Matt Beyer is the first to admit he’s catching his breath just a bit as he wraps up a whirlwind senior year at UW-Madison.
“I’m not going to lie, it was really intense,” said Beyer, who is taking two courses this summer to complete his undergraduate degree. “When the year was over, I felt a little burned out.”
A little burned out?
Not only was Beyer putting the finishing touches on a triple major of Chinese, East Asian studies and journalism, but from October through April he served as the interpreter for Milwaukee Bucks 7-footer Yi Jianlian, a rookie from China.
The Bucks play 82 games during the regular season, with half 75 miles down the road in Milwaukee and the rest at various NBA cities around the country. And with rare exception, Beyer was at Yi’s side as an interpreter for media interviews both before and after every game.
“You know what the strange thing is?” said Beyer, who recently turned 23. “As intense as it was, I miss the season already. It was so fun, and now watching the NBA playoffs on TV I wish the Bucks were still in it. I didn’t sleep much during the year, but everything was so exciting and new, I just felt grateful to be in that position.”
Beyer, who grew up in Elm Grove, a suburb of Milwaukee, was first introduced to Chinese culture when he traveled with his family to the city of Xi’an, where his parents adopted a young boy and girl from an orphanage. He was 10 at the time.
Beyer eventually became so interested in China that he spent two years studying there straight out of high school before enrolling at UW-Madison in the spring of 2005.
And by the time the 2007 NBA Draft came rolling around last June, Beyer — who was interning at a Milwaukee public relations firm — had his sights on landing a job as Yi’s interpreter.
“I don’t think I would have given up on the idea had Yi been drafted by another team,” said Beyer. “But him being with the Bucks, it just ended up being the perfect situation.”
Even serendipitous, one might say.
Beyer was interning last summer for Zeppos and Associates Inc. when Yi was drafted. Owner Evan Zeppos, a Bucks season ticket holder, was interested in learning more about Yi, whose handlers initially were so upset that the Bucks had drafted their young client that they threatened he would never sign to play in relatively small-market Milwaukee.
To get some insight into the situation, Zeppos asked Beyer to translate stories written about Yi by the Chinese media.
“Matt was scouring all these Web sites and translating these things for me, and I’d just click ‘forward’ and send them on to some friends at the Bucks,” Zeppos said. “Then those people would ask, ‘Where did you get this?'”
After Yi (pronounced “E”) finally signed and as the NBA preseason approached last October, the Bucks decided they needed an interpreter to help their young star handle media interviews. The team also needed someone who could assist when Chinese reporters would visit and want to speak with other players, coaches or front-office personnel.
“Our commitment originally was very limited with Matt,” said Bucks Vice President Ron Walter. “But within weeks we knew we had someone who was very talented and we expanded his role.
“Before long he was not only helping Yi with interviews, but he was translating material from our Web site to our China page (on www.bucks.com).”
Walter said Beyer also monitored Chinese language media so the team knew what was being written about Yi and the Bucks in Chinese publications. “And he even assisted us on occasions when we had Chinese media or potential sponsors visiting,” Walter added.
Somehow, Beyer still managed to survive taking 15 credits at UW-Madison in the fall — including two graduate level courses — before cutting down his spring semester load to 7 credits.
“It was very crazy in terms of time management and just not much sleep at all,” said Beyer. “But I wasn’t going to miss this chance. I figured I could sleep when I was done.”
Beyer, who played a number of high school sports at Brookfield Academy, including basketball, says he didn’t do any translating for Yi during practices or games.
“He’s been doing international play for so long, he probably knows more basketball words in English than I do,” said Beyer.
Mostly, Beyer would be at Yi’s side from 90 minutes before a game starts until 45 minutes prior to tipoff, which is when media members have access to the locker rooms for pre-game interviews. Beyer would then get together with Yi 10 minutes after every contest to help with post-game interviews.
Beyer said reporters would usually pose questions directly to Yi, who would look to Beyer if he needed a translation. “If Yi felt comfortable, he’d respond in English and if he didn’t, he’d turn to me and I’d say what he was saying.”
For many games, Beyer would simply be dealing with a handful of reporters. But on a few occasions, including when the Bucks were facing the Houston Rockets and Chinese mega-star Yao Ming, several dozen reporters could be interested in interviewing Yi.
To put into perspective Chinese interest in the NBA, the first on-court meeting between Yao and Yi reportedly drew more than 250 million viewers on Chinese TV.
“There were times when it was a little scary,” said Beyer. “But I never really felt overwhelmed, because I’m pretty confident in my Chinese.”
Beyer said the questions veered from sports topics occasionally.
“I have to say, I never understood why so many people were curious what his favorite food was,” Beyer said.
