Yao's solemn exit leaves a big void in the NBA and Chinese sports

Wednesday, 20th July 2011 ~ Maggie ~ Link ~ Comments (0)

In a press conference that's been anticipated by the Chinese sports world for the last two weeks, Yao Ming announced his retirement from basketball this afternoon in Shanghai. The press conference was broadcast all over China, playing live on TV, online, even on the screens in Beijing's subway cars.

The press conference was hosted by Xu Jicheng, a veteran basketball journalist and commentator who now works for Xinhua. In addition to the nation's top basketball media, Yao had invited to the press conference a cast of the characters from his career — his parents; his old rival Wang Zhizhi, the first player in the NBA; one of his first agents, Lu Hao; Colin Pine, his translator and cultural guide during his first season in Houston. Even David Stern made an appearance, in the form of a taped statement which he can make now that Yao is no longer an NBA employee.

"Today I am retiring. One door is closed, but others will open," he said to a crowd bigger than I've seen at some CBA games. "Although I am finished with competitive sports, I can't leave basketball. Running the Shanghai Sharks is my next focus. I hope to use all I've learned to better manage this club."

While a little bit of sadness is part of any retirement press conference, today's affair in Shanghai seemed particularly somber. Although CCTV-5's broadcast played highlights of his career, there didn't seem to be anything like that in the ballroom where Yao made his announcement. The overall tone was almost funereal, lightened only by a couple of weak jokes from Yao and by the presence of his adorable one-year-old daughter.
Yao Ming with father (Yao Zhiyuan), mother (Fang Fengdi), wife (Ye Li) and daughter (Yao Qinle). wife and daughter
Yao Ming with father (Yao Zhiyuan), mother (Fang Fengdi), wife (Ye Li) and daughter (Yao Qinle). wife and daughter

It could be that I am missing some important cultural background on Chinese press conferences or retirement announcements. But it's also true that Yao's remarkable career is tainted by the disappointment of the injury-riddled last six years. When a Sina.com poll indicated that 57% of Chinese fans said they would stop watching basketball after Yao retired, I wondered who they had been watching since 2007 (or '06 or '05 even). He played just enough to show that he had the physical gifts and the drive to become one of the league's great centers, but his body kept him from ever truly getting there.

Yao Ming was born into a basketball career, the son of two retired basketball stars in a country where sports training is often tied to family legacy. But when the Houston Rockets selected him with the first pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, he stepped into territory that no one could tell him how to navigate. In the now-common sports media practice of crowning athletes before they prove themselves, he bore the burden of expectations to become one of the league's great centers — not to mention the burden of becoming China's face to the world.

Yao met the expectations on the court, but his career was hobbled and eventually cut short by injuries. Off the court, he exceeded expectations, growing from a shy teenager into a graceful ambassador. These past 10 years, China and the United States have been closer than ever, but the relationship is complicated by misunderstanding, competition and often conflicting agendas. Through those years, Yao has represented China just how it would like to be represented — with a reputation for humble strength, hard work and respect for country and family. And his humor has showed the world a friendly, self-deprecating side of China.

This isn't exactly a convenient time for Yao to make his exit. You can say that he leaves the NBA without a Chinese player who belongs in a starting lineup, or that he leaves China without a big-time player in its favorite sport — from both perspectives, it's a large vacuum. And Chinese sports fans don't have much else to cheer about right now. Tennis player Li Na has a great story and sense of humor to go with her backhand, but she faces difficult odds to repeat her French Open feat. Liu Xiang is Asian champion again, but he has two more races that matter between now and next summer in London. And Yi Jianlian will be back for more in the NBA, but the clock is running out on his most frequently lauded trait—"potential."

If Yao's press conference seemed sadder than an 8-time All Star's should be, it might not only be because his career was truncated by his uncooperative body, but also because he has no one to pass the torch to, and he can't tell his fans in Houston or Shanghai who, or what, is next.

Yao speech image: Sports.qq.com
Yao family photo: Xinhua

Tags: basketball, CBA, NBA, Shanghai Sharks, Wang Zhizhi, Yao Ming

This Week in China Sports: NFL Draft, new CBA champion, Olympic gymnasts stripped of Sydney medal

Friday, 30th April 2010 ~ Maggie ~ Link ~ Comments (0)

Ed Wang was, indeed, picked up in the NFL draft. He went to the Buffalo Bills with the 140th pick, becoming the first Chinese-American drafted by an NFL team. Titan Sports News, China's top sports newspaper, featured Wang on its front page.

The Guangdong Southern Tigers beat the Xinjiang Flying Tigers 103-94, winning their sixth Chinese Basketball Association title. Guangdong took the series 4-1. Only the Bayi Rockets, the Chinese army team, have won more titles (8), and Guangdong has been the CBA champion all but one of the last seven years. (Xinhua)

Bob Donewald, coach of the Yao Ming-owned Shanghai Sharks of the CBA, was tapped to coach the Chinese men's national basketball team through the end of the year (Washington Post). Donewald coached NCAA basketball at several different Midwestern universities throughout the 80s and 90s. He will lead a Yao-less team at the world championships in August and the Asian Games in November.

The International Olympic Committee stripped China of its bronze medal in the gymnastics team competition in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, after Dong Fangxiao was ruled to have been underage. The bronze now goes to the United States team. Ironically, Dong was outed by her accreditation papers for working as an official at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. That paperwork has her birth date as January 23, 1986, and not January 20, 1983, as she had declared in Sydney. Olympic gymnasts must turn 16 in the year they compete in an Olympics, per restrictions set by the Federation Internationale Gymnastique (AP via ESPN).

Kenny Huang is NOT denying rumors published in the Sunday Mirror that he is in talks to buy Liverpool Football Club. He only denies speaking to a reporter from the paper, and said he would not comment on the rumor.

China may not have a team in the FIFA World Cup, but they do have a presence. Many of the South African flags currently selling well in the host country, are made in China and apparently the imports were not quite printed right (Mail & Guardian)

Tags: basketball, Bob Donewald, CBA, FIFA World Cup, Guangdong Tigers, gymnastics, IOC, Kenny Huang, NFL, Olympics, Shanghai Sharks, Xinjiang Tigers, 黄建华

China basketball update

Thursday, 7th January 2010 ~ Maggie ~ Link ~ Comments (0)

The NBA is in full swing, and China's domestic league, the Chinese Basketball Association, started play a couple of weeks ago. Here are the top stories in the Chinese basketball world:

Yao Ming's wife Ye Li is having a baby. Good thing we haven't done our "Top Sports Stories of 2010" yet. This child has been talked about since Yao married his sports school sweetheart, the 6'3" Ye Li. Chinese chat rooms are abuzz with speculation: How tall will the baby be? Will she be the first woman to play in the NBA? Will he be an NBA All-Star like Daddy? And can Chinese Internet users please, please be allowed to vote on a name? Here's a Xinhua article on the pregnancy news, along with some great suggestions for names (Yao'Neal is my personal favorite). Yao's been spending some time in China recently, which seems to be good news for the CBA team he is now a part owner of. The Shanghai Sharks are 6-2 and in fourth place in the league.

Yi Jianlian is back and beginning to show some of that potential Kiki Vandeweghe is always talking about. Since returning to the New Jersey Nets' lineup December 23, he has scored at least 22 points in four out of six games. He still needs to rebound more consistently, and the Nets still need to do some more winning, but he's proving that when healthy he is a valuable contributor to the worst team in the league.

The NBA's All-Star voting process is again at risk of an international incident, and China's at the center of it. The NBA declared Yi Jianlian ineligible for the game, knowing that despite barely playing this fall, he might still get enough votes from Chinese fans to make the starting lineup. But David Stern forgot to do the same for Houston Rocket Tracy McGrady, who is now cornering the China vote. Fans of more deserving players (aka, every starting guard in the Western conference) are understandably miffed at the Chinese voting bloc, and calls have been made for McGrady—who has only played in six games this season—to withdraw his name from consideration for the fan-picked starting lineup on the Western All-Star team.

A post is coming soon about the foreigners playing in China's domestic league this year. But two weeks in, the league already seems to be producing its usual bizarre personnel sagas. On Shanxi Zhongyu, the team that brought on Bonzi Wells for a short unhappy stint in the CBA, is reportedly bringing in NBA veteran Jerry Stackhouse to replace a player who supposedly had a fight with team "boss" Wang Xingjiang (Xinhua)

In Changchun, the Jilin Northeast Tigers (purchased this fall by Kenny Huang, a financier involved in buying a stake in the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers) ditched the disappointing Samaki Walker. Walker wasn't earning his keep, averaging 11 points and 11 points over seven games. His replacement, DeAngelo Collins, had 23 points and 16 rebounds in his first game, a loss to the Shanghai Sharks. According to a recent report in Xinhua, Collins has a history in the CBA, albeit a rocky one: "Collins left the CBA after he abused then head coach Wang Fei and was thrashed by his Chinese teammates during the 2007/2008 season in Zhejiang." Looks all's been forgiven, for now.

Tags: DAngelo Collins, Jiliin Northeast Tigers, NBA, Shanghai Sharks, Shanxi Zhongyu, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Yao Ming baby, Ye Li, Yi Jianlian

American player's take on a CBA brawl

Tuesday, 13th January 2009 ~ Maggie ~ Link ~ Comments (1)

American basketball player Gabe Muoneke was at the center of one of the Chinese Basketball Association's worst dust-ups this season. Muoneke, who played at the University of Texas and now plays for the Yunnan Running Red Bulls, was chased down by a couple of Shanghai Sharks, including Liu Wei, point guard for the Chinese national team, after a game between the two teams in early December.

