The voice in Yao's head: Colin Pine ('96) posts himself behind the bench and whispers game strategy into Yao Ming's ear. While Pine was selected as Yao's interpreter for his language skills and knowledge of basketball, his good nature is just as essential. Off the court, he lives in Houston with Yao and his family.
At the center of Houston's rocketing Yao-Mania is affable, multilingual Colin Pine ('96), who's acquired a celebrity status all his own
FEW NATIONAL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION PLAYERS have rocketed like Houston's Yao Ming. The 7-foot-5-inch, 296-pound center not only dominates his team with speed and agility, the Rockets' rookie has sprinted to commercial stardom. Visa's 2003 Super Bowl ad revolved around confusing his name ("Yao" vs. "Yo"), and an Apple Computer spot pits him against Vern "Mini-Me" Troyer.
All this visibility puts Yao at a slight handicap. Born in Shanghai, the 22-year-old speaks Mandarin Chinese. Though he's mastering English, Yao turns to Colin Pine ('96) to smooth the rough parts that come with American life and the NBA.
Pine, 28, is Yao's interpreter, American-culture expert, traveling companion and driver. During Rockets games, Yao relies on Pine to share in timeout huddles. Under the hot glare of media lights and stupid questions, Pine is often the mouthpiece. That's the way it's been since October when the just-arrived Yao and Pine made their debut before a packed Houston press conference. "Those are stressful," says Pine.
REPORTER: "How great is it for you to finally be here now; you've waited a long time yourself, along with your fans?"
Pine, with his short, reddish hair and sideburns, turns to Yao and speaks, making short, chopping gestures with his right hand. Flashes go off constantly. The ever-so-calm Yao concentrates on Pine's carefully chosen words. With his short, spiky black hair
and high cheekbones, he speaks Mandarin methodically into the mike. Pine then laughs appreciatively. His cheeks flush and, grinning widely, the JMU grad translates before a worldwide audience.
PINE: "He says that 'After waiting such a long time, it's like opening a door. It's like having a breath of fresh air.'"
Yao Mania is alive and well in Houston, and Pine has found that celebrity is catching. His name spawns hundreds of Internet hits. Pine has been profiled by ESPN.com and the Associated Press, which calls the 5-foot-10-inch Pine "the little guy hovering in the shadow of the player touted as the NBA's next big thing." Looking younger than his age, Pine had Yao expecting someone older when they met.
When Yao practices, Pine is there. Yao wants to drive, so Pine teaches him. ("I sit in the car and fear for my life," Pine told the New York Times. "Just kidding.") The star lives in suburban west Houston with his parents, and so does his interpreter. For Pine, though, it's not the celebrity, the travel or the other perks that stand out - it's the friendship.
"He seems to like Yao a lot," says A.J. Esguerra ('96), an Arlington mental health counselor and JMU pal who roomed with Pine before the latter's move to Houston. "He thinks he's really nice and very wise for his age. He says he learns stuff from Yao about how he deals with pressure and what he learns from life."
It's a long way from Ruxton, Md., a suburb of Towson near Baltimore, to this strange hybrid of NBA glory and Chinese culture. Pine had an uncle who spoke fluent French, and as a boy he himself dabbled in Spanish in high school. He didn't even set out to study languages at JMU; Pine first majored in psychology, but switched to English. Yet it was his approach to literature that prepared him for his job.
"I love just getting into the text," he says. "I guess you could say at that point, I was a language person, but just English!" He laughs. "Reading, especially fiction, allows you to see into somebody else's thought process better than almost anything else."
Yet for Pine, basketball ruled. In high school, he managed the basketball team at Gilman School, a posh private Baltimore boys' institution, and he has never met a pickup basketball game he didn't like. Alex Tsao ('94), who lived in Gifford Hall when Pine did, recalls him playing video games, talking about girls and, most of all, the repeated twisted ankles from pick-up basketball.
"He'd swear he would not play basketball again," says Tsao. One year, during finals week, Tsao says Pine shaved his head. He decided to play basketball in the hot May sun, and the obvious resulted.
"His head swelled up, and he couldn't take his finals," says Tsao, chuckling. "That happened two days before, and he got a special exemption. He went to his professors, they took one look at him and said, 'Oh my God.' That shows you what kind of basketball nut he was."
Pine didn't know what he wanted after college, but he knew he loved the Chinese language. For graduation, he asked his parents for a ticket to Taipei. Pine's Asian history professor, Chong Kun Yoon, suggested he study Mandarin Chinese in an intense summer course at Vermont's Middlebury College, which in 85 years has built one of the country's top language schools. Pine re-calls nine tense weeks of four hours daily in class and then living in a dorm without speaking English. "It's a very interesting sociological experiment," he says.
Though he admits he wasn't conversational, Pine moved to Taipei with the help of Tsao, who lived there. Pine taught English at nights but worked days at an international trading company. He even asked his English-speaking co-workers to use their native language around him. He also buried himself in cultural delights like "delicious" 2-inch octopus and "the sappy love songs" of karaoke. Pine says, "Chinese culture is fascinating."
He spent three years in Taiwan, the last year studying full-time at National Taiwan University. Pine came home and did commercial real estate, spent a year translating Chinese periodicals for the State Department, and applied and got accepted to the law school at George Washington University.
His heart wasn't in any of this, and then fate stepped in. The Cornell Asian Studies Department had sent an e-mail to a friend of Pine's in Norway, saying that the NBA was looking for a native English speaker
to interpret Mandarin for a U.S.-bound player. Pine fired off his résumé into a pile of about 400 other hopefuls. A month later, Pine heard from Eric Zhang, Yao Ming's agent. Two months later - after phone calls, translation tests and personal interviews - Pine was down to a field of three finalists. By that time, after playing down his hopes, Pine admitted to Pat Deborde ('97), a friend for 12 years, that he had a "decent chance."
Pine got the job in early October 2002 and went to work at month's end. His obvious love for Asian culture and knowledge of basketball terms in Chinese scored big, but Deborde believes intangibles won Yao's people over to Pine. "He's affable and easy to get along with," says Deborde. "He's not trying to get involved in the NBA lifestyle and corrupt Yao. He won't take him out to strip clubs."
Aside from the public stress, Pine admits that "not having a personal life" is frustrating. The NBA life is "grueling," he says, "with not a lot of time to build new relationships." While he doesn't mind it, he knows that as Yao's English improves, his days at the job are numbered.
Yet he has done some "serious networking" in his high-profile job, says a friend. He gets ringside seats to his favorite sport, but the best perks are personal. Around Thanksgiving, Yao was asked what he was most grateful for. "My interpreter, Colin," came the reply, as he pointed at the beaming Pine. Could one ask for a better reference?
Story by Patrick Butters ('85), Photos by Brett Coomer and Cathy Kushner ('87)