Yi-haw: Texas, the NBA's most Chinese state

Wednesday, 11th January 2012 ~ Maggie ~ Link ~ Comments (0)

Yi Jianlian becomes the fourth Chinese player to join a Texas NBA squad.
Yi Jianlian becomes the fourth Chinese player to join a Texas NBA squad.
After a pair of strong performances with the Dallas Mavericks' D-League team, Yi Jianlian has been called back up to play with the big boys. Yi posted double-doubles (17 points, 11 rebounds; 29 points, 13 rebounds).

The defending champion Mavs are Yi's fourth NBA team in five seasons. He shines in international play, but has never developed into a strong contributor on an NBA team.

Most stories about the Mavs picking up Yi have rightly pointed out that Del Harris, the coach of D-League squad Texas Legends, coached Yi at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. However, they don't normally point out that Harris played a big role in getting then-16-year-old (cough, cough, okay, 18) Yi on the team and making him a starter –even though he was not yet a starter in the CBA. Harris' success as the national team coach in 2004 has helped make him more famous in China than he is in the United States.
Wang Zhizhi (left) became the first Chinese player in the NBA when the Dallas Mavericks drafted him 36th in 1999, but the Chinese army team kept him out of the NBA for two years; the Houston Rockets selected Yao Ming with the first pick in the 2002 draft.
Wang Zhizhi (left) became the first Chinese player in the NBA when the Dallas Mavericks drafted him 36th in 1999, but the Chinese army team kept him out of the NBA for two years; the Houston Rockets selected Yao Ming with the first pick in the 2002 draft.

With Yi's arrival on the Mavs, Texas officially and firmly becomes the state with the strongest NBA-China connection. All but one of the five Chinese players who have played in the league have come through Texas (only Sun Yue, Lakers and Knicks, has not). The first (Wang Zhizhi, Dallas Mavericks), the most famous (Yao Ming, Houston Rockets), and the first champion (Mengke Bateer, San Antonio Spurs) all balled in Texas. The only other state to host more than one is California, with brief quiet stints for Sun on the Lakers and Wang on the Clippers.

Bateer didn't get much playing time, but he was the first from his country to get a ring, with the 2002-03 San Antonio Spurs
Bateer didn't get much playing time, but he was the first from his country to get a ring, with the 2002-03 San Antonio Spurs

Yi in Mavs jersey image: JWB.com.cn

Tags: basketball, Dallas Mavericks, Del Harris, Mengke Bateer, NBA, Sun Yue, Wang Zhizhi, Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian

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

China-Brazil brawl raises questions about basketball program

Sunday, 17th October 2010 ~ Maggie ~ Link ~ Comments (1)

Zhu Fangyu (right) was one of two Chinese players fined 30,000 yuan
Zhu Fangyu (right) was one of two Chinese players fined 30,000 yuan

What is it with China's national men's basketball team? After its throwdown with the Brazilian national team last week, the team has now been involved in three of the worst fights in international basketball this decade. There was China-Lebanon in 2001, China-Puerto Rico in 2005 (video), and now China-Brazil in 2010.

The latest came in an exhibition game in Xuchang (Henan province) to prepare the China for November's Asian Games. Here's a YouTube video of the fight, and here is a Youku video. The YouTube one captures the tantrum that China's head coach throws before the fight, and the Youku one shows the foul that set him off.

The Chinese Basketball Association has levied 290,000 yuan ($43,660) in penalties to 15 people for the melee (Chinese report). It fined head coach Bob Donewald, an American who has coached a season in the CBA, 50,000 yuan ($7,530), and suspended him from practice. Three players—Zhu Fangyu, Ding Jinhui and Su Wei—were each fined 30,000 yuan, and six other players drew 20,000-yuan fines. Team official Zhang Xiong also was suspended, and fine 30,000 yuan.

The CBA should not just be investigating this incident, but also looking for answers as to why China is building up an ugly history of fights in international play. The fact that Donewald, a former Bobby Knight protégé, blew his top, contributed to the China-Brazil mess, but this isn't out of form for China. The throwdowns with Lebanon and Puerto Rico were already some of the worst in FIBA-sanctioned play. And the domestic league, the CBA, also sees its share of fights (witness: Charles Gaines-Du Feng, 2010) often with fans getting involved by throwing objects on the court. Do officials need to learn how to keep the players and crowd under control? Is the Chinese style of play actually not physical enough, leading to frustration and anger when players come up against a little more contact? Does China's tendency toward soccer-style faking and flopping raise the level of tension? Does alleged match-fixing rob players of an outlet for their competitive emotions? Or are these guys all too roided up?

