Yi Jianlian – Walking, Talking Trade Dispute, Pt. 6

[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 Guangdong.

[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 China’s former national team coach, Qian Chenghai, made that point last week: “We don’t want to see Yi destroy his reputation in the NBA and return to the Chinese Basketball Association. That’s horrible.”

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 Guangdong’s willingness to resort to patriotism as a justification for Yi’s current inability to comply with the NBA draft only makes matters worse. After all, what NBA team wants to be sharing revenue with the jingoistic owner of a mediocre Chinese basketball team?

Which brings me to Yao Ming.

When Yao was drafted in 2002 by the NBA’s Houston Rockets, his former Chinese team managed to obtain a cut of Yao’s salary, as well as guarantees that Yao would not miss any significant Chinese national team commitments. This latter point was a major concession: NBA teams are reluctant to see their high-paid players wear-down their bodies in international competition following the rigors of the 82-game NBA season. And generally, the feeling is mutual (note the relative dearth of top-flight US-born NBA talent on the current US national team).

So it comes as no surprise that Yao was a little late showing up for the Chinese national team’s practice sessions in Beijing this week. The guy was likely exhausted from a grueling NBA season (and playoffs) during which he was – once again – injured. Also, he just got married. Oh, and he was helping out with the Special Olympics and promotional activities for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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 Yao’s off-season commitment to national honor. In comments printed in the Federation’s mouth-piece newsletter, China Sports Daily (reprinted in many venues, including ESPN), Yao was taken to task for apparent selfishness:

“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.”

So far, Yao hasn’t responded to this smack-down. But if he could, I wonder – at this point – if he’d really call China’s national team his top priority (a national team, it is worth noting, that has absolutely no chance of winning a medal at the Beijing Olympics). I can think of no NBA player of the last two decades willing to prioritize an Olympic medal over an NBA title.

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 China and the US), but I’ll leave those to others.