So yesterday I made light of the fact that I sometimes (rarely) pretend that I don't understand English. This reminded me of a morning I often ponder/paw over, that of 24 Februrary 2003. I had somehow assembled enough press credentials to bluff my way into the morning shoot-around for that evening's Boston Celtics-Houston Rockets game. The yearlong story for the 2002-03 NBA season was the city-by-city introduction of the awkwardly tall Chinese center Yao Ming to the United States, and this game marked Yao's debut in the Bean.
As I approached the Fleet Center, I was on edge. During wartime, immigrants from enemy lands are often pressed to answer the question of who owns their deep-down support: the U.S. of America, or the old country? Usually it is something discussed in private, or in an ethnic studies course; sometimes, unfortunately, it becomes a matter of public record. Anyhow, in my twisted figuration--twisted because, err, we were then and continue to be "at war"--I began wondering whether Yao's presence would influence my rooting interests for the day, and whether I was somehow different from all the neck-craning Chinese/Chinese-American journalists seeking entry to the Fleet Center just to get the scoop on "our guy." The fact that I knew who Taj McDavid was before he devolved into a cautionary tale? This should have set me apart.
Too much text. Here's a picture:
So I get there and take my place in the scrum. There are a few beat writers but most of the press assembled are clearly uninterested in, say, Glen Rice's knee. Rice makes his displeasure known as he scoffs some discouraging words to a trainer standing next to me. I half-want to walk over and offer Rice a pound and congratulate him on that 1989 NCAA championship, but I now fear that he might be racist, or hate the press, or possibly both. (Although, he clearly loves his body...)
There is a Chinese reporter from a local Chinese paper who, upon spying Yao amble out of the locker room toward the court, begins yelling his name. Glen Rice is displeased. I am displeased. I am here for the basketball, the world-historical importance of this trans-Pacific moment; the personal-slash-national pride merely draws the undercard. The media, which is now beginning to resemble a kind of multi-everything, Pequod-ish crew, leave Stevie Franchise and Moochie Norris alone (again, racist or possibly anti-media) and throng our way toward Yao, who stands alongside a short white man. Short being totally relative.
The man is Colin Pine. He has a Wikipedia entry here. Although he is only in his twenties, he looks ragged and exhausted, swatting at all our random questions. What does Yao think of America? Has Yao walked the Freedom Trail? How are his relations with Shaquille O'Neal? And why is Glen Rice so surly, I mean, does he really think anybody needs a quote from his veteran ass? Colin listens to each question carefully, nodding in comprehension, then slowly translates them to Yao, who continues the nodding. Yao slowly pieces together a response in Mandarin, sending the nods back to Colin, who nods along and then condenses the answer, slowly, back into English for the reporters, who are too busy scribbling to nod. I have no notepad, so I am just nodding the whole time, since I get everything!
A funny thing happens. The Chinese guys start asking him questions directly in Chinese. This angers Yao, who then has to reroute the train and have Colin translate the question into English, before re-translating it into Chinese for Yao, who must answer in Chinese. At one point, in reference to a commercial in which Yao has troubles buying a Statue of Liberty statuette, a reporter jokingly asks if Yao has figured out how to buy that Statue yet! Hilarity! Colin begins translating but Yao cuts him off and answers--in Chinese, of course--that he is contemplating buying the actual Statue of Liberty. True hilarity, though Yao seems more irked than smiley-faced. Colin translates it back and everyone laughs. Get a load of this guy!
As the interview ensues, something becomes chillingly obvious: Yao understands English. He is hearing the questions the first time, pre-translation, and spending the entire chain composing the neatest answer possible. When he hears something touchy--about Shaq or American culture or the Chinese government, for example--he relies on Colin's gatekeeping to pretend that something was "lost in translation," cause it's not like they can address him directly on omissions, right? And who wants to start the whole nodding thing anew, just to figure out how much of his salary goes back home?
So, I didn't exactly become B.F.F. with Yao and show him around Boston, which might have been pretty sweet. I did, however, learn that it is sometimes quite amusing to meet people on their own turf, if that turf presumes certain stereotypical things about you. I tell my students this story the next day (I had not prepared any materials for discussion) and we shared a good laugh, especially the Laker fan who had grown very tired of Glen Rice's whining.
Around that time I was on assignment (a real one, this time) interviewing a then-unknown New Jersey City rapper named Joe Budden. He is still unknown, but back then he was really young and unknown, thus worth covering. One of the odd parts about interviewing people is wondering whether they like you, and then wondering why you care in the first place -- it's not like I'm going to be back here in the heart of The Jerz and randomly run into this guy (or his mom or aunt or cousin or childhood friends, all of whom I meet while on assignment). The only interviewee I've ever been interested in befriending is Yao Ming, and my inability at the press mosh to flex my "basketball I.Q." probably deaded that proposition early on.
But for whatever reason, I have a good time riding around in Joe's advance-swallowing Hummer and meeting his mom and hearing about all the crazy stuff that has happened to them and eating at his favorite diner and meeting his hype-man at the mall, etc. The thing about interviewing an artist on the way up is that s/he hasn't developed that filter yet--s/he will give you way too much to work with, especially given that you only have 300 words to crank out in as formulaic a way as possible. I remember that Joe was wearing a cap featuring the logos of every NBA team extant--headware of the indecisive, I call it.
(An example. Not the one.)
Anyhow, we go our separate ways at the end of the day and once the paycheck cashes I forget all about Joe Budden. But that summer, Jumpoff Joe scored a hit with "Pump it Up." It was buoyant and fun but sounded instantly dated--and this wasn't just its striking resemblance to a decade-old Tribe remix. It was a big enough hit that people began checking for Joe en masse, and for some reason Jay-Z decided to jack the beat for his own freestyle, dissing Joe (or avenging a diss?) in the process. Jay's version featured a still-got-it, NBA-aware verse where he tongue-lashed young Joe (or whoever) for being more Harold Miner or JR Rider than Kobe or McGrady. It was very "Jordan mustering up some strength to drive past a young guy." Sensing the possible end of his career, Joe replied (again, to no-one in particular):
"I'm a standout like Yao Ming - I'm whats sparkin now
Like 'Fall back, Shaq,' I'm startin' now"
Sadly, despite even better barbs involving Dirk Nowitzki and other ballers, Joe's career has stalled in the years since that verse/hit; his career has never quite taken off, despite support from rap nerds and bloggers everywhere.
Jay has done quite all right for himself, if those acephalous laptop commercials indicate anything. But one more interesting little thing: in 2003 Jay released "Excuse Me Miss Again," a remix of his puffy hit from the year before featuring Kanye West and some mean airliner synths. I particularly enjoy the line, "I move the weight like I'm Oprah's son" but the bit that stands out for all Yao-watchers is the last line of his verse:
"This ain't Chris Rock bitch, it's the ROC bitch
And I'm the Franchise like a Houston Rocket - yaoming?"
At the end of his second line, he twists the standard hip-hop-ism of "Knawmean?" to sound like "Yaoming?" Genius! The boy's such an author he should be smoking a pipe. Yadidamean?