Outside the Lines:
Open to Interpretation


Here's the transcript from Show 138 of weekly Outside The Lines - Open to Interpretation

SUN., NOV. 17, 2002
Host: Bob Ley
Reported by: Lisa Salters
Guests: Kiki Vandeweghe, Denver Nuggets general manager; Bobby Valentine, New York Mets ex-manager; Eric Wynalda, U.S. national soccer team all-time leading scorer

ANNOUNCER: November 17, 2002.

BOB LEY, HOST- Listen to America's sports stars. A rookie MVP.

ICHIRO SUZUKI- (speaking Japanese)

LEY- A three-time Stanley Cup champion.

SERGEI FEDOROV- (speaking Russian)

LEY- The NBA's top draft pick.

YAO MING - (speaking Chinese)

LEY- Increasingly, international players define the games. In Denver, a Brazilian rookie is playing and listening.


LEY- But he understands.


SANTOS- He just doesn't understand, point blank, it's that simple.

LEY- And now the rookie has been told that very soon, his interpreter must go.

JEFF BZDELIK - It needs to evolve into a point where Nene is on his own.

LEY- Today, on OUTSIDE THE LINES, how much help should a rookie receive playing in a foreign tongue, where so much is open to interpretation?

Four years ago in spring training, a New York Yankee pitcher wanted to welcome a new teammate, so Hideki Irabu spoke in Japanese to his interpreter, George Rose, who then spoke in English to Jose Cubas, father of the sports agent Joe. Jose Cubas then turned and spoke in Spanish to Orlando Hernandez, who acknowledged the greeting from Irabu.

Well, certainly, sports is played in many tongues now in the United States. More than a quarter of Major League Baseball players are from outside the U.S., and nearly 50 percent of Minor League players are native Spanish speakers. Fully one-third of NHL players are from Europe. The league has players from 21 countries outside of North America. And then there is the NBA, where 17 foreign-born players, led by Yao Ming, were drafted this year. And all-star ballots are being printed this year in Spanish and Chinese.

As Lisa Salters reports, for the record number of international players in the NBA, the game may be universal, but the coaching and the life are in a foreign tongue, and that is the difficult part to understand.

HILARIO- It's beautiful, man, huh? You like?

LISA SALTERS, ESPN CORRESPONDENT- When it comes to trash talking while playing video games, Brazilian-born Nene Hilario knows all the English he needs to.

HILARIO- Up, up.

SALTERS- But in the real world, life isn't always so easy for Hilario, and the right words have proven much harder to come by.

JEFF BZDELIK, DENVER NUGGETS COACH- I have seen some frustration, mostly in being able to communicate with him on the court, and understanding plays, and understanding what plays are being called by his teammates.

SALTERS - When you first came to the United States, how much English did you know?

HILARIO- Hi -- bye -- have you heard, no more.

SALTERS- That's it?

HILARIO- Yeah. OK. Beautiful girl.

SALTERS - Since arriving in the United States, Hilario has had his share of culture shock.

But like any stranger in a new country, his biggest obstacle is the language. Hilario speaks Portuguese, which is why one of the first investments he made with his new NBA contract was in a translator.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE- What can I get for you?

HILARIO- Please calamari.


SALTERS- When Nene first got here, how badly did he need an interpreter?

JOE SANTOS, HILARIO'S INTERPRETER- As badly as you would need an interpreter if you were in a Japanese airport, I guess. I mean, he was pretty lost everywhere.

HILARIO- Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey. Give me key. Hey, my car, man.

SALTERS- Joe Santos is Hilario's interpreter, and much more. He is also Hilario's personal assistant, his driving instructor, his roommate, his link to home.

SANTOS- We are about to play a decisive match. Brazil against Portugal. We'll see who's talking in the end. (something is said in Portuguese)

SALTERS- But Santos' primary responsibility for Hilario is bridging the language gap on the basketball court. Though Hilario pays his salary, Santos travels with the team at the Nuggets' expense. During games, he sits directly behind the Denver bench relaying instructions in Portuguese.

SANTOS- One of the players, you know, James Posey, or maybe Juwan will grab me and say, tell Nene that this is the case, you know. Then Nene will say 'OK, I understand now'.

