MILWAUKEE – Yi Jianlian may have millions of people in China hanging on his every utterance, but the only child of two former handball players has a different vocal role for the Milwaukee Bucks.
He’s the official “Happy Birthday” crooner and a pretty decent bag boy.
Ah, the life of an NBA rookie, even one afforded “rock star” status back home.
“Oh yeah, he carries bags all the time and sings ‘Happy Birthday’ when ALL the birthdays come up,” Bucks forward Desmond Mason said. “He goes through the regular rookie treatment.”
In every way, Yi (pronounced “EE”) is fitting in as a successful rookie in Milwaukee. The 7-footer selected sixth overall is starting at power forward and averaging a little more than 10 points and five rebounds a game, placing him in or near the top three of most rookie categories.
“I can’t imagine it being much better, really, it’s gone beyond expectations,” Bucks coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “I don’t think he came in here and anybody was ready to make it easy for him.”
Yi, who acknowledged at the start that he put too much pressure on himself, is also getting more comfortable with his surroundings. It helps that his parents, Yi Jingliu and Mai Meiling, are living in Milwaukee to help him adjust.
“I’m an only child,” the younger Yi told the Associated Press in an interview. “When I’m gone, it’s different in the house without me, and so it’s really nice having them here to help me, and of course, anyone who has their family here is definitely more comfortable.”
Yi, who still relies on a translator at times even though he has stopped taking daily English lessons, also has begun to refine his tastes like any 20-year-old would. He listens to more and more American music and no longer calls Las Vegas his favorite city, though he is still awed by the gaudy lights and behemoth casinos that he first saw in the desert in 2003.
Instead, he likes Los Angeles and San Francisco better now (“The weather there is nice”) and is popular everywhere he goes.
“There’s a demand for him when we’re out on the road, so he’s usually got something to do where some bright lights are,” Krystkowiak said.
The demands on his time haven’t affected Yi’s play yet, and several NBA colleagues noted Yi’s style is different from other international players.
“He has something that some international players don’t have when they come in right away: He’s got that mean streak on the court,” said Timberwolves forward Mark Madsen, who sought Yi out to get to know him better in the preseason. “It’s nice to see an international player come in with that aggressiveness and with that authority.”
He’s also playing more than 27 minutes a game for the Bucks.
“He’s producing,” said Bulls rookie Joakim Noah, who worked out with Yi in Los Angeles before the draft. “With the skills that he has and (if he) keeps polishing them, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be a good player in this league.”
Yi’s emergence also means Americans aren’t calling him Yao Ming anymore, like what happened on his early trips to the U.S. when Yao was just beginning his career.
“It made me a little frustrated, but I know it’s because when Yao Ming came he really made a big impression on American people,” Yi said.
Yi’s impression might be bigger, said Xue Zhen, assistant editor of Titan Sports, the biggest all-Chinese-language sports newspaper.
Xue said he thinks Yi has more talent than Yao even though the Rockets center draws special attention because he’s 7-foot-6 and the first Chinese player to make it in the NBA.
“I can feel the expectation from Yi is very high,” Xue said. “Yi is more talented and definitely has a brighter future ahead of him than Yao.”
Yao said he hasn’t had a chance to talk to Yi and doesn’t keep up with his compatriot during the season.
“We’re busy with games right now, I really haven’t had much time,” Yi said. “At this point in the season, it’s not a time for just chatting.” Yao said Yi’s personality will allow him to adjust quicker than he did. Yao said it took him two seasons to get comfortable in Houston.
“He’s just different,” Yao said. “We are not the same type of people. He will adapt faster.”
Krystkowiak said that may be because of how Yi has been perceived in China.
“I’m not sure if the pace maybe hasn’t slowed a little for what he’s used to in China. I wasn’t following him around there, but I think with the population and media interest, he may have been a little bit more like a rock star at home than he is out on the road here,” Krystkowiak said.
There’s one topic Yi is tired of talking about: his age.
“I just feel like there’s no point in talking about it too much,” said Yi, who is listed as 20 but has been rumored to be at least three years older. “If you look at my passport, if you look at anything, it’s got my birth date, so there’s really nothing I can say more.”
Kings center Brad Miller laughs, saying every international player comes with age issues, but talent separates players like Yi quickly.
“If you can play, you can play,” Miller said. “I think he’s going to be around for a while.”
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