Chinese have had a long love affair with basketball, beginning even before Yao Ming’s dramatic entry into the NBA in 2002. However, Yao Ming is an exception, as the massive numbers of basketball fans and players in China have not yet translated into a consistent source of premium talent.
American players dominate Chinese pro basketball. In fact, just one of the top ten Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) scorers in the 2009-2010 season was Chinese. The rest were all U.S. “import players” - a term the CBA uses for foreign players - and seven of them came from the NBA.
This disparity has prompted complaints from some Chinese commentators. “The CBA has become the NBA’s backyard,” writes Liu Zhengning, an editor from People’s Daily.
Adds the Qianjiang Evening News on its online magazine, “Every time when you read the stats, you might wonder if it is still [a] Chinese game or not.”
From 2007 to 2009, the CBA loosened its policy on recruiting foreign players, giving the Chinese teams a chance to employ them more freely. Prior to 2007, a Chinese team could only have one import player during the season and was not permitted to change the player over the course of the season. In addition, import players were only permitted to play a limited number of minutes each game. However, this policy was relaxed for the 2007-2008 season. Every CBA team was allowed to change its import player twice, and in the 2008-2009 season, the CBA allowed each team to have two import players and the time limitation was canceled. All CBA teams except for the People’s Liberation Army team employed foreign players. The Army’s August First (Bayi) team’s players are all soldiers.
These favorable policy changes regarding foreign players have increased the Chinese teams’ enthusiasm for recruiting them, particularly towards players from the U.S. Currently, each Chinese team has at least two import players, and most of them are from the U.S.
“It should be acknowledged that U.S. players make the game more fun,” says Yi Yang, a CCTV basketball commentator and deputy editor of Titan Weekly. “The import players - especially former NBA players - are faster, they jump higher, and they have better explosive forces and higher physical quality.”
“They accelerate and heat up the game through faster speed and more body contact,” Qiang Xu, head coach of the Jiangsu Dragons basketball team, adds. “Since Asian players - because of their physical condition- are not really good at body contact, U.S. players strengthen the team.”
He further adds, “We recruit players that our team lacks. The Chinese team desperately needs a good interior line that has stronger physical qualities.”
“Body contact” is a common conversation topic, demonstrating that it is a feature that Qiang Xu most values in NBA players and what the CBA needs desperately. Yi Yang agrees, noting that U.S. interior players’ upper-body strength is around 300 pounds, while Chinese players are only around 220 pounds.
“They are not on the same level; it’s like comparing a size large to a size small,” says Yi Yang.
Physical qualities aside, basketball games are won based on the number of points scored – and in that respect, the American players have truly delivered. Andre Emmett, a former NBA player who previously played for the Seattle Supersonics, Memphis Grizzlies and Miami Heat, scored 71 points for the Shandong Golden Lions in one single game against the Jiangsu Dragon. In the second half of that game, he scored 46 points out of the team’s 67. Performances such as this made him the score champion for the 2009-2010 season in the CBA. Therefore, it is not an exaggeration to say that without Emmett, the Shandong Golden Lions would not have been able to win that game.
Emmett is not the only case where Chinese leagues have relied on import players to win. The Shanxi Zhongyu team used to be among the poorest performing teams in the CBA until former NBA star Stephon Marbury pushed them to a higher rank.
“He has an average of 10 assists in each game,” Yi Yang explains. “Marbury made this team different. His leadership and skill brought this team to a higher level.”
However, what Marbury brings to the table is not just winning games: he also helped the team increase its revenues. Audiences are willing to pay more to watch games that feature him on the court, resulting in higher ticket prices that are quickly sold out.
“Sports media from all over the country rushed to Marbury,” Yi Yang adds, acknowledging that Marbury’s arrival earned the team valuable media attention and a higher attendance rate at their games.
“Import players won this season,” chips in Zhu Caiwei from Liaoning Daily.
Besides garnering wins and bring teams profits, U.S. players also help to strengthen the team by cultivating young Chinese basketball players.