HILARIO (through interpreter)- In the situation when perhaps there is a player cheating on defense, and I am supposed to help out earlier, or when the coach brings us in on time-out, and designs a specific play for myself or someone else, those are the times when he is necessary.

BZDELIK- There was a funny story from our second home game. I yelled back to Joe, our translator to Nene, to tell him we are running X play, and he just yelled out, "X Play." And...

SALTERS- I could have done that...

BZDELIK- And I looked at him, -- yeah -- and I said "I could have done that." He said, well, there is nothing in Portuguese to say "X play."

SALTERS - In addition to Joe Santos, Hilario has an English tutor. Still he says he expects it will take him at least six months to learn the language to the point where he feels comfortable enough to speak it and to understand it without the help of a translator. But the Nuggets may not give him that long.

Nuggets' officials have made it clear that Santos' time with the team is running out, and that by the all-star break in February, his services will be terminated. Head Coach Jeff Bzdelik has already restricted Santos' presence in practice. Instead of being on the floor at all times, Santos is now only called out when needed, meaning Hilario's translator spends most workouts watching from another room. Bzdelik says that teaching Hilario to be on his own is in the young star's best interest.

BZDELIK- There is going to come a point in time when we are going to have to just slowly wean him off. Gradually get it to the point where we no longer need Joe, and then he is on his own. I think it kind of falls back into you survive if necessary. And we want Nene to experience that. Even though it might cause frustration right now, I think in the long run, it will be best for everyone.

SALTERS- But it is the short run that Hilario is worried about.

HILARIO (through translator)- If I don't understand English, then I don't understand English. This is arguably the most important year of my career, and I need to have as much support as possible. I respect their opinion, all is well with that, but hopefully it doesn't affect my game.

SANTOS- For the first of our practices, I had a difficult time sitting in the weight room looking on, because I can see the frustration in his face when they would have these sessions that would -- you know, stop and the coach would talk. I mean, he just doesn't understand.

SALTERS- The Nuggets experimented with forcing Hilario to go at it alone this preseason, abruptly sending Santos back to Denver in the middle of a four-game road trip.

SANTOS- It was a test to see what he would do. I think he averaged -- I am not sure -- one game in Indiana, he had two points and six fouls. And then the game in North Carolina against the Wizards, he played decent -- still have the -- four or five fouls-- four points, or something like that.

HILARIO (through translator)- During those two games, I was feeling sort of down. I didn't really have anyone to talk to, to express what I was feeling.

BZDELIK- This is a reality of the situation, and it needs to evolve into a point where Nene is on his own. I'm trying to learn some of his language like -- you know, many rebounds, which is, I think mucho rebote . I scream that out a lot. So we all are all adapting.

SALTERS- But Hilario may not be adapting as well as the Nuggets think. He says he still struggles without Santos, and has even begun pretending to understand, even when he doesn't. And perhaps most importantly, this $10 million first round draft pick is worried about something other than basketball.

HILARIO (through translator)- It frustrates me because I know when I understand what's going on, I play much better.

I don't see the problem with having an interpreter. I see it as an investment for the team, to have a second person there always telling you what is going on, and helping you through. I have to convince them somehow. I want to be relaxed when I play and not have to worry about this.

LEY- Well, Nene Hilario has plenty of international company in the National Basketball Association. Twenty-two years ago, there were only four foreign-born players in the league. In a decade, that number quintupled. Last season, 52 such players; this year, 67 internationals. A babble of tongues with their talent.

Joining us this morning, Kiki Vandeweghe. He played 13 years in the NBA. He was a two time all-star, very prolific scorer. Now he is in his second season as the general manager of the Nuggets, trading on draft day this year to bring Nene Hilario to Denver. Kiki joins us from New York City.

Bobby Valentine managed 16 years in the major leagues, taking the Mets to the 2000 World Series. He has played in Latin America, and he has managed in Japan, and managed Japanese players with the Mets. And he joins us this morning from Stamford, Connecticut.

