I happened to be at a restaurant back in Brewtown the night of the National Basketball Association draft in June, when my hometown Milwaukee Bucks made the problematic choice of Yi Jianlian. Smooth-cheeked and bright-eyed, the Chinese youngster, pictured on a big-screen, resembled a goofy kid trying on his dad’s suit. But when the Bucks called his number and the seven-footer stood up, he filled out every inch and flashed a Gioconda smile. His fans – and detractors – are still trying to decipher it.
Yi’s case encapsulates some of the ironic twists of China’s growth, the most basic one being this: For a small-market city like Milwaukee, Yi Jianlian is a miracle shot at the world’s biggest fan base. But to China’s hottest prospect since Yao Ming, Milwaukee signifies banishment to the countryside. Or so his handlers have led us to believe.
It’s easy to theorize why “Team Yi” – the assemblage of Chinese team bosses and American agents who represent Yi, but do not necessarily include him – bear a grudge. Their attempts before the draft to turn off Milwaukee, among other smalltown suitors, backfired badly. In terms of endorsement and sponsorship potential, the kid’s been married down. No matter where he ended up playing, he would be a megastar in China this coming season; no matter where, under NBA salary restrictions, his rookie contract would be about the same, as would the maximum amount ($500,000) his new club would be allowed pay his current team, the CBA’s Guangdong Tigers, to release him. What the draft really afforded Team Yi was a launchpad to tap new fame and fortune in the American market. But now the biggest bonus seems to be going to Old Mi-er-wa-ji (pron. “MEE-arh-wah-jEE”), as Milwaukee is transliterated in Chinese. Chinese media call it “Mi City” (密城) for short. The character for Mi ( 密) mean “confidential” or “secret”. Thus Milwaukee, to Yi and his compatriots, is the “Secret City”. For now it is.
To redress the market imbalance, Yi’s been a staunch holdout for six weeks now. His camp has expressed hopes that the Bucks would trade his rights to a big city club, a possibility the team has dismissed. “Team Yi” has lobbed a series of objections to Milwaukee. First they complained there was no Chinatown, in other words, too little Asian influence, too few Chinese fans, Chinese restaurants, even Chinese women. Then they said the Bucks’ lineup was too crowded with guys Yi’s size, making it tough for him to get the minutes he needs to develop (Truth is, he’s the only healthy power forward on the roster.) Finally they accused the Bucks GM Larry Harris of “breaking his promise” to visit with the Yi camp at an international tournament in Macau last week. (Harris has floated the possibility, but, according to the Milwaukee Journal, never promised.)
Alas Team Yi’s fighting a losing public relations battle. Virtually everyone, save Yi’s American agent and his Cantonese team – his biggest and most powerful stakeholders – thinks Yi should sign and suit up with the Bucks this season. NBA rules dictate that if he is to play in the league next year, he must. The 2008 Chinese Olympics squad clearly needs him, as well and Chinese basketball authorities granted him unprecedented permission to join the entire pre-draft road show, fully anticipating that he would. The vast majority of Chinese fans, Internet polls and bulletin board have shown, are vehemently pushing him to go to Milwaukee. The head of the Chinese Basketball Association even said last week he would travel there to help resolve the deadlock.
Not that Milwaukee wasn’t just as calculating and self-interested as Yi, a fact not lost on certain Chinese journalists and bloggers. Prior to the draft, Yi’s camp had barred him working out with the club, blacklisted Milwaukee along with the other teams in which they had no interest. But to no avail. These were the very American towns where the arrival Yi would mean the most.
No doubt he would adapt well enough to “Secret City”. That’s another much-hyped irony about Yi. He is by far the most Americanized basketball prospect ever to come out of the Chinese state system. Whether his years number 23, 21 or his listed age of 19 – a matter of much contention – he’s a product of a generation reared on McDonald’s, hip-hop, and thepatriotic fervor of an born-again empire. He’s trained and played in the U.S. six summers straight. He’s learned a good bit of English. Like the ball rats on the playgounds, he bumps, glides, and dunks (video evidence), finishes with authority, and stares down his foes. And he dons the baggy, fresh threads they wear.
