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Yao, T-Mac Play It for laughs on Kimmel's Show
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As Yao Ming enters the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton about 15 minutes before the limousine is scheduled to take him and Tracy McGrady to Monday's taping of an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Yao's agent, John Huizinga, extends a hand and jokingly asks, "Are you Yao Ming?"                           

"No," Yao says, with heads starting to turn all around in his direction, "I'm the other one."

People slow their walks to gawk, but no one seems to notice as Yao and Huizinga trade catch-up talk. How Yao feels. How his girlfriend is doing at the University of Houston. That sort of thing.

With the entire day free from practice and team meetings, Yao, exhausted from carrying the Rockets since McGrady's back injury, says he slept until noon, ate, watched a movie and went back to sleep.

Asked what movie he watched, Huizinga answers for him. "Brokeback Mountain," Huizinga says.

"Yeah," Yao says without missing a beat or changing his expression. "I watched with Tracy."

It's going to be an interesting night.

Nelson Luis, Rockets director of media relations, originally approached McGrady to do the show. McGrady agreed, but only if Yao would join him.

The booker for Jimmy Kimmel Live, John Carlin, liked the idea of contrasting their friendship against the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal power struggle in Los Angeles. Yao agreed to appear, but only because McGrady would be there to watch his back. Luis then spent days in silent prayer that McGrady's back would improve enough for the Rockets to break their three-game losing streak.

By Monday, things have fallen nicely into place. The Rockets beat the Clippers on Sunday, ending their skid. McGrady, who did not play in the win, is surprised at how good he feels. The telephone pre-interviews with McGrady and Yao go well. Huizinga has convinced the producers to drop the trite sight gags about how tall Yao is placing the star atop a Christmas tree, that sort of thing - knowing Yao hates being treated as a prop. The comparisons to O'Neal and Bryant never come up.

"We're killing everything about Yao being tall," Huizinga says. "He's just such an interesting guy to talk to."

Minutes later, McGrady arrives and is stunned to see Yao decked out in a sharp suit and stylish mock turtleneck. They had agreed to go casual, but Yao explains that everything else had been sent to the laundry.

"Man," McGrady says, his voice rising. "Good look for you. Who made that for you?"

"Made in China," Yao says. "Everything is."

The drive to Hollywood is long, about 45 minutes through the L.A. rush hour. Both protest the concert choice, the Eagles, on the DVD, but before long, McGrady is singing along in a surprisingly high-pitched voice.

McGrady is told of the Yao video making the rounds on the Internet in which he makes a tough jumper, then is seen shouting, "You can't (expletive) stop me!"

"No!" McGrady shouts, falling back in his seat. "He didn't say that! You said that, big fella? What did you say? What did you say? What did you say? Say it now."

With Yao laughing too hard to answer, McGrady realizes why Yao won't tell him.

"Wait a minute," McGrady says. "You said it in English? The same game you beat your chest? Oh, that's great."

By then, they are warming up for the show. After a few minutes talking about the new house Yao picked out far closer to downtown than his home outside Katy, McGrady tries to talk Yao into moving to his Sugar Land neighborhood, only to be told that it is "too far."

"Oh, I forgot," McGrady says, beginning his long bit on Rockets assistant head coach and Yao tutor/shadow Tom Thibodeau. "Tibs wants you there two hours early every day."

With that, McGrady launches into a description of Yao's day Sunday, when he battled a stomach virus with several trips to the Staples Center men's room.

"Every time you went in there, he had to follow you?" McGrady says. "Every time you're in there, and there's Tibs. 'Yao, we have to go over defensive tendencies. Yao, we have to talk about this.' He couldn't even let you do that by yourself?"

As the limousine pulls up to the stage door of the El Capitan Theatre, fans wearing Rockets gear and carrying memorabilia to have signed are outside the barricades.

"I always said no (to the show) before," McGrady says. "I said yes this time because I had someone to do it with. Then I started the recruiting process."

Just as Jimmy Kimmel Live is not live - the show with Yao and McGrady will air Friday - the "green room" is not green. There are a few releases to sign. "This means you'll be playing in Memphis," Huizinga tells Yao. Mostly, roughly 90 minutes is spent waiting and shaking hands.

"Jimmy is really psyched for this," co-executive producer Rich Brown tells Yao and McGrady. "This is really cool for us."

Says co-executive producer Jason Schrift: "We've been trying to get them for a while. Jimmy's psyched."

As the evening wears on, interrupted only by a few more visits by more staff members who report "Jimmy's psyched," time passes with the usual conversations about Saturday's Knicks-Nuggets fight at Madison Square Garden, the All-Star Game and McGrady's improving back.

McGrady does a quick imitation of Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy if he were the guest.

"We're playing great," he says in Van Gundy's hushed voice. "Everything's great."

Brown returns to go over the questions Kimmel will ask. There are 19, but in a seven-minute segment, no one expects Kimmel to get through that many.

Kimmel stops in to say hello and thanks. He looks psyched. The exchange is short and a bit awkward.

"I see they ordered Chinese food," Kimmel says, looking at the spread between McGrady and Yao.

McGrady has eaten only some fruit, Yao chicken wings.

"Is it anything like in China?" Kimmel says.

"Not even close," Yao says as the room fills with laughter loud and long.

One of the questions kills in the practice run. Asked about American food, Yao shares his distaste for turkey and talks of his first Thanksgiving, when he might as well have been eating cardboard.

McGrady takes it to a discussion of Yao's taste for Chinese chicken feet.

"We cook it good," Yao says.

Brown, worried Kimmel would get the one-word answers he had, looks relieved and pleased.

Kimmel's monologue goes well. The first two bits don't, with Kimmel saying the second is "the stupidest thing I've ever seen."

Says McGrady: "Well, there won't be many viewers watching us."

The next bit, The Year in Unnecessary Censorship, has the room roaring. Yao, who never has seen the show, is rolling back on the green room couch. McGrady is laughing loud.

"Four minutes," they are told.

Then they are taken backstage.

"Let's go, Poppy!" McGrady shouts to Yao. "Let's get this over with, Poppy!"

Kimmel introduces them as having a lot in common. Both are Rockets, both are All-Stars, and both are Chinese. The crowd roars as they hit the stage. Yao doesn't smile, which always concerns his Team Yao agents and management people, but does wave.

But within a few moments, Yao is laughing hardest.

Kimmel asks if they go out together. McGrady says Yao stays in and plays video games but has a girlfriend, then says he wasn't supposed to reveal that. Kimmel asks if Yao will go to the All-Star Weekend party that McGrady is throwing with P. Diddy.

"What will happen there?" Yao asks McGrady. "Oh, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas."

The crowd whoops with that one.

Kimmel is quick, jumping in when things slow even a tad with jokes about Yao's still living with his parents. McGrady helps when Yao can't find an answer or didn't hear the question. (Yao is almost completely deaf in his left ear.)

McGrady repeats Yao's Brokeback Mountain joke with mock horror. The audience is thrilled. And moments later, the segment is over, with the band, in a nod to Houston, sending Yao and McGrady off to ZZ Top riffs.

Back in the limousine, they know they did well. Talk is louder and faster, at least for a few minutes, as in a post-victory locker room.

They were not paid, other than a gift box of chocolates both left in the green room. Including the drive back, it took three hours to do a seven-minute television appearance. But both seem pleased.

"Let's go, Poppy!" McGrady shouts. "Let's go!"

(China Daily via Houston Chronicle December 21, 2006)

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