Eric Wynalda is the all-time leading goal scorer for the U.S. National Soccer Team. He scored the first goal in NLS history. He is also the first American to play in the Bundesliga in the first division in Germany. He arrived in Germany at the age of 22. He joins us this morning from San Diego. Gentlemen, all good morning.

Kiki, let me begin with you. How is the weaning process going? Nene sounds a little tentative here.

KIKI VANDEWEGHE, NUGGETS GENERAL MANAGER- Well, of course he is worried, and you know, our sole interest is Nene's best interest. And you know, if we can do whatever we can do to help that along -- and really the idea is to get him to a point where he can function on his own, because it is last minute of a game, coaches -- it is difficult to scream instructions to an interpreter, then an interpreter back to Nene, so the more we can get Nene to understand, the quicker we can -- then the better off we are.

LEY- I saw your brow furrowed just a tad when Nene said to Lisa, he was pretending to understand a little bit of English. That might be news to you, I think.

VANDEWEGHE- Well, I think it is only natural. You know, you are going to pretend sometimes, and I understand that. But then Joe is with him, you know, constantly right now. We have a language instructor. We've made it -- we have made the situation where Nene doesn't have to go out into pressure situations a lot, but you know, eventually, we want to get him to the point where he can function without an interpreter.

LEY- Well, let's flip it around and give an American point of view. Eric Wynalda, you were, what, 22 when you landed in Germany, speaking not a word. What's it like to land in that situation?

ERIC WYNALDA, FORMER U.S. NATIONAL SOCCER TEAM MEMBER- You know, it is a very difficult scenario, and you know, I am listening -- from a basketball, or even a baseball frame of mind, and it must be very hard, because soccer is a much more free-flowing game. I mean, they give the instructions at the beginning of the game. The managers could basically say, you know, put this guy in a spot and hope that it works out.

But the fact that this guy has got to be taking this information on such a consistent basis, I mean, I am just trying to think about what that was like for me in Germany. And I am glad it was -- I am glad I am a soccer player, because that is a very difficult thing for that guy to do.

LEY- But culturally too, just to land in Germany without speaking a word.

WYNALDA- Oh, yeah, it is pretty amazing. I think that it comes down to the personality of the person too. I mean, you -- I was the kind of guy that wanted to learn. And I was a sink or swim guy. I knew what I was up against. I think they are doing the right thing by weaning him off of an interpreter, because that's how you learn. You have to be with your teammates. You have to start understanding those kind of things, and it makes it so much easier. The process is so much better when you are left, really, on your own.

LEY- Bobby, how important was your interpreter for you when you were managing in Japan?

BOBBY VALENTINE, FORMER METS MANAGER- It was totally important. I could not have done one thing without the interpreter, because I was conveying the message, and I understand the nodding routine, you know, where you make like you understand because you pick up a couple words. But you know, true communication is to understand the entire message.

I remember one time I was telling guys to throw behind the lead runner, and even with the interpreter, he was interpreting it as I was saying to throw it to the behind of the lead runner. They thought I wanted them to hit the guy with the ball, OK? And we couldn't practice the play, so, you know, you have to listen and you have to inspect what you expect, if this is going to work. I think it is a very difficult situation without an interpreter. The message has got to be conveyed, and then the universal language has got to be understood. When you are playing, those things that are said, "X play" for instance, that is a universal language. Foul ball and 'I've got it,' those are all universal in baseball, but when you are trying to convey a message about discipline or about the movement or about just understanding, I think you have to have every word interpreted.

LEY- Well, there is that situation, game situation, but Billy Russell, when he coached the Dodgers, told us a couple of years ago of a situation that was back in 1997. Twice within four days, he had altercations in the dugouts. I think there were Pedro Astacio and Ismael Valdez because he was trying to connote something, I think, just beyond simple game strategy, and I guess, Kiki, the question comes down to -- it is one thing to call out a play, but especially with a young rookie who may want to know where he stands, and is unsure of a lot, there is a deeper conversation that has to take place, and the language barrier can be rather large there.

VANDEWEGHE- Well, it is difficult at best. And that is obviously why we have an interpreter, why we have a language instructor, why we have put so much time and effort into helping Hilario to understand.