God Shammgod, a former Washington Wizards player, is now coaching Shanxi Zhongyu, the CBA team he used to play for. Shammgod used to be a role model in the U.S., encouraging young kids to go back to the gym and practice basic skills. Famous for his dribbling, he now teaches Chinese players.
“I let them practice dribbling, defense and make them better point guards,” Shammgod explains.
In addition, Chinese teams are not the only ones reaping the benefits of U.S. import players. In fact, some of the U.S. players themselves are gaining from the situation. For example, a few notable U.S. players have improved their game while playing in China.
Coach Qiang Xu, famous for his insight on recruiting import players, referred to Chris Anderson as an example, who was recruited to the CBA when he was just 19-years-old. Anderson is now a popular player with the NBA’s Denver Nuggets.
“His basic skills were really bad at that time; rebounds were almost the only thing he was good at,” says Qiang Xu. “In our team, we trained him hard, especially on shooting and offense skills.” His 5.68 blocks per 48 minutes played was the best in the NBA.
In addition to playing for the Shanxi Zhongyu, Shammgod played with several other teams, including the Zhejiang Cyclones and Shanxi Yujun. Shammgod also sharpened his skills while playing in Hangzhou for Zhejiang Wanma Cyclones. “The slow pace of this city makes you improve your concentration and become better players, better people.”
“They improve not only physically, but also psychologically,” Qiang Xu continues, echoing Shammgod’s comments. “They feel that they are more important; they have more confidence and feelings of accomplishment.”
Furthermore, foreign players are able to earn more money and live a better life in China. They live in hotels while Chinese players live in dorms, do not eat in a club’s canteen, aren’t required to participate in some practices, and are also compensated much higher than their domestic counterparts. Though the CBA set a wage ceiling of US$60,000 a season, according to Yi Yang - who has close relationships with many teams and players - almost no import player is paid less than that. In comparison, the New York Times reports that local players earn around US$14,000 a season.
Many of the Americans playing in the CBA had mediocre records in the NBA and a few also had disciplinary problems. Therefore, an offer to play in the CBA is a valuable chance to reinvigorate their careers and to become stars. On the CBA’s web forum, thousands of fans congregate to talk about, critique, and praise the import players’ performances. When Jason Dixon - one of the legendary import players in China - retired in 2009, the Guangdong Southern Tigers basketball team made a two-meter tall jersey with his number 15 and there would not be any future players wearing number 15, his number is retired to memorize his contribution.
Despite the numerous positives to be taken away from playing in China, not all import players have an easy time adjusting to the league and their teams. The challenges are many, beginning with the drastically different culture and being able to get along socially with Chinese players.
For example, Shammgod’s life in China is not ideal. He spends much of his leisure time in his hotel room, talking to his friends and family through Skype. Though he says that he has some Chinese friends, they only hang out occasionally. Since he’s not a fan of Chinese food, Shammgod also has a hard time eating in China.
In addition, Qiang Xu mentions that import players on the Jiangsu Dragons team do not really talk to players after practice. Linguistic isolation has emerged as a large obstacle that U.S. players struggle with in China. Even during the game, they need translators to understand instructions. In fact, giving import players moral support and someone to talk to is one of the reasons why the CBA allowed each team to have two import players beginning in 2009.
While import players encounter their own difficulties adjusting to the Chinese league, on the flip side, the CBA has had its own issues dealing with import players. Dontae Jones illustrates the challenges the CBA and its players face with regard to import players.
“He wants to be the center all the time, or he would not even try,” says a player on the Beijing Shougang, the Chinese team that Jones serves. “He only cares about if his stats look good.”
It has also been reported that Jones never took part in practice and was involved in conflicts with both his coach and fans. Many attribute the Shougang Beijing Ducks losing three games in a row to Jones’ problems.
“Import players should have a clear notion about themselves,” adds Yi Yang. “Some of them do not take training and games seriously and worsened after one or two years-like Smush Parker on the Guangdong Southern Tigers-or they keep asking for more money without an idea of how much they are worth. They may be kicked out of the CBA, since Chinese leagues are not able to accommodