While a lockout fills pro basketball headlines in America, United States counterpart China has recently made a recovery from potential basketball disgrace. By winning the 2011 FIBA Asia tournament, reclaiming the title from Iran (winners of FIBA Asia in 2007 and 2009), their men’s national team has secured a spot in the 2012 Olympic games. Much of the thanks is due to the massive nation’s current basketball cover boy, and likely former Washington Wizard, Yi Jianlian.
In a country where the government hopes to manufacture basketball success by building a court in every village, making the cut to play in London was pretty important. The problem is the next step, competing with the best in the world; China has played men’s basketball in the past seven Olympics but has never finished better than eighth. And while he is now their star, Yi has done little to cure anxiousness for success.
Guan Weijia on SheridanHoops.com highlights the issue many Chinese have with Yi: “Fans are dissatisfied with his performance in the NBA, believing he is wasting his talent and playing too soft. Yi has many nicknames, none of which are complimentary.”
The Chinese national team was already smarting from the retirement of Yao Ming in July. In August they came up short at the Stankovic Cup, winning one game and losing seven at the China-hosted event. They lost three games to Russia, one to New Zealand, one to Australia, and won just one of three games against Angola. Worth noting, however, that the minutes of Yi were limited during the Stankovic. Bob Donewald, American coach of the Chinese national team, indicated that he wanted to bring him along gradually. Still, the masses were less than satisfied.
Later in August, China went 0-5 at an international basketball friendly, the London Invitational Tournament. They lost to Australia by 28, Serbia by 34, France by 17, Great Britain by 8, and Croatia by 30 points. Yi averaged 16.8 points, just 6.6 rebounds and a scant 40.8-percent shooting. In addition, during all this, a black eye to China’s basketball discipline arrived courtesy of an on-court brawl in Beijing between a team featuring players connected to the China’s People’s Liberation Army and a team of athlete-students from Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown University.
Fortunes reversed at FIBA Asia in September however. China went 5-0 in group play, granted that was against programs ranked 28, 34, 45, 63 and 65 in the world — Jordan, Japan, the Philippines, United Arab Emirates and Syria respectively. China, ranked 10th in the world, then beat Lebanon (23), Korea (31) and Jordan (28) to seal an undefeated tournament and a ticket to London. Yi averaged 16.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 47.7-percent shooting. He also took home the tournament M.V.P. award, tallying 25 points, 16 rebounds and six blocks in the final, a narrow one-point win over Jordan. Excitement ensued; after the match Donewald claimed that he was going to sleep with the game ball.
Without a victory, China would have had to face a field of Angola, Nigeria, New Zealand, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Russia, Macedonia, Lithuania, Greece and Korea for one of the final three London berths at the 2012 Olympic Qualifying Tournament. But at this point, simply making London isn’t enough, and Yi’s NBA resume thus far does not inspire confidence for future success.
Despite the marketing potential he brings — last season advertisements from China’s Voit Sports Apparel were featured at the Verizon Center; even JaVale McGee, a spokesperson for China-based Peak shoes, likely benefited from mere exposure in being Yi’s teammate – it is very unlikely that Yi will be a Washington Wizard next season. The team would prefer to develop Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely, JaVale McGee, and sure, Andray Blatche at positions Jianlian can play. Swirling factors do make a possible return complicated. Unlike other Wizards bigs aside from Blatche, Yi can extend the floor with his shooting range; but he also has not proven even faint ability to fit the tough team concept team officials are aiming to build. Worth noting, neither does Blatche. Yi’s $5.4 million qualifying offer for 2011-12 was too much for the Wizards to pick-up this summer, but with Yi and Wall sharing agent representation, Dan Fegan, and the Washington metropolitan area having a significant Chinese-American population close to 100,000, there could be reasons for an alternative arrangement.
The greater question might be, is Yi still worthy of the NBA? Opinions are likely wide-ranging, but given the league’s penchant for risk-seekers and takers, there are probably still enough believers through the skeptics. Although, the returns that come with Yi being the face of Chinese basketball are starting to diminish in light of other factors — his ESPN NBA Rank is 280, for what it’s worth; he will turn 27, not 24, in late October; although a apt listener, many coaches loathe to be burdened with an entity such as Yi on their roster; and scouts simply are not convinced that he will ever play at the level of nastiness needed out of him. Although, there was that one dunk against Croatia in London, and his intensity for his national team is often praised.
