"Yao, get your head down!
Yes, that's it! Get him off you. Good! See how much room you've got? Now go!"
Yao Ming raises quickly and fakes a jump shot that gets the defender leaning
the wrong way. Seeing an opening, he spins toward the middle of the lane, takes
one dribble and throws down a rim-rattling dunk.
"There you go!" Carroll Dawson says. "Always dribble away from your man.
Don't expose the ball. No more eight-turnover games."
Next, Dawson positions Yao in the low post, and for the next 20 minutes, they
work on footwork, positioning and an unstoppable sky hook. Yao goes to the
middle of the lane and drops one in. Then to the baseline. Then back to the
Even in skeleton drills less than four months before training camp, it's easy
to be excited about the possibility of a player who averaged 25.1 points per
game last season coming up with a shot that should make him even better.
"Not a person on this earth can keep you from scoring on that shot," Dawson
says. "That's going to be your best move. You're going to find teams overplaying
you toward the middle. That's why you need the countermove."
Yao nods, says nothing. He takes a pass, steps toward the baseline before
sliding back to the middle of the lane and hitting another hook shot.
"You're in control," Dawson says. "Just don't lose that position."
At another point, Dawson stops the drill and asks: "OK, what did you do
Yao tells him he was moving away from the basket when he should have been
moving toward it.
Establishing his position
"You've got to establish your territory," Dawson says. "You know how (Amare)
Stoudemire would come around and slap the ball out of your hands? If you stop
him a few times, if you get your position, he'll quit trying. That's human
nature. I've seen it for 40 years."
They're halfway through the latest in a series of two-hour sessions at Toyota
Center when I arrive Thursday afternoon. They work on big things, such as
blocking out defenders and an unstoppable sky hook. They work on small things,
such as the best technique for a dunk.
"Never throw the ball at the rim," Dawson tells him. "Just put it over the
front. And don't pull the rim down. Why?"
"It can kick the ball out," Yao says.
"I won't be on SportsCenter if I dunk like that," he says.
Dawson turns to former NBA center Stanley Roberts, who has been brought in to
help with the session.
"I didn't hear what he said," Dawson says. "Was he cussing me?"
"Let's shoot 10 more," Dawson tells him. "Use your fingertips. You're going
to be the first big man to shoot 90 percent from the line."
They're an odd couple, this 26-year-old NBA star and 68-year-old former coach
and general manager. On this day, they seem perfect for one another.
"He has the most unbelievable work ethic I've ever seen," Dawson says. "We're
out here two hours, and he wants to keep going. I brought Stanley in because Yao
was going to kill me. If you wanted to stay out here 24 hours, he'd do it."
Dawson, retired from his position as general manager of the Rockets, is back
doing what he did for most of his adult life. He's coaching again and loving
every minute of it. He has worked with a variety of NBA big men over the years,
most notably Hakeem Olajuwon. Until this month, he'd never had a session with
Jeff Van Gundy had his own coach to work with centers (Tom Thibodeau), and
Dawson was busy with front office matters. When Rick Adelman was hired as coach,
Dawson approached him with a four-page plan that would focus on cutting down
Yao's turnovers, fine-tuning his low-post game and making him more aggressive.
"He has been a finesse player his whole career," Dawson said, "and people
have beaten the hell out of him. I want him to use his strength and be a power
It's the sky hook that could transform Yao's game.
"Getting it to be instinctive is going to take awhile," Dawson said. "It's
just letting the defense tell you what to do. Before, I think he'd made up his
mind before he even got the ball."
"I need to do it over and over," he said. "I need to play some real games."
Adelman didn't hesitate in saying yes when Dawson approached him. This isn't
the norm in a league in which coaches sometimes protect their turf fiercely.
"I have so much respect for (Dawson)," Adelman said, "and who knows Yao
better? He didn't want to step on anyone's toes, so we talked it through. Look
at the work he has done with big men over the years. I think it's a natural. If
he's willing to do something more than play golf, something that'll help us,
more power to him."
When the session ends, Yao and Dawson sit at the end of the practice court
discussing everything from Yao's boyhood home to the best technique for hailing
a cab in Shanghai. They're having the kind of conversations friends have, easy
and playful and respectful.
Yao took about a week off after the NBA season before returning to work. On
this day, his legs are fatigued from a heavy weightlifting session the previous
afternoon. He had run three miles at Rice that morning, then did jump-roping
drills before entering the gym.
"He wants to get better," Dawson said. "He wants to work on every part of his
game. I'm telling you he's so special."
Not happy with season
After Dawson leaves, I ask Yao
what drives someone who had played so well to work so hard.
"You think it was a great season?" he said. "I don't. I'm not happy about it.
I feel frustrated. We should still be playing. Tracy (McGrady) and I have to
I asked if he would watch much of the playoffs.
"At first, I couldn't watch," he said. "I've seen most of the games
Did he watch Utah, the team that won a first-round Game 7 at Toyota Center?
"No," he said. "I can't watch that team."
From the moment Yao arrived five years ago, the Rockets have been constantly
impressed by his work ethic and sense of responsibility. They've never had a
player who cared more or worked harder at improving.
During one of the afternoon's drills, Yao goes down hard and rolls over
holding an ankle. He gets up quickly and attempts to walk through the pain.
"Take a breath, take a breath," Dawson tells him.
"No," Yao tells him, "let's keep going."