Whatever the answer, the CBA needs to be searching for it, because these incidents make China look thuggish and amateur.

In case you haven't seen the brawl:
Numerous videos posted online indicate that emotions got hot when coach Bob Donewald lost his temper at officials for a missed moving screen call in the first minute of the game. Donewald cursed and screamed at referees, pounded his fist on the scorer's table, and was removed from the game with two technical fouls. The team claims that guard Zhang Qingpeng, who received the screen, suffered a concussion from it, although it certainly didn't look like Zhang's head hit anything. Media reports show Zhang in a neck brace.

After another 30 seconds of very physical play, Chinese veteran guard and one-time CBA MVP Zhu Fangyu blatantly hip-checked to the floor a Brazilian who was already bent over and getting his footing. What followed was a bench-clearing brawl that made the Malice at the Palace look mild—Brazilian players threw some punches, but for the most part, they were trying to get out of the way, while Chinese players were taking cheap shots and kicking their opponents while they were down.

As for the Chinese players with substantial playing experience in the United States, Wang Zhizhi (Dallas Mavericks, LA Clippers, Miami Heat) seems to have stayed out of the brawl; Sun Yue (LA Lakers) got some cheap kicks in; and Max Zhang (Cal-Berkeley) threw and received some punches.

Image: Chinasmack

Tags: basketball, Bob Donewald, CBA, Max Zhang, Sun Yue, Wang Zhizhi, Zhu Fangyu

"Young" China team ousted from World Championships

Wednesday, 8th September 2010 ~ Maggie ~ Link ~ Comments (0)

After a 1-4 start set them up to face one of the tournament's top teams in the knockout round, China made its exit from the FIBA World Championships (basketball) last night, losing to Lithuania, 78-67.

The highlight of the tournament for Team China was the play of Yi Jianlian, who averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds, and took it to the competition with some aggressive play inside. His performance has Washington Wizards bloggers buzzing about what he might bring to their team this year—but playing well in international tournaments has never been Yi's problem. It's when he goes up against NBA bodies that he seems to wither. And he's already a little banged up, sitting on the bench for China's game against Turkey with a sore Achilles tendon.

The low point of the tournament for Team China was a 47-point loss to Turkey. With Yi out of the lineup, China only managed to scrounge up an anemic 40 points—and just 6 and 7 in the first two quarters. Not surprisingly, the loss led to some questions in Chinese sports media as to whether new coach Bob Donewald is the right man for the job.

As he starts facing more scrutiny from Chinese media. Donewald is benefiting from a misguided "young and inexperienced" label placed on China by lots of sports media. It's true that they are playing without veteran centers Yao Ming and Mengke Bateer, and elder statesman Li Nan has finally traded his jersey for an assistant coach's polo shirt, but the average age for the starting lineup is over 27. And that's before you take into account the rampant downward adjustment of ages that goes on in Chinese basketball. All of the starters played in the 2008 Olympics, and four of them—Yi, Wang Zhizhi, Liu Wei and Sun Yue—have NBA experience (point guard Liu only played in some pre-season games, but the rest al signed with teams for the regular season). Despite all of that, most Chinese media describe the team as young—a convenient excuse for its 1-5 record in Turkey.

Next up for China is the Asian Games in Guangzhou this November. Yi will stay with the team through then, before returning to the Wizards.

Tags: basketball, Bob Donewald, FIBA, Li Nan, Liu Wei, Sun Yue, Wang Shipeng, Wang Zhizhi, Yi Jianlian

Zero Tolerance for Sloppiness: China's Age-faking problem

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

China is taking a zero-tolerance stance and adopting new measures to ensure its athletes meet age requirements for international competition, said Cai Zhenhua, vice president of the State General Administration of Sport, according to this report in China Daily. Cai says that the new approach starts with the upcoming Youth Olympics August 14 to 26 in Singapore. Athletes have been asked to furnish six different forms of ID, listed by China Daily as: "birth certificates, ID cards, passports, domestic athlete registration cards and domestic and international authentication for competitions."
Yi Jianlian's high school ID, listing him as born in 1984
Yi Jianlian's high school ID, listing him as born in 1984

The article adds that "athletes under 16 have also undergone bone-age checks through nuclear magnetic resonance." China Daily not explain why athletes who claim to be over 16 aren't required to take the tests.