Liu and a teammate were each fined 50,000 yuan and suspended for 10 games for their involvement in the incident. Muoneke has posted his own account on his blog on HoopsHype.com. It's not too different from the story that's been reported by Chinese media. Muoneke confirms that he was with two of his children when the Sharks confronted him, and writes, "I hold no ill will toward them and was on record saying I had no desire for them to be punished."

Muoneke also uses the post to vent other frustrations he is having with the CBA in his first season here. He hasn't been impressed with the level of play. He writes:

"One day, I'd love to discuss the fine points of basketball and its utter decimation in certain places. I'd love to brag about my numbers over here but I have some pride."

He also complains about the fouls against him that aren't called, and expresses some frustrations as a black American playing in the CBA. Here Munoeke, who is of Bantu-speaking Nigerian descent, recounts a conversation with a Chinese coach:

"My first coach here in 2003 told me he studied human anatomy in college and through his studies he learned (Bantu) people are made only for certain sports. He said, basketball, football and other power sports were those [sic] for Bantus but a sport like, 'Tennis for example,' he said was made for white and yellow. I didn't get offended. Ignorance can't offend me. I just smiled and said, 'Venus and Serena.' And he thought, smiled and shook his finger at me half embarrassed, half laughing with a steroetypical, 'very good.'"

Muoneke is a global journeyman, who has played in the NBA D-League, and for teams in at least nine other countries. It doesn't sound like he'll be back for a second season in the CBA.

Gabe Muoneke image:HoopsHype.com

Tags: basketball, CBA, Gabe Muoneke, Liu Wei, Shanghai Sharks, Yunnan Running Red Bulls

Wells drops 52, but what is wrong with the CBA?

Tuesday, 30th December 2008 ~ Maggie ~ Link ~ Comments (0)

Yao Ming's former teammate Bonzi Wells is having a field day in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). After averaging 12.5 points and 4.6 rebounds over the course of his NBA career, Wells is a scoring machine in the CBA. Last night, he scored 52 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in a 119-115 overtime win for his Shanxi Zhongyu over Fujian.

While Wells is blowing up the scoreboard and earning the dubious distinction of "best former NBA player in the CBA," China's professional basketball league seems to either be cleaning itself up or descending into chaos--we're reserving judgment on which one.

The news feed on the league's Web site right now features four stories about recent fines for players and teams. A recent league order required the Jilin and Jiangsu clubs to pay fines of 50,000 yuan ($7,300) each for unruly fan behavior at a game. Earlier this month, Liu Wei (a captain of the Chinese National Team and a once-upon-a-time NBA prospect) and Cai Liang, took on-court aggression off the court when they chased down opponent Gabe Muoneke after a game. Water bottles were thrown at Muoneke, who was reportedly leaving the arena with his family. Liu and Cai were fined 50,000 yuan apiece and suspended for 10 games; their club, the Shanghai Sharks, paid a 100,000 yuan fine. Also recently fined was the Tianjin club, again for fan behavior.

And while the fights and fines are getting headlines, the widespread practice of fudging players ages (making them younger so they can compete in youth tournaments) has also garnered some bad publicity. Li Zhigang, a reporter for Sports Illustrated's Chinese magazine, dug up some evidence that several players, including New Jersey Net Yi Jianlian, are a few years older than the age listed for them on official league documents.

It would be a good year for the CBA to get its act together, and a bad year for it to cement a reputation for lies and fisticuffs. The NBA is making big moves here—opening its NBA China office about a year ago, and announcing extensive arena construction plans this fall. Whether the CBA lets itself get bought out or digs in and tries to compete with a possible NBA-run Chinese league, the less shine it has on its brand image, the stronger the NBA's position gets.

Tags: basketball, Bonzi Wells, Cai Liang, CBA, Liu Wei, Shanghai Sharks, Shanxi Zhongyu, Yi Jianlian

Kevin Du's unusual path to hockey success

Thursday, 20th November 2008 ~ Maggie ~ Link ~ Comments (1)

Thanks to Shanghaiist contributor Geoff Ng for alerting CST to this video about Chinese-Canadian hockey player Kevin Du. Du, who graduated from Harvard in 2007, now plays for the Shanghai Sharks. The video tells the story of his family; his father fled Saigon in 1975, spent five months in a Malaysian refugee camp and eventually gained immigrant status in Alberta, Canada. He encouraged young Kevin to play hockey as a way to insulate him from the racism that the family faced as the only Chinese family in a small town.

In an interview on the video, the elder Du speaks about the ability of sports to help people see beyond their differences: "We want to blend a kid into society so they don't feel different than the other kids. And no better way to do that than by playing hockey, because in hockey you meet a lot of people."

Tags: Chinese-Canadian, hockey, Kevin Du, Shanghai Sharks