In transition, translator finds Yao


During a recent Houston Rockets practice at the Compaq Center, the equipment manager caught a mouse and showed it to the team's 7-foot-5 rookie center, Yao Ming. Yao studied the mouse at length.

Then, turning, he called to his teammate, Moochie Norris, the shortest player on the team at 6-1. Norris is nicknamed Mouse.

"Hey, Moochie, your brother is here!"

Colin Pine, the man who is Yao's public voice, laughs as he tells the story.

"Yao has a wonderful relationship with his teammates," Pine said. "He likes to joke in English, and they joke all the time."

Pine, 28 and a native of Baltimore, is Yao's translator, changing the Shanghai, China, native's Mandarin Chinese into English for reporters and explaining the American culture and teaching English to Houston's No. 1 draft pick. Pine is teacher, mentor and chauffeur.

Friends in Baltimore no doubt remember Pine, who grew up in Ruxton, from his four years at Gilman School, where he was the basketball team's manager. "I try not to tell people that," Pine said by phone recently. "I loved basketball, but I was very short -- 5 feet 1 -- until I had a growth spurt between my sophomore and junior years."

Once he reached his current height of 5-10, Pine enjoyed playing intramural basketball at James Madison University and never expected to find himself going through the daily routine of the NBA.

But a year ago, while working for the State Department, translating Chinese newspaper articles and refining his use of the language, Pine decided it was time to make a career change. He applied to law schools and was accepted at The George Washington University in Washington.

During the application process, however, Pine realized he didn't have a real passion for law. What made him really happy was working with the Chinese language he had spent three years mastering in Taipei. He realized that while he wanted to change his job, he still wanted to use Chinese.

That's what he was thinking when a friend received an e-mail from another friend in Norway, who had received an e-mail from the Cornell Asian Studies department about an NBA team looking for a native English speaker fluent in Mandarin. When Pine's friend forwarded him the information, Pine put together a resume and a cover letter and shipped it off.

A month passed. Nothing.

"I'd given up," he said. "I thought it would go to someone with contacts."

Instead, he heard from Yao's agent, Eric John, who ended up putting Pine through a nearly two-month process of conversations, translation tests and interviews before picking him from nearly 400 applicants.

Since getting the job in October, Pine and Yao, 22, have been nearly inseparable. They live together in a house with Yao's mother, an arrangement that was to last a month or two but has continued.

"It just makes more sense," Pine said. "Yao doesn't drive; he doesn't have a license yet. So I'm the one who takes him to practices and the games."

Along the way, they discuss American culture and life. Pine often tells the story about how curious Yao was on one of those first driving trips when Pine waved his hand at another motorist after that driver had let them enter a traffic lane.

"Now, when it happens, we both wave," Pine said.

Along the way, they've also forged a friendship. Pine said only time will tell if it is a relationship that will last, but he hopes it will and tells of a story about an interview around Thanksgiving. A Houston reporter asked Yao what he was most thankful for. Yao pointed to Pine.

"It was a very nice gesture," Pine said. "It was very touching to me."

One of the things that helps Pine understand what Yao is going through is Pine's own experience in China. After getting his undergraduate degree as an English major at James Madison, Pine thought he wanted to be a professor and pursue a Ph.D. in literature. But professors at the school advised him to go out in the world and discover his options.

Pine had many Asian friends at the university and had discovered an interest in China. He asked his parents to stake him to a two-month course in Chinese at Middlebury College in Vermont and an open plane ticket to Taipei.

"I'd never left this country before," said Pine, who worked for a trading company in Taiwan and eventually studied the Mandarin language at the National Taiwan University. "I know what it's like to arrive in a different country and try to fit in to a different culture. His life is very different. It's a whole different experience, coming from a different background with a different mind-set.

"But Yao's English is pretty good. He does very well. I'm just kind of a security blanket at the moment."

In fact, Pine, who attends every practice and sits behind the bench during games, has yet to have to translate any instructions from coach Rudy Tomjanovich.

"I communicate better with Yao than me sitting here talking to you," the coach told the New York Daily News. "He understands basketball."

Pine said he doesn't know how long his job will last. In fact, it is his goal to eliminate it.

"There are no illusions about that. I don't want it to be a career," he said. "I'm rooting for Yao Ming to get his English down. I have no doubt he'll be fine. I'm just thankful for this experience. How many people get an experience like this? I still don't know what I want to do, but what has been reinforced is that if you do something you have a passion for things work out for the better."

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