But how much can these new regulations really do to solve China's age-faking problem? The country's national teams aren't generally thought to be the source of the practice. It begins much earlier in athletes' careers, when they are competing for their provinces. Leaders of those teams receive bonuses tied to performance in national and international competition. These bonuses can represent a major portion of their pay, so there is a strong incentive to shave a couple of years off (in sports like basketball and soccer, so players can enter youth competition for longer) or tack a couple on (in sports like diving and gymnastics, where young girls' flexible bodies are an advantage).

No doubt China wants to avoid future embarrassment like it experienced when the International Olympic Committee stripped its 2000 Olympic women's gymnastics team of a bronze medal after determining Dong Fangxiao had competed under a falsified age.

But I have a hard time believing that sports administration officials really care whether athletes are telling the truth about their age—they just want them to stop getting caught.

Dong was busted because of her own careless mistake. When she applied to be an official at the 2008 Olympics, she provided her real birth year, 1986, instead of the 1983 date that she had used to register for the Sydney Olympics. Others have been caught with a secondary form of ID that carries their real age. In 1999, Wang Zhizhi was picked up by the Dallas Mavericks despite his reported birth date making him too young to be drafted by an NBA team. The Mavericks had access to the center's military ID, with correct age (two years older), thanks to a Beijing-–based Nike employee. Yi Jianlian, who plays for the NBA's Washington Wizards, is widely thought to be two years older than his official birth year of 1987 indicates; two years ago, Chinese reporters dug up an old high school ID that listed his birth date as 1984. In all of these cases, a more careful scrubbing of history would have kept the athletes' secrets buried deeper.

Whether the administration really wants to make sure that its teams are compliant, I can't say for sure. But I am willing to bet that what lower-ranking and provincial sports officials will hear is this: "If you want to fake ages, you'd better start covering your tracks."

Yi Jianlian high school ID image: Sohu.com

Tags: age faking, cheating, Dong Fangxiao, gymnastics, sports administration, Wang Zhizhi, Yi Jianlian

Giants of Chinese basketball play tonight

Wednesday, 21st October 2009 ~ Maggie ~ Link ~ Comments (0)

Quick, who was the first Chinese guy to play in the NBA?

A. Yao Ming
B. Wang Zhizhi
C. Ma Jian
D. Mengke Bateer

If you guessed Yao Ming, I can't blame you, but you're wrong. Wang Zhizhi was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks in 1999, and suited up two years later. He didn't join the team until the professional season in China was over in the spring of 2001. He went on to play five seasons in the league, with a career average of 9 minutes and 4 points per game.

Okay, I'll give you another chance. Who was the first Chinese player to win an NBA championship?

A. Sun Yue
B. Wang Zhizhi
C. Mengke Bateer
D. Kobe Bryant

Sun Yue got a ring as a Los Angeles Laker last season, despite being relegated to the D-League before the playoffs. But he wasn't the first Chinese player on a championship team. That honor goes to Mengke Bateer, a 6'11" Mongolian who was traded to the San Antonio Spurs in his second season, in time to share in their 2003 championship.

Now that you know who they are, if you're in China, you can watch them play tonight. Wang and Bateer, two aging giants of Chinese basketball, will face each other in the preliminaries of the Chinese National Games tournament. The game comes on at 7 p.m. on CCTV-5.

Wang Zhizhi (left) and Mengke Bateer pose together in 2002.
Wang Zhizhi (left) and Mengke Bateer pose together in 2002.

Wang/Bateer image: Sohu.com

Tags: basketball, Mengke Bateer, national games, NBA, Sun Yue, Wang Zhizhi, Yao Ming

Yi Jianlian celebrates National Games reprieve with a double-double

Monday, 19th October 2009 ~ Maggie ~ Link ~ Comments (0)

Yi Jianlian is so excited about not being forced to play in the Chinese National Games that the guy's actually playing some good basketball. He scored 21 points and grabbed 11 boards in an exhibition game against the New York Knicks last Friday. In the Nets' two previous games, against the Boston Celtics, Yi went for 20 and 8 in the first, but just 2 and 4 in the second.

But someone in China didn't want Yi in those games. Guangdong, his hometown team and a favorite at China's national games going on right now in Shandong, reportedly had a deal with the Milwaukee Bucks (the team that drafted Yi in 2007) that would have had Yi back in China for the last two weeks of October, missing the start of the NBA season. But Yi's new team, the New Jersey Nets, has no such agreement.

It may seem crazy to think that Yi would be required to miss the start of his third NBA season to play against a bunch of guys who couldn't even ride the bench for a team in a major NCAA conference. But conflicts between Chinese interests, Chinese players, and NBA interests also had huge impacts on the careers of Yi's predecessors, Yao Ming and Wang Zhizhi. For Wang (drafted by the Dallas Mavericks in 1999), a disagreement about whether he would miss the start of his second season to play for Team China in the Asian Games was the beginning of the end of an abbreviated NBA career. And Yao, after the negotiation of his release seven years ago from the Shanghai Sharks of the CBA, has balanced his work between the Houston Rockets and the Chinese National Team.