In past conversations with ESPN’s David Thorpe about Yi, who has also worked with Yi at his Pro Training Center in Florida, he likened the player to being the LeBron James of China… if the U.S. were four times in size. And the comparison works past both simply being supreme physical specimens for their countries. Like LeBron, and highlighted by Weijia’s piece, both receive heavy doses of criticism, just or not, for failing to live up to great expectations.
Several things come to mind when recalling this past season of covering Yi as a Washington Wizard. Interviewing him was quite the challenge, and it’s not just English as a second language issues. Short answers, mumbled tones, meek demeanor and little expression were often conveyed. Thus, he was widely neglected by most American media members by season’s end. But Yi also had his own Chinese media contingent, at least 3-5 people each game that could bloom into 10-13 on any given night. On a couple occasions they even managed to coax a perturbed expression out of their subject.
Covering Yi also meant signing up for “Yi Jianlian” Google alerts, which provided an assortment of unintentional, lost in translation entertainment. Example web page titles have recently included: “Yi Jianlian parents arrived at the scene for his son to help out his girlfriend is actually counterfeit mystery,” and “Yi Jianlian was the referee, the referee suspended the game.” Other hits often connect Yi with the term “United Arab” for whatever the case may be.
Otherwise, Yi had some vein-popping muscles. Injuries curtailed the beginning of his 2010-11, as he missed both the second half of each November and December. No shot sent flying through the air by any other Wizard was anticipated more by the home Verizon Center crowd than when Yi released that smooth form of his — the gasping participants likely attracted to D.C.’s Chinatown because of Yi and Yi alone. Unfortunately, muscles don’t mean toughness, injuries don’t go as asterisks on a resume, and shots often did not fall at the rate at which they seemed they were falling. Perhaps it was the allure of when the jumpers came courtesy of a John Wall assist, but Yi only hit 41-percent of the field-goals he attempted from 16-23 feet. Of course, when you consider that Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge shot the same percentage from that distance, it doesn’t seem as bad. But then you’d be comparing Yi Jianlian to LaMarcus Aldridge.
Weijia also reports that unless the entire NBA season is cancelled as a result of the lockout, Yi will not consider playing professionally for the Chinese Basketball Association. He will be back in the U.S. at some point, pursuing the NBA and peddling the basketball wares of China. To the satisfaction of whom, if anyone, is yet to be determined.
LeBron was right in a sense. We go back to our normal lives and never understand the mindset of superstar athletes; as they struggle to grasp lost principles of reality. But neither LeBron nor us can understand what it’s like to have a billion-plus nation pinning basketball hopes on Yi’s back. Because if you’ve ever seen the aging Wang Zhi-Zhi play — China’s supposed over-the-hill Robin to Yi’s Batman — you’ll know there’s next to nothing in the cupboard in terms of help. Team captain Wang Shipeng missed FIBA Asia due to a broken wrist, and young prospects such as Yi Li, Sun Yue and Max Zhang barely register on the radar of international scouts. But an average of 41.25 million Chinese watched the FIBA Asia final against Jordan; in contrast, about 23.8 million in the U.S. watched game six of the 2011 NBA Finals between Miami and Dallas, 28.2 million in the U.S. watched game seven of the 2010 Finals between Boston and Los Angeles.
The reality is that, unlike LeBron, Yi likely has very little choice in his own state of affairs. If Chinese officials want him to run his reputation as a player ragged in the NBA so they can quench a desire to have their top basketball son playing in the best league in the world, it will be. The pressure, the expectations, especially for a country with mediocre basketball history, is incomprehensible. A courtesy appearance in London already doesn’t matter to many in China.
We will never understand Yi and the repercussions of the factors surrounding him. Perhaps more perplexing is that we’ll never understand why some of it doesn’t make him mad, why he doesn’t take it out against others on the basketball court. Why does he do so little to reflect his country’s quest for dominance? Perhaps he would prefer it to not be that way, a victim of his own talents trapped inside his personality. And perhaps he’s just one fisherman in the sea, not representing an increasingly dominating ocean as one.