. Harris now predicts Yi and Yao, despite China's questionable guard corps, will lift the national team to a top-10 world ranking.
"There's no better combination of four and five men in the world than those two," Del Harris said. "Nobody has a better four and five in the world, including the U.S. Olympic team."
Amare Stoudemire and Dwight Howard might have something to say about Harris' breathless assessment. Regardless, Yao and Yi have given Chinese officials reason to be optimistic heading into the Olympics.
"We already know what Yao can do," Jonas Kazlauskas, China's current national coach, said earlier this week from Lithuania. "But I've been very happy with how much Yi has improved. I can explain many things to him, and he repeats them immediately."
Though Yao isn't close friends with Yi, he invited him, along with Harris, to his house Thursday night for dinner. Unlike the wisecracking Yao – asked if all the attention he has received from his countrymen has made it difficult to focus on basketball, Yao quipped, "Only when I'm asked questions like that" – Yi hasn't shown much personality. After Friday's game, Yi sat stone-faced on the podium while listening to Yao field questions.
"You don't know what's going to come out of Yao's mouth and make you laugh," said Wang Meng, a reporter who covers Yao for China's Titan Sports publication. "But if you follow Yi for a long time, you'll know what kind of answers he'll give. You don't even have to ask the question. You can just write it down."
While China's first two basketball imports, Wang ZhiZhi and Mengke Bateer, didn't successfully distinguish themselves in the NBA, Yi has been fortunate to follow Yao, whose massive popularity has made him an ambassador. Still, even Yao admitted the atmosphere surrounding Friday's game was "very special."
The game was broadcast live on 19 networks and two web sites in China with a total audience expected to surpass 200 million viewers. In comparison, the Super Bowl is estimated to draw about 150 million watchers worldwide. The average audience during Sunday's much-hyped NFL battle between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts drew an audience of about 33.8 million.
"If you open the book on Chinese basketball history," Wang said, "there will be a page written about all the things tonight."