After a whirlwind two days in Washington that included news conferences, many impromptu autograph sessions and a visit to the Chinese embassy Wednesday, Houston Rockets center Yao Ming finally settled into his comfort zone last night on the basketball court. Yao was especially eager to get started after a disappointing finish to his last game, when he had two costly turnovers down the stretch during the Rockets' loss the New York Knicks on Tuesday.
Much to the delight of the scores of Asian American fans, many of whom brought signs written in Chinese and English to show their support for China's most recognizable export, Yao got started quickly against the Wizards. The first time he touched the ball, Yao showed the footwork the Rockets so coveted when they made him the first pick of the NBA draft, using a nifty up-and-under move to score and give the Rockets their only lead during a 100-98 overtime loss.
"Those of you who haven't seen him play, you'll be surprised," Wizards Coach Doug Collins said before the game. "He has all the tools."
After Yao's opening basket, cheering well-wishers in one corner of the arena began waving the red flag of China, just in front of a sign in Chinese characters hanging above them calling Yao courageous and dedicated. In another section, one fan held up a sign that read: Y-et A-nother O-lajuwon, paying homage to the former Rockets center who led Houston to consecutive NBA titles in the 1994 and '95.
Even the Wizards did their part in welcoming Yao to the District, staging an elaborate and traditional lion dance at halftime.
"Every game is difficult, but this was very exciting to be here," Yao said.
Yao showed off another part of his game -- his soft touch -- by making a medium-range jumper over Wizards center Brendan Haywood, who often got help to double-team Yao, later in the first quarter. But Haywood acquitted himself well defending Yao the rest of the way, holding him to 6-for-15 shooting overall. Yao, who finished the game with 16 points and 11 rebounds in 39 minutes, came in shooting 52.2 percent from the field, third best in the NBA.
"He was very successful in his defense against me, to hold me to that much below my [field goal] percentage," Yao said of his Wizards counterpart.
With Yao on the bench for most of the second quarter, the Wizards built a 20-point lead at halftime and appeared well on their way to a comfortable victory. Yao and the Rockets rallied, however.
A crucial sequence transpired late in the fourth quarter, when Yao came back in the game with 6 minutes 2 seconds left in regulation and Houston down 14. The Rockets proceeded to go on a 10-0 run, and in the final minutes Yao went 4 for 4 from the foul line to help force overtime.
"What I like about Yao is he doesn't quit," Rockets Coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "A couple of plays where he was stopped, he made second and third efforts to get rebounds. Things may not be going his way, but he still is going to do something that's going to help us."
Yao was involved in a controversial play during overtime in which he was called for goaltending on a shot by Michael Jordan. "I couldn't believe it. I thought I got the block," an incredulous Yao said in the locker room before a mass of Chinese-language media members, one of whom asked him about his impressions of Washington.
"More snow than people," said Yao, who ended the interview session with that, packed his belongings and headed out to brave the wintry conditions after his first visit to the nation's capital.