Beyer estimates each home game — including drive time — consumed about eight hours of his day.
And then there were the road trips. Some were relatively short, chartered flights to places like Detroit, Indianapolis or Minneapolis. Others — like a five-game road swing in December through Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, Portland and Sacramento — were more grueling.
“You’d have a game, get packed up and go to the airport around, say, 11 p.m.,” Beyer said. “Then you’d sit on the plane awhile and everyone was getting food. Then take off around midnight and by the time you get to the next hotel, it’s like 3 or 3:30 a.m. And no one ever falls asleep right when you get someplace new, so you finally fall asleep around 4 a.m. or so and then it’s up at 10 for a morning practice and on and on.
“Just staying healthy, getting enough exercise and eating right — It was very hard with that weird schedule.”
On the road, Beyer and Yi’s relationship was mostly professional, although the two would occasionally have dinner together or hang out at a coffee shop. But Beyer is protective about Yi’s privacy, offering little about what kind of guy he is off the court.
Like most NBA athletes, however, Yi would use much of his down time on the road resting up for the next game, learning plays or studying his opponents.
Beyer would use his free time to catch up on his studies, surf the Web or explore the cities he was staying in.
“Everywhere we went, people know who Yi is,” said Beyer. “Every time we’ve been out to eat or in an airport or anywhere, people know him. And with the Chinese fans, he’s not simply an athlete, he’s an icon.”
Yi, who saw his season cut short due to injuries, played in 66 games for the Bucks as a rookie, averaging 8.6 points and 5.2 rebounds.
Beyer said he especially enjoyed Bucks road trips to New York, where he got to visit friends, and Miami, where the warm weather provided a nice escape from Wisconsin’s winter blizzards. He said the highlight of the season for him was accompanying Yi to the All-Star Game weekend in New Orleans in mid-February. Yi didn’t compete in the main event that weekend, but was a member of the All-Rookie team that played a group of standout second-year players.
“That was a really cool experience, seeing all these players, all these stars, everywhere you go,” Beyer said.
Beyer said his interest in learning more about China was piqued when, at 16, he and his family returned to the country to help his younger brother and sister learn more about their roots.
“I remember thinking how different everything was from suburban Milwaukee and the world I had grown up in,” said Beyer. “I was like, ‘Wow, there is this whole new world out there.'”
When he moved to China after high school, he spent one year at Xi’an International Studies University and another at Shanghai International Studies University. While in China, he taught English to help pay his way through school.
By the second day of a Chinese language class for foreign students at Xi’an University, the teacher expected her pupils to be writing sentences using Chinese characters, said Beyer, who spent 20 hours per week learning Chinese when he first moved to China. “I’m like, ‘I’ve never written a character in my life.’ It was very demanding.”
But by the end of the semester, however, Beyer and his classmates were writing 500-character essays.
“She worked us really hard but we learned a ton. I’ve heard one semester over there is like two years of taking a language here. So by the time I returned here, I had already pretty much taken care of the Chinese major, as far as language.”
Upon returning to the states, Beyer continued to focus much of his studies on Chinese literature, politics and history. This past year he took graduate-level courses with Melanie Manion, a professor of political science and public affairs, and Nicole Huang, an associate professor of Chinese literature.
Being able to speak Chinese today is “hugely, hugely valuable,” Manion said. “China is so much a global player now and people need to understand it.”
Since enrolling at UW-Madison, Beyer also has spent two summers studying in China. His education, Beyer notes, has enriched his work as a translator.
“At one level, I’m strictly an interpreter,” he said. “But when we’re talking with Chinese media and meeting Chinese guests, it’s really nice to have this background knowledge about China. And I’ve learned a lot here from these incredible teachers and scholars.”
After graduating this summer, Beyer hopes to find a way to get to Beijing and work in some capacity during the upcoming Summer Olympics in China. He would not be working directly with Yi, however, as the Chinese National Team employs its own set of interpreters. Yi might be forced to miss the Olympics anyway due to knee and wrist injuries.
After that, Beyer plans to return to the Bucks for at least one more year as Yi’s interpreter.
“I think Yi and Matt spent a lot of time together, and my sense was that the reason this worked so well was because Yi was very comfortable with Matt,” said the Bucks’ Walter. “That sounds simple, but Yi was certainly a stranger to Wisconsin and the NBA, and so we’re very fortunate that we were able to find someone like Matt.”
Beyer, who wouldn’t say how much the Bucks pay him, plans to stick with Yi for as long as his services are needed. Then, he could see himself someday opening a public relations firm in a place like Xi’an, the ancient capital of China.
“That’s just sort of a dream,” he said. “I still feel very much in touch with China and I feel like that’s kind of my driving passion.”