But I really do think -- and here is a good example for you. You know, during practices we have sort of weaned the interpreter off a little bit. He only comes in at different times, kind of like you said, when deeper meaning is needed. But during the core of the practice, he is not there, and the reason he is not there is, at the beginning, you know, Hilario was off with the interpreter, and the interpreter was sitting there talking. He wasn't interacting much with his teammates. And we tried to get him to interact with his teammates, so now, you know, he has got his teammates as he can speak a little bit of English now, he has got his teammates to interact with. So he is much more part of a team.

It is a team game, as is soccer and baseball, and you have to have chemistry and you have to have interaction to be successful.

LEY- Well, Eric, how about becoming part of the team when you don't speak the language?

WYNALDA- Well, it's everything, really. I mean, I am thinking from his perspective, and it's OK to understand what your interpreter is saying, what your coach is saying, but you have got to understand what your teammates are saying too. And that interaction that Kiki was touching on, that is pretty much everything in soccer. You cannot expect to go out there and not understand your teammates and play this game. I mean, it's just virtually impossible.

LEY- But how long did it take you to get a soccer understanding when you were there as the one Yank on that team?

WYNALDA- Well, you know like -- different than other sports. Soccer is a little bit easier in that regard. There are no plays. There are no -- you know, we call out a play and we run it. It's a much more free-flowing game, but you know, I made my mistakes. I said some stupid stuff, but it took me about four months. But once I got to about three-and-a-half, four months, I was the kind of a person that was comfortable ordering on my own. And you have to do it.

So you have to go to lunch with your teammates. You have to spend as much time as you possibly can and just learning the little things. That makes such a difference on the court and off the court. All that stuff. It is a very difficult thing.

You know, German is a very strange language too, and there is a lot of things that -- you can insult some people if you say just one word the wrong way. But I think it's very important for this guy to start getting to know his teammates and stay away from that interpreter.

LEY- Well, Bobby, you played, as we said, as a young player in Latin America, then you managed in Japan, and for a while there, in the late '90s with the Mets, you were virtually managing a United Nations. How did your experiences help you in managing that situation? You had Shinjo , you had Yoshii, you had a number of Latin players like any Major League team. How did you take your experience in Japan and apply it?

VALENTINE- Just by trying to understand it that it is very difficult and the more you know, the better you are. And I agree with Eric that there needs to be that relationship between players, and I think the interpreter and the player have got to foster those things, and then the players, on the other side, have got to come and get him.

I would put Japanese words on the bulletin board in the weight room. I would put even Latin words, when I was managing in Texas, and I had four or five young -- I had Pudge Rodriguez and Rueben Sierra, and Juan Gonzalez, who didn't speak a word of English at that time. But at least they could speak to each other, and that's a big thing when you have one other person that you can speak to.

And I think off the field, it is very important to have that person. On the field, there is that baseballese that we have referred to, or basketballese. They have to understand what the other guy is communicating, and it -- a lot of times, it is non-verbal communication that is an integral part of a team, and the more he's around, the more he'll be able to do that.

But he -- it's real tough to learn another language. I have tried with Spanish. I have about 1,000 words, and I have tried with Japanese. I have about 600 words. But I am not fluent by any stretch of the imagination.

LEY- Well, you can call a hit and run, at least. We are going to pick it up right there in just a second, as we continue on the issue of acclimating an athlete to a new language, as we continue. It's something that Yao Ming is confronting with his full time interpreter. And it includes dealing with the media.

COLIN PINES, YAO MING INTERPRETER- I try my best to go word for word, but it is definitely tough on the spot. I try to take notes to make sure I get everything he says.

LEY- Yao Ming is learning the NBA game, and by his side, Colin Pines, who used to work with the U.S. State Department. Pine's goal is to help Yao quickly.

PINES- Yao Ming, he needs to be independent. You know, he needs to be able to function on his own in the NBA, and in American society. So, you know, however long that takes, the shorter the better.

LEY- We are back with Kiki Vandeweghe, Bobby Valentine and Eric Wynalda. Eric, let me pick up with you, the topic being the media. It is one thing to talk within the team, and go out to a restaurant and have a faux pas. You shared a little story with me yesterday. I think the last hurdle for a player might be trying on a new language in front of the media. What happened to you?

