Here’s the deal: we’re now three months into the rookie NBA season of 21/23/24/25/26-year-old Yi Jianlian, and the guy still refuses to answer questions about his age. That is, questions such as – brace yourself – “How old are you?” To be sure, this has been going on a while, with the most notorious dodge taking place in early October, shortly after the intransigent rookie joined the Bucks for his first practice. When asked if he would like to comment on the authenticity of his birth certificate (which lists his birth as October 27, 1987), Yi responded: “I have no comment on that.”
Fact is, the question of Yi’s age has dodged the emerging star ever since he first appeared on the NBA draft radar screen a few years ago (as I detailed here). It’s an important issue from a basketball point-of-view: younger players are considered more coach-able. That is, a 24-year-old Yi is far less valuable to a team than a 20-year-old Yi. Which is why it’s so interesting that DraftExpress, the most respected independent evaluator of NBA talent, still claims that Yi is three years older than his birth certificate indicates. The basis for this evaluation is Yi’s game, and his well-developed physique; but there have been age-related whispers and rumors for years – including a Houston Chronicle report that in 2006 Yi told Houston’s Shane Battier that he was twenty-four (Yi later denied the report).
Of course, this could all be cleared up with a straight answer from Yi (and, perhaps, a subsequent lawsuit from his representatives that included some quality discovery), stating – unequivocally – that he was born in 1987. But Yi seems determined to dodge that opportunity. The most recent dodge (which seems to have been totally overlooked) took place in mid-December when he was interviewed by the AP for a brief profile. The subsequent story (published December 21 on SI.com) ended with a discussion of Yi’s age. When offered a chance to comment on the controversy, Yi offered this:
I just feel like there’s no point in talking about it too much … [I]f you look at my passport, if you look at anything, it’s got my birth date, so there’s really nothing I can say more.
Of course, there is much more to say, starting with something like, “Hi, my name is Yi Jianlian and I am twenty years old.” That would help. But if Yi really wanted to clear the air, then he could – and should – state whether or not his birth certificate is genuine and accurate. It’s not a trivial matter: in 2006, Xinhua reported that China had been fielding over-age players in international under-18 and under-20 youth basketball competitions, and cited doctoring of birth certificates as one means by which overage players ended up on such teams. Rumors about Yi’s age pre-date the Xinhua report, and thus one would think that Yi would like to clear this up.
Obviously, there’s a whole lot at stake here, not least of which is pride. But, on a more tangible level, there are legal consequences. Back in June 2007,
If it is later determined that Yi lied about his age, he can lose his visa status and even, albeit unlikely, be deported, while his team and the NBA could face sanction if they knowingly facilitated in any deception of the U.S. government [in his visa application]. So before Yi receives his first NBA pay check, Yi will have to reveal his actual age, or risk the consequences …
Since Chung and McCann wrote this, Yi has signed the paperwork for his visa, and received his first paycheck. At a minimum, one would think that Yi and his representatives would just as soon resolve the issue so as to stop fueling idle speculation at blogs such as this one. Assuming that Yi really is twenty, what possible interest is served by maintaining this mystery?
[Addendum #1: I realize that this story is old, and that the most recent comment from Yi is almost two weeks old. But that's precisely why I'm posting it now: nobody else has bothered to follow-up on Yi's most recent effort to dodge the age question. World peace isn't at stake here, but Milwaukee's #1 pick might be, and for those who care about such things (me), this resonates.]
[Addendum #2. I've been a fan of Yi's game since I saw him play in Guangzhou a couple of years ago. I'm also grateful that he managed to be drafted by a team other than the Rockets - thus guaranteeing that CCTV will broadcast something other than the woefully un-entertaining Rockets this year.]