REMEMBER YAO MING? Well, with LeBron James taking over as the NBA’s alpha male of endorsements, magazine covers, and SportsCenter, Yao is just a potentially great center on a potentially good team. And this year, that would seem to suit the Houston Rockets fine. Last season, even with the eventual NBA champions down Interstate 10 in San Antonio and the league’s best offense up I-45 in Dallas, the Rockets were incredibly high profile for a team that missed the playoffs by a single game—all because of one 22-year-old, ninety-inch-tall rookie out of the Shanghai Physical and Sport Technic Education Institute. When Yao and the Rockets took on the Lakers and Shaquille O’Neal last January, it was one of ESPN’s most-watched games of the season.

Now hoops-watchers can care about the Rockets for a different reason: Led by the league’s most inadvertently colorful coach, Jeff Van Gundy, and two of its least glamorous scorers, Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley, the Rockets, 43-39 a year ago, began the current campaign 8-3, putting them atop of their division—ahead of the Mavericks and the Spurs—for the first time since 1997-1998. Despite injuries (Adrian Griffin, Eric Piatkowski), a six-game suspension for Maurice Taylor, and a felony assault charge against forward Eddie Griffin (who’s suspended indefinitely), the Rockets haven’t wavered, allowing the fewest points per game (82.7) in the entire NBA by playing “JVG basketball,” as rejuvenated center-forward Kelvin Cato calls his new coach’s brand of hoops. It may be premature to call the Rockets title contenders in the loaded Western Conference—after a long road trip against tougher competition, their record was back down to earth at 9-7—but it’s not too soon to say they’ll make the playoffs. “We just have to take our time, slowly climb up the charts,” says Francis. “The sky’s the limit if we keep believing in each other.”

And believing in Van Gundy, who never missed the playoffs in twelve seasons with the New York Knicks, six of them as head coach. The 41-year-old with the hangdog mug and not-there hair steps into the shoes of franchise legend Rudy Tomjanovich, who underwent successful treatment for bladder cancer and is now a “personnel consultant.” Under Rudy T. and assistant-coach-turned-general-manager Carroll Dawson, Houston became Clutch City in the mid-nineties, as the Rockets rode Hakeem Olajuwon and Co. to two NBA titles. The new man on the bench is perfectly aware of this; Dawson jokes that when Van Gundy and assistant Patrick Ewing step into his office, they keep their gaze on the framed photos of 1995, when the Rockets beat Orlando, instead of 1994, when the Knicks were Houston’s victim.

The Rockets almost got back to the finals in 1997, when Charles Barkley joined the Dream and Clyde Drexler for a Sunshine Boys-type run. Two years later, Scottie Pippen failed to make an impact and was swapped for Cato and five other players after just one season. Rebuilding had begun. Olajuwon was traded to Toronto in 2001. Mobley, drafted forty-first overall in 1998, is the only player left from the last Rockets playoff team (in 1999). Francis, an electrifying talent who can be as breathtaking as Allen Iverson, was kismet; the second overall pick in 1999 refused to play for Vancouver, so the Grizzlies sent him Houston’s way in an eleven-player, three-team trade. Mobley and “Stevie Franchise” have led the Rockets in scoring for five seasons (including this one).

Good fortune struck again in May 2002, when Dawson sent Francis to Secaucus, New Jersey, to represent the team at the NBA draft lottery. “I just didn’t feel lucky that year,” Dawson says. “Steve said he was gonna win it, and he did.” Just like that, the Rockets had Yao Ming. Or so history will say—it wasn’t such a no-brainer at the time. “Rockets Face Risks With No Sure No.1,” proclaimed a headline on ESPN’s Dick Vitale thought Duke’s Jay Williams was a better choice. Barkley, from his bully pulpit on TNT’s Inside the NBA, said Yao made Shawn Bradley look like Bill Russell. “Holy cow, I got criticized like crazy,” says Dawson, who never wavered on the pick. “I can’t find those people now.”

A year and a half later, the Rockets’ new downtown arena is definitely Yao’s House. He had the first point, free throw, and block in Toyota Center history (even the naming rights were purchased with an eye on marketing in China); he has a song (“Yao Ming, Yao Ming” to the tune of the soccer anthem “Ole, Ole”); at the souvenir stand you can buy Chinese-character Rockets caps; and five thousand foam Yao heads (instead of the traditional foam finger) were recently given away in a special promotion.