It’s not a facade. As an adolescent, Yi hooped it up with his homies against his parents’ orders to stick to the books. Minus their permission, in 1999, he entered a three-on-three street-ball tourney in his hometown of Shenzhen. That’s how he was first discovered by Chinese coaches, unlike predecessors trained from Day One at the state sports schools. By 2003, Yi was hailed the “next Yao” by Time magazine, before Yao had even played an NBA game. Yao’s shadow has haunted him since. ‘Are you the next Yao?’ ‘Are you Yao Ming?’ Outside China, the profiles that have been penned suggest, these are the questions Yi gets the most. His answer’s always been an emphatic “no”. In a package on Yi previewing the June 28 draft, the Chinese edition of Sport Illustrated magazine observed:“In contrast to Chinese royalty like Wang Zhizhi and Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian looks more like a player from the streets of America.”
And, go figure, he’s been made to act like one too. That edition of Chinese SI is eerily prescient of the controvery now surrounding him. On the cover, Yi’s got the good-natured smile of a suburban American. But on the back, in a Nike ad, he’s a stone-faced bad boy. A trail of Chinese text runs down his face. The theme is “Faith and Doubt”:
Both will help me to keep on getting better. Believe me. I will struggle to meet expectations/
The doubts. I will prove them wrong/
Please continue to believe in me. Support me. Root for me/
You may doubt me, criticize me, go against me./
No matter what happens, I’ll get stronger/
Just Do It [Swoosh]
So at least Yi’s living up to the type-casting of his sponsors, acting true to the cliches of his me-generation, playing the rebel without much of a cause. I asked an American marketing executive with years of experience in China’s sports industry about how life has imitated this ad. “Yeah,” he said. “But look at how it’s backfired. Something like ninety percent of Chinese polled are against what Yi’s doing” – by refusing to join the Bucks.
The domestic fan revolt is just as telling – rare for Chinese athletes dealing with foreign powers. The first basketballer to go to the NBA, Wang Zhizhi, had to get permission from his army team. Yao Ming had to deal with Chinese Basketball Administration (whom he once sued for violating his endorsement rights). Yi is blocked not by military men or politicians, but by businessmen. “The Chinese basketball authorities have become a lot more open in the past couple years,” says a sport editor of a major Chinese news magazine who has followed his case. “Now the rest is up to Team Yi.”
The Bucks didn’t quite get this. In another ironic twist, it’s the U.S. ball club that turned to official diplomacy, rather than the backroom bargaining of the free market that’s come to run China. Conveniently, the team owner, Sen. Herb Kohl, has been a friend of China. He has a record of generally supporting the country on key issues such as most-favored nation trading status, and the department stores that bear his family name are filled with wares made in Yi’s home province. Soon after the draft, Kohl personally wrote a letter inviting Yi to tour Milwaukee. Later, according to the sport marketing exec, the Bucks tried to use Kohl’s political connections to influence the Yi camp. “But they [Chinese officials] said, know, ‘Hey we don’t represent Yi Jianlian,’” says the exec. “The Bucks wanted to rattle some cages. But in China you got to know what cages you’re rattling.”
One of my oldest buddies in China, Hang Tian, is an artist of copious talents and oft-shifting passions. First he was a Blues musician, then a DV documentary maker, then a painter. Now he’s collecting pottery from the lost kingdom of Xixia and writing a book on the subject. There’s only been one constant. In the four years since Yao Ming entered the league, he’s been an NBA junkie. He rarely misses a Houston Rockets game on CCTV 5. Of Yi Jianlian, Hang Tian comments: “He says he’s not Yao Ming. He’s right. Yao Ming’s a giant. Yao’s can do things that are simply indefensible. Yi Jianlian has a good body and good talent, but a lot of guys in the NBA have similar assets. He’s not worth much yet. He’s got to go to the Bucks and prove his value first.”
That would seem obvious. But maybe that’s also why Team Yi – which includes William Morris agents – figures it can afford to mount this go-nowhere charade. The hype itself may be worth it. It’s a big gamble for a young player, but maybe one that will pay off, if Yi becomes more than just another drop of foreign blood in the league. The Milwaukee Journal put it fittingly with its headline the day after the draft: “International Intrigue.”
Now the question is how can Yi kowtow to Milwaukee crowd without his handlers losing face? My initial idea was to take the next Guangdong village about to explode over a corrupt land seizure and move its riotous peasants straight to the south side of Milwaukee. Give them green cards, restaurant licenses, and plenty of game passes. That might satisfy the demands of all parties invovled.
But later, on consulting with Hang Tian, we decided the best way out would be to fire Yi’s unpopular L.A. agent, Dan Fagen. Find the right fall-guy and move on. That’s the Chinese way.