[Update: This post was originally Pt. 5 - until a helpful reader pointed out that it was actually Pt. 6. I apologize for losing track!]
The ongoing dispute between Yi Jianlian (and his agent, and former team) and the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks seems to have escalated into a situation which might very well damage the future professional prospects of Chinese basketball players hoping to play in the world’s top league. Let me explain.
Earlier this week, Yi Jianlian’s Chinese Basketball Association team, the Guangdong Tigers, announced that they would not allow him to play for the Bucks. On one hand, this clears up quite a bit of confusion: since being drafted, speculation has abounded as to who is really behind Yi’s refusal. Now, at least, courtesy of the AP, we sort of know its the Tigers. But speculation that the Tigers didn’t want him playing in Milwaukee because of the city’s small Asian population and/or its lack of endorsement opportunities (of which the Tigers would get a significant share) turned out to be wrong. At least, that’s what Chan Haitao, the Tigers’ owner is saying:
“And it’s not about Yi’s commercial interests. We want to find a team that is good for Yi’s development. That’s the root of the problem … The national team and the Olympic Games are now a key factor in considerations,” Chen said [to the AP]. “If Yi goes to a team where he can’t keep up his level of play, that wouldn’t be good for the national team.”
Chen concludes by saying that the team will not allow Yi to go the Bucks, and he believes that Yi – and the national team – would be better off if Yi played in
[UPDATE: Chen now claims that he was mis-quoted. Whatever.]
This is, of course, preposterous. Yi’s development as an international player is totally dependent upon his ability to go the NBA, and
Alas, for Yi, that’s where the current game of chicken between the Bucks and Tigers might land him.
Though I have no insight into NBA back office politics, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to assume that other NBA teams are going to be wary about taking Yi now that it is abundantly clear that Yi has very little control of his career. And
Which brings me to Yao Ming.
So it comes as no surprise that
But that’s no matter to the Chinese government’s sports authorities: late last week the All-China Sports Federation publicly announced that it was disappointed in
“No matter how lofty public welfare activities are, they can’t be allowed to take first place in a player’s life. No matter how sweet personal life is, it can’t be compared to the exultation of capturing glory for one’s nation.”
Will any of this have an impact on whether or not Chinese players are welcomed – and drafted high – into the NBA in the future? To be sure, a physical presence and talent like Yao Ming will always demand a premium in the draft and will likely be able to demand a certain number of Sino-centric concessions. But what of players like Yi – talented project likely to require several seasons of NBA play before reaching potential that is not guaranteed? Will any NBA team risk a high draft pick in the future on such a Chinese player? Especially knowing that the Chinese national team – and not off-season NBA training – will be a permanent priority
I think we’ll know soon enough. If the Yi situation drags out any longer, and if it really results in a trade or Yi returning to China, then I bet (and I sincerely hope) that the NBA will alter its rules so that foreign players – and especially Chinese players with obligations to team and country back home – will have to assess their priorities before entering the league. For now, the only silver lining in any of this is the absolute demolition of the (mostly deserved) belief that American NBA players are the most spoiled and pampered pro athletes on Earth. Yi Jianlian – a potentially mediocre player with a three year career – will at least take that legacy with him.
Inevitably, there are parallels here in business and politics (between