After every game, Yao folds his long frame into an ergonomic chair and is surrounded by the latest in digital recording technology. It’s not quite the frenzy of his rookie season, but there are always eight or ten Chinese journalists around, plus a steady stream of non-beat scribes—the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and yes, Texas Monthly—hoping for some crumbs.

For the second straight year, they’re doled out with patience and good humor by interpreter Colin Pine, 29, a Baltimore native who lived in Taiwan for three years after college, trying hard to fit into society instead of just hanging with the expats. Pine says he enjoys being an ambassador for Asian culture, even if it means explaining something as simple as why the jersey says “Yao” instead of “Ming” (surnames come first in the Chinese language). Pine was with Yao almost every waking moment last year, including practices and huddles. This year, the job is not so night and day, though the detail-minded Van Gundy has him doing written translations of scouting and personnel reports. Want to know how many double-doubles Spurs center Rasho Nesterovic had last year? Pine could tell you … in Mandarin.

The process of translation makes Yao seem even more thoughtful and genuine than he already is. Lots of players talk about wanting to take more shots, but how many of them say it like this? “To fill up the bottle with more water, you have to have a bigger bottle.” Yao clearly understands more than he lets on, but you can’t blame him for being more comfortable speaking his own language, plus it gives him an upper hand with the press. “The questions get tiresome and repetitive and redundant,” says Pine. “At that point, he brings it on himself to make light of the situation.” Indeed. Asked why he picked a particular game to respond to Van Gundy’s challenge to play more aggressively, he deadpans, “If I waited another few days, he might not have had any more energy to say it, and his hair might have all fallen out.”

Van Gundy is a more regimented coach than Rudy T., which is not necessarily a bad thing. “I think it’s easier for Yao to deal with,” Pine says. “He comes from a place where respect for the coach, respect for your elders, is something that’s just inherent.” But ironically, the Rockets need Yao to have a bigger ego, to demand the ball like Dream did. Just don’t tell him it’s supposed to be “Yao’s team.” “It’s pretty obvious that I’m not ready to get to that level yet,” he says.

Yao is being coached like never before; compared with Van Gundy’s rigorous teaching and tactics, pro basketball in China may as well have been junior high. At one post-game session, Van Gundy casually mentions how pleased he was with the center’s six offensive boards, since “he’d gone the previous one hundred fifteen minutes and twenty-nine seconds without an offensive rebound.” You get the feeling that he didn’t have to look it up. Van Gundy has broken down all 82 game tapes from last season, so when he says something like “Miami came in last year and absolutely ran us out of the gym,” it’s almost as if he were there.

All the Van Gundy trademarks—5:00 a.m. arrivals at the office, the Diet Coke addiction, the comically aggrieved persona—have been on full display, no more so than when the Heat came to town with Van Gundy’s older brother, Stan, manning the sideline. It was a great story, unless you’re a basketball lifer with no time for touchy-feely human-interest stuff. Asked for his thoughts about a childhood Ping-Pong match, Van Gundy wanted no part of it: “Geez! Is that really news? This must be making you guys sick to ask the questions, because it’s making me sick to give the answers… . I feel like I’m on the couch here!”

More like the dentist’s chair. “I think I’ve seen him smile twice,” one Rockets staffer says. But where in the job description of NBA head coach does it say to sit back and enjoy the show? “Coaching is not fun,” Van Gundy says. Winning never makes him happy because he sees only the flaws. “I expect to win, so I’m thinking, ‘Why’d we turn the ball over twenty-four times against Memphis?’”

Jeff Van Gundy suffers so that Clutch City might enjoy another championship. “We’re not there yet,” Dawson acknowledges, but it’s safe to say rebuilding has moved from the foundation to the floors. With “JVG basketball” in full effect, opposing teams will not enjoy their time at the Toyota Center. And if Mobley and Francis keep on scoring twenty each while playing D, and Yao becomes the dominating center he’s supposed to become, the pieces ought to fall into place around them. Then the coach may even crack a smile.