WYNALDA- Well, you really want to hear that story?

LEY- Give me the PG version.

WYNALDA- The PG version? Well, let's put it this way. There is two words that sound very similar, and I thought I had it, you know. I said...

LEY- This is live television.

WYNALDA- I know. (Speaking German) is what I tried to say. I changed that last word a little bit and basically told all of Germany that I...

LEY- Had made a rest stop.

WYNALDA- Yeah, made a rest stop in the middle of the field. And you know, that -- it was funny, but those kind of things are going to happen. I mean, I am going to share with you a for instance, with Carlos Ruiz, you are familiar with Carlos, who plays for L.A. Galaxy. This guy did it right. He came from Guatemala and every day he would pick a guy on his team, and he would say, well come on, let's go to lunch. I don't understand a word you are saying, but let's figure it out. And those are the kind of things that -- that is a personality thing that I think has to happen.

This guy didn't go back to his house and play video games. He went and said look, me and you, let's go. We are going to lunch. We'll figure this out and I am going to learn something today. And those are the kind of things you got to do.

LEY- Kiki, is Nene seeing some of that interaction with his teammates?

VANDEWEGHE- There is no question. That is a tremendous point, because he's got to be able to interact not only with his teammates, but he has got to be able to interact with the community at large, and we have explained that to him. And you know, if you have an interpreter 100 percent of the time, when he goes to the grocery store, he never has to speak English, when he goes to the restaurant, he never has to speak English to put gas in his car. Never has to do any of that stuff, and the more he can do that stuff the quicker he is going to learn. The quicker he is going to be able to go out with his teammates and interact and pick up the nuances that they might need in a pressure situation on the court.

So you know, obviously for four or five months he is absolutely going to have to have an interpreter with him. But after that, you really need to experience those things on your own, and it has been proven time and time again. Total immersion is the quickest way to learn a language. But having said that, there is a lot pressure to play team sports every single night, and we want to make sure the transition happens quickly, but also everyone is comfortable.

LEY- Bobby, you had mentioned Juan Gonzalez earlier. I guess he had an interpreter for about seven years, then he gave it up and he said, you know, I started to play better baseball when I felt more comfortable with my teammates.

VALENTINE- I don't know. He won MVPs with an interpreter. So I think you have to feel comfortable. There is no doubt about that. And you know, figure out how that individual needs -- how he gets comfortable with it. If four months is the timetable, let it be four months. I can't imagine anyone being acclimated and comfortable in that short a time in a foreign country. But if he gets a lot of help, you know, if the players on that team and the coaches on that team are going to him -- communication is two way. It is not one way. It can't be all on him to learn. Other people have got to come together to help him learn, and he has got to learn it the right way the first time, so he is not learning things three times. That makes things even more difficult.

LEY- All right, gentlemen, thanks so much. Thanks to Kiki Vandeweghe and to Bobby Valentine. Best of luck to you, gentlemen. And to Eric Wynalda, cast in a new movie, "The Game of Their Lives." We appreciate your being with us.

Next up, we will check your thoughts on the delicate questions we raised about the heart-warming moment, Jake Porter's very special touchdown.

LEY- Last week, we considered the last play. The now famous touchdown scored by Jake Porter, a developed mentally disabled Ohio teenager. One of our guests last week was the father of a son with a similar disability who acknowledged the heart-warming nature of that moment, but also took issue with it. And many of our correspondents taking issue with that point of view from Lorain, Ohio, this e-mail- "Congratulations to the two head coaches and players involved. You were all winners. It is too bad the story couldn't have remained at the local level rather than being sensationalized and dissected by national media looking for controversy where there was none."

And from Hackensack, New Jersey- "This coach has set a very dangerous precedent by his actions. What may happen down the road when another coach has another player with some disability and chooses a similar course of action, but this player suffers a severe injury?"

We look forward to your thoughts on this week's program on NBA interpreters. We are online at ESPN.com. The keyword is OTLWeekly, and our e-mail address -- otlweekly@espn.com.

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