The jump shot could use a little work, and at 5 feet 10, he's not exactly an inside presence. Yet Colin Pine has played a unique and important role with the Houston Rockets this season.

Just watch a game or practice closely, and that becomes clear when all conversations cease, except for the sound of Pine's voice. As the interpreter for Yao Ming, Pine's job is to make sure the Rockets' No. 1 pick understands everything from the finer points of the team's defensive schemes to what time he needs to be at a certain photo shoot.

So it's no surprise Pine often commands as much attention as Coach Rudy Tomjanovich, who along with his players must stop talking so Pine can start.

"I've had to get used to an echo," Tomjanovich said.

That was not the only adjustment Tomjanovich and his players had to make when Pine, a Baltimore native and graduate of James Madison University, first became part of the Rockets' payroll. The most unusual was becoming accustomed to having what was then a complete stranger in the locker room listening to their private conversations.

These days, however, players embrace Pine as one of their own. Television cameras capture that image most every time the Rockets play a game on ESPN or TNT. After Yao's first head-to-head meeting with Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal, for instance, all-star guard Steve Francis had his arm around Pine as Pine was translating questions from a sideline reporter about the Rockets' 108-104 overtime victory.

"The players have just been super to me. They make me feel like part of the team," said Pine, 29, who continues to be amazed at his journey from State Department employee to Yao's indispensable sidekick, recognized by millions of Chinese basketball fans.

The sudden fame is largely the result of some advice he heeded from the brother of one of his Chinese-American college roommates. Unsure of his plans after graduation, Pine asked about going abroad, specifically to Asia. Soon after that conversation, Pine was on a plane to Taiwan, where he spent three years absorbing the culture and language.

"I had a lot of Chinese friends in college," Pine said. "The people and culture [in Taiwan] were great. I fell in love with it."

When he came back to the United States, Pine worked briefly in commercial real estate before tiring of it. Graduate school was a possibility, as was law school, but neither had anything to do with Chinese culture. So Pine took a job with the State Department translating newspapers, magazines and Web material.

"It wasn't the most exciting thing in the world," Pine said, "but I was translating."

While with the State Department, Pine's life began to change dramatically last year when he followed up on an e-mail from a friend. The attachment detailed an on-line search for a full-time interpreter for an NBA team. Yao's agent, Erick Zhang, had launched the search, to which an estimated 400 applicants replied.

"I wrote a cover letter and sent them my resume, but I didn't really think I would hear back," Pine said. "It was something I thought I could do, but to actually have it happen is pretty wild."

Approximately one month after applying, Pine received a telephone call from Zhang, who proceeded to interview him for half an hour in English and half an hour in Chinese. Then in the first week of October, Pine got another call from Zhang. It was good news.

"He basically told me to get on a plane to Houston," Pine said.

A few weeks later, Pine met Yao for the first time as the 7-foot-5 center stepped off the plane at George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

"I thought you would be older," were Yao's first words to him, Pine recalled.

Since then, the two have become fast friends. Pine lives with Yao and his parents at their house west of downtown Houston. He eats dinner with them after each home game and whenever the Rockets are not traveling. He teaches Yao about American culture and coaches him in English, which Pine says Yao strives to speak without help.

"He doesn't want someone speaking for him all the time," said Pine, whose contract will expire in June. "What that means for my future, I don't know. Yao and I have become good friends, so it's whatever he wants. If he says he wants me back next year, I'll stay. It's been a great ride no matter what."

Yao Ming listens up -- well, down, actually -- as Colin Pine translates during reception at the Chinese Embassy.