NJ.com: Yi Jianlian still seems the best option at power forward for the Nets
ESPN the Magazine: The reeducation of Lt. Wang

Yi Jianlian image: Gzxw.com.cn

Tags: 2009 National Games, CBA, NBA, New Jersey Nets, Wang Zhizhi, Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian

Yes, China can beat the Dream Team

Sunday, 10th August 2008 ~ Maggie ~ Link ~ Comments (0)

China Sports Today editor Maggie Rauch writes a biweekly column in Chinese for the 21st Century Business Herald. Below is a translation of her column from yesterday on today's men's basketball game between China and the USA.

China plays the United States in men's basketball tonight at Wukesong Arena, in what is for Chinese fans one of the most anticipated events of this Olympics. Members of the USA's "Dream Team," or "Redeem Team," have been received like rock stars since they arrived in China two weeks ago.

I have been quoted (accurately) as saying that the home team has no chance tonight, but I regret saying that. Of course China has a chance. That's why we actually play the game. To atone for my sin against the beautiful unpredictability of sports, I am going to break down a few possibilities that could help tip the scales a little in China's favor.

The Yao that we know finally returns.
Yao has given China a boost since his post-injury debut, but not the heroic performances the team requires from him if it is to pull off any upsets. He will suit up to play the USA after a week of rest and he'll also be playing for bragging rights among his NBA buddies. There is every reason to believe that Yao's strongest Olympic performance will come against the USA.

Team USA assumes Wang Zhizhi and Sun Yue (孙悦) are China's third and fourth most important players.
Among American fans, the only known names besides Yao and Yi are Wang Zhizhi, who played five seasons in the NBA, and Sun Yue, who created a bit of a stir when he was drafted by the Lakers in 2007. Wang's minutes and production have declined as Yao's have gone up, and Sun has averaged just over 4 points over the last 8 games. Either of these guys could have some good games in the Olympics, but containing veteran point guard Liu Wei (刘炜) and shooting/slashing small forward Zhu Fangyu (朱芳雨), if they are both healthy, should be higher on the U.S.'s list of priorities. How dangerous is Zhu? Watch the below video of him (wearing number 8) scoring 13 points in 3:30 to bring the Guangdong Tigers back from a 15-point deficit in the 2005 CBA Finals (Yi Jianlian is also in the video).

Lebron, Kobe and Carmelo just don't care enough.
The guys have all been saying the right things about how much it means to them to win Olympic gold. But in America, boys who swim or do gymnastics grow up dreaming of winning a gold medal. Boys who play basketball grow up dreaming of an NBA championship. And should the American team lose a few games it is expected to win, its players all have multi-million dollar contracts to comfort them.

Coach K keeps Prince on the bench.
In recent FIBA competition, both Angola and Australia disrupted China's offense with strong perimeter defense. Angola's smart and quick players kept popping up in China's passing lanes, and Australia's big guards made it hard for China to get easy shots or advance the ball toward the basket. Long-armed and defensive-minded Team USA forward Tayshaun Prince, not likely to be a starter, could really help slow down shooters and keep the ball out of the key.

China's fans give the home team an even bigger lift than they gave the women's team in April.
The USA women were heavy favorites in the finals of the Good Luck Beijing women's basketball test event in April. But when the game tipped off, the American women looked like they were ready to board the plane, while China's women, in front of a packed house at home, played like it was the most important game of their lives. Ultimately, they avenged their 20-point rout by the U.S. two days before. The men will need a really strong crowd to get a similar boost at the Olympics.

China shoots the lights out.
Okay, it's obvious. If you make a lot of baskets, you win. That's why the game is called basketball. But China has some great shooters in Zhang Qingpeng, Li Nan (李楠) and Zhu Fangyu (朱芳雨). If two of them get really hot, the whole floor opens up for China.

Maybe none of these things will happen—although I expect a strong performance from Yao Ming—but if a few of them do, we've got ourselves a game on August 10. Whether you like Adidas ("Impossible is Nothing,") or Li-Ning ("Anything is Possible,") basketball is a great sport for upsets.

Image: Tuhuan.com

Tags: basketball, Beijing Olympics, Dream Team, Olympics, Sun Yue, Wang Zhizhi, Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian, Zhu Fangyu


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