Pacers 91, Rockets 82

With his parents in the stands and an estimated 300 million watching on TV in China, Yao Ming made his NBA debut tonight battling a rare case of nerves and excitement.

Just days earlier, Yao had assured his translator that "the Chinese way" was to never get too up or too down. And since June, when the Houston Rockets made him the No. 1 pick of the NBA draft, Coach Rudy Tomjanovich had been struck by his young charge's even temper.

As Yao makes the giant leap from the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association to the elbow-flinging, egocentric world of the NBA, his patient demeanor may be his best ally. Based on his inauspicious play in the Rockets' 91-82 loss to the Indiana Pacers tonight, the Houston Rockets acquired not only a Chinese national treasure in Yao, but also a giant project.

In his 11 minutes of play, Yao was called for three personal fouls, committed a turnover the first time he touched the ball, grabbed two rebounds and shot just once -- with the effort clanging off the rim. A massive 7 feet 5 and 296 pounds, he was hardly an obstacle on defense, either, as a succession of Pacers shot over his outstretched arms with ease.

"I learned that I still have a lot to learn," Yao said through his translator. "And that I'm just a rookie."

Even before Yao entered the game at the start of the second quarter, Tomjanovich sought to ratchet down expectations of the NBA's top pick.

"Nobody has ever done this before," he said. "Nobody has come in and all of a sudden in 10 days [faced a] new language, new country, first-round pick, all the media coverage and had to go out there and try to pick up all this stuff in another language. What he has done so far has been tremendous."

Indeed, Yao's journey to the NBA has been fraught with turmoil, the product of months of delicate negotiations with Chinese officials, who at one point unearthed a law written with expatriate Ping-Pong players in mind in order to claim 50 percent of his earnings.

The Chinese ended up with a smaller stake in Yao's four-year, $18 million deal with the Rockets, but won the assurance that Yao will be available for national team duty for future Olympics and other international competition. Such obligations caused Yao to miss all of NBA training camp and most of the preseason in order to represent China in the Asian Games. He arrived in Houston just 11 days ago, squeezing in two preseason games in an effort to learn his role in the new playbook.

Still, teammate Steve Francis, who led Houston with 39 points, said he sees plenty of promise in Yao.

"He's a real, real humble person," Francis said. "And so much is riding on him. Everybody in the world is expecting him to be the savior or failure. But I've seen it in the last couple days that he's on the way to becoming a good player."

Yao is expected to be a boon for the NBA, which is aggressively extending its reach overseas. As the third player from the world's most populous country (1.3 billion), Yao brings to 66 the number of international players in the league, who now account for nearly 20 percent of the NBA's roughly 350 players.

The Rockets seek to energize an indifferent fan base by building a marketing campaign around him. Billboards of Yao dot Houston's skyline; the Rockets' Web site will post Yao's weekly diary.

China stands to benefit from its high-profile export, too, using Yao to transmit an image of youthful vigor and competitive fire to the world -- and the country hopes to underscore by hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics.

But tonight, Yao was clearly a work in progress, foul-prone and understandably unsure about the American game.

"Give him time," said Pacers Coach Isiah Thomas. "Give him time. It's not like he went to high school here, he went to college here and he came to the NBA. This is a young man that is on quite a journey, and I think we need to be patient with him and give him the time that he needs before we judge him too harshly. And he's not even on my team."

Houston Rockets center Yao Ming (11) has hand in action, but managed just two rebounds and no points in NBA debut.