YEAR OF THE YAO
Movie Production Notes
BACKGROUND on Yao Ming
Director/producer James D. Stern became aware of Yao Ming well before the Chinese basketball player was named the #1 draft pick for the 2002/03 NBA season.
“I’m a total hoops fanatic. I’m always on the Internet, looking up information about the latest 16-year-old prodigy,” admits Stern, a veteran stage and film producer whose Broadway credits include “The Diary of Anne Frank” with Natalie Portman and Anna Deveare Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles.”
Stern continues, “When I started hearing about Yao, I thought it could be an incredible story.” With Yao still just 21 years old tipped as a draft pick for the coming 2002/03 season, Stern realized his story would reach beyond basketball.
“Yao was a player few Westerners had seen, who was about to navigate himself from a sealed society to the NBA and contemporary America. I saw this less as a basketball story than an immigrant’s story.”
Stern had previously brought his love of basketball into his professional life, as the producer and codirector of the 2000 IMAX film MICHAEL JORDAN TO THE MAX. That film had resulted in a relationship with NBA Entertainment, and the organization was enthusiastic when Stern proposed a film about Yao Ming. Seeking a partner for directing and producing duties, Stern approached Adam Del Deo, who had produced Stern’s feature directorial debut, IT’S THE RAGE. Del Deo enthusiastically signed on even though he’s not a particularly avid basketball fan.
“This story was unlike anything I’d ever come across. It was from another sphere,” he comments.
“Here was this man, just 21 years of age and from a country that is still very mysterious to the West, poised to become an international pop culture icon in matter of mere weeks.
What spoke just as loudly to me was the symbolic fact that this was occurring almost 30 years to the day after Nixon’s historic 1972 trip to China. Here was China aiming even more to be an outward-looking nation, having as its ‘national treasure’ for this new era of openness a charismatic, personable individual who just happened to be an excellent basketball player.”
In the late summer of 2002, Stern and Del Deo met with Yao when he was in Indiana to play an exhibition game. Yao, who turned 22 on September 12, 2002, proved to be as compelling and likeable off court as on, and Stern and Del Deo knew they could build a film around him and the months that lay ahead.
FACTS ABOUT YAO
At 7 feet, 6 inches tall and 310 pounds, Yao Ming is not only the tallest player in the NBA but one of its most physically imposing; his closest rival in size is Shaquille O’Neal at 7 feet, 1 inch tall and 325 pounds.
Yao began his basketball career at the age of 14, when he was selected for the Youth Team of the Chinese Basketball Association’s Shanghai Sharks. He made his debut with the Sharks at 17, and went on to lead the CBA in rebounds and blocked shots for two straight years; he was named the CBA’s MVP for the 2000/01 season, when he finished third in the league in scoring averages with 27.1 points per game.
Now in his third NBA season, Yao is a league leader in several key areas. According to NBA figures for the 2004/05 season (through January 26), Yao currently ranks #7 in field goal percentage, with a nearly 0.525 success rate shooting from anywhere on the court; for the 2003/04 season, he ranked #7 in field goals. He is averaging 1.86 blocked shots per game, making him #7 in the league; he finished the 2003/04 season at #13 in blocked shots. His free throw percentage for the current season is .777, which places him at #13 in the league overall (by contrast, Shaquille O’Neal’s free throw percentage for the current season is .457). In addition, Yao has been the starting center for the Western Conference in three consecutive NBA All-Star Games, and was the top vote-getter in this year’s match.
THE YEAR OF THE YAO places Yao’s achievements within the context of his country’s sports tradition. Pre-production research revealed China to be a nation of basketball fans to rival the U.S.
Introduced by Christian missionaries in the 1890s, basketball was thoroughly woven into the China’s social fabric by the time Chairman Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. While Mao banned longstanding Western touchstones (like Beethoven’s music), basketball was given a free pass - and was enjoyed by Mao himself. Through television ratings, it has been estimated that China now has 270 million basketball fans, a number equal to the entire population of the United States.
Read More: Cast and Crew of "Year of the Yao"