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Tuesday, June 25
Updated: Thursday, June 27, 8:36 AM ET
Players, translators a package deal
By Darren Rovell

NEW YORK -- Whichever team picks Maybyner "Nene" Hilario in the NBA draft will get a two-for-one deal.

Nene Hilario
Nene Hilario likely will have an interpreter at courtside during the NBA season.
That's because Hilario, a 6-foot-11, 260-pound power forward from Brazil who speaks only limited English, will need Joe Santos, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound interpreter, to translate what is being said on and off the court during Hilario's rookie season in the NBA.

"We're two heads in one," Hilario said of "his older brother," the 26-year-old Santos, a Canadian whose parents are of Portuguese decent. "You get the both of us together."

Interpreters are becoming commonplace in the locker rooms of professional sports teams these days. While Russian hockey players in the NHL and Latinos in Major League Baseball struggle to speak English with the help of like-tongued teammates who entered the league before them, baseball teams have turned to translators to help Asian players during their adjustments to life in the United States. Beyond cultural differences, Asian players also are faced with a language based on letters and not characters, like their own.

Employees in the Los Angeles Dodgers' Asian scouting department frequently double as interpreters. Scott Akasaki is ever present by Japanese pitcher Kazuhisa Ishii's side. And Vincent Liau has translated for Taiwanese farm players, first basemen Chin-Fang Chen and pitcher Hong-Chih Kuo.

Likewise, the Seattle Mariners' Asian scouting department takes turns translating during Ichiro Suzuki's many interviews, and pitcher Kaz Sazaki's true battery mate is his interpreter, Allen Turner.

There could be four interpreters in the NBA come next season, double the number of last season.

In January, the Dallas Mavericks hired Sary Benzvi as an assistant coach charged with translating head coach Don Nelson's words into Mandarin for Chinese center Wang Zhi Zhi. Like Benzvi, Tong Li is on the Denver Nuggets' payroll to help Chinese center Menkge Bateer. In addition to Santos' expected new job next season, Chinese center Yao Ming, projected to become the No. 1 pick in Wednesday's NBA draft, is expected to have an interpreter by his side during his rookie season.

Ming Yao
Yao Ming held his own against NBA players during the Olympics, but he'll get help when dealing with the media.
Ming's English is said to be good enough to communicate on the court, but Nelson Luis, the Rockets' public relations director, said it's likely Yao will feel more comfortable with an interpreter when dealing with the media.

"The one thing they all fear is being misquoted," the Dodgers' Liau said. "That's why it's essential that (the interpreter) understands the sport as well as the person."

Santos, who has been traveling with Hilario over the past couple months, will be courtside during games. "At the workouts, the coaches have told me that I'm going to have to talk to him about plays and I expect to be right behind him yelling in his ear," Santos said.

That's exactly what Benzvi does with the Mavericks' Wang.

"Sary played international basketball in Israel and knew what was going on in real time and could anticipate issues as well as merely translate," Mavs owner Mark Cuban said. "That helped Wang's game immensely. He was so valuable that I can say without question we would not let him work for another team."

Although Texas Rangers pitcher Hideki Irabu pays for own his interpreter, Kaz Kojima, most teams are responsible for fronting the cost of a player's translator.

Without citing specifics, Cuban said Benzvi costs more than the average NBA assistant coach. Santos will cost a team about $70,000, according to estimates made by Phoenix Suns general manager Bryan Colangelo. That includes a $50,000 salary, plus expenses paid for food and lodging during a team's usual 60 days on the road during the season.

"Sounds like an average salary to me," said Santos, who will be doing the cooking for Hilario when the two live together in their NBA home city. Hilario could make as much as $8.1 million over three years should he get picked as the fifth pick on Wednesday.

But Hilario's lack of English is a factor when considering him in the draft, Colangelo said.

"It's definitely an issue," Colangelo said. "We had a Chinese player on our WNBA team and it was really difficult."

In the 1985-86 season, the Suns became first NBA team to use an interpreter when Georgi Glouchkov was on the roster. The Bulgarian player lasted only one season in the league due partly to communication difficulties he had with the team's coaches.

"(Head coach) John McLeod and (assistant coach) Al Bianchi wanted nothing to do with it," Colangelo said. "But today, given the advances of the foreign players and how ready they are to play the NBA game, everyone is kind of open-minded now."

"Vlade (Divac) had an interpreter for the first half of his rookie season and it wasn't a big deal at all," said Randy Pfund, the Miami Heat general manager who was an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1989. "Now, it's certainly not going to be a major factor with any team."

Hilario's agent, Michael Coyne, said only one general manager expressed caution over Hilario's need for an interpreter -- Bulls GM Jerry Krause. "He told me he wants to be able to have a face-to-face conversation with his players," Coyne said.

"A guy like Nene knows the basketball language, so that's not going to be any type of deterrant," said Larry Harris, assistant general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks. "There's no question that talent wins out. It's not like we would be asking him to write letters."

None of the other foreign talent projected to go in the first round, including Nikoloz Tskitishvili of the former Russian republic of Georgia, Jiri Welsch of the Czech Republic or Slovenian Bostjan Nachbar, are expected to need interpreters at courtside like Hilario.

"It's important to understand everything -- for the team, coaches and general managers," said Tskitishvili, who learned to speak English by talking to players while playing in Slovenia in 1999 and 2000. "Sometimes I'm surprised that I'm speaking English."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn.com

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