Yao Ming may not have been the first player from China to play in the NBA – that distinction goes to Wang Zhizhi – but Yao’s arrival in the US was supposed to open the doors and let in a steady stream of talent from the east. Unfortunately those doors have now slammed shut with the news that Yi Jianlian doesn’t plan to have another crack at the NBA and will stay in China.
When Yi left Dallas last year, it marked the first time in 12 years that there was no Chinese-born player in the NBA. The party line was that it was better to play in China than waste his best years on the bench in the US, but plenty of others have fought tooth and nail to make it happen and Yi will now probably be best remembered in the US for (allegedly) lying about his age. Here is this week’s Sports Talk column:
The man once seen as the most likely successor to Yao Ming appears to have given up on his NBA dream. Yi Jianlian, who averaged fewer than five rebounds and eight points per game during a patchy five-year spell in the NBA, signed a new two-year contract last week with the Guangdong Southern Tigers. According to media reports, the contract does not include an opt-out clause, which could have allowed him to return to the NBA if an offer came in.
Of the five players from China ever to have featured in the NBA, Yi stands comfortably in second place in terms of games played, though he’s light years behind eight-time All-Star Yao Ming in stature. This decision only serves to reinforce that view with Yi clearly prefers to remain a big fish in a small pond, rather than do whatever it takes to have another shot at the big time.
Yi said all the right things last week about the improvement of the Chinese league – citing appearances by players such as Stephon Marbury and Tracy McGrady – but the NBA is still way ahead of the CBA and that gap doesn’t look like closing anytime soon. More worryingly, there’s no Chinese player on the horizon who looks like bridging that gap by successfully making the jump to the NBA. If Yi, the current CBA MVP and an athlete of such prominence in China that he was the country’s flag bearer at the London Olympic Games last year, cannot make that jump, then who can?
China’s rigid sporting production line, which has served the country so well in sports like diving and gymnastics, has become its downfall when it comes to basketball. Those in charge have long had an unhealthy obsession with height when selecting young basketball players they hope will become future world champions.
Height may be more important in basketball than in any other major sport, but the Chinese have long had one of the tallest teams in the world, overlooking many smaller, more skilled players, and that lack of balance has been telling.
At last month’s FIBA Asian Championships, China turned in their worst performance since they joined tournament in 1975, posting three losses to teams ranked a combined 62 places below them in the world rankings. Clearly China’s basketball strategy is not working – either on an individual or team basis – and for a sport as popular as basketball, that’s a crying shame.
Interesting that Yao Ming appears to recognize this too: CBA rules allow teams in the bottom six from the previous season – which includes Yao’s Shanghai Sharks – to have a third foreign player, but that player must be Asian. The Sharks have waived that right in order to let the Chinese members of their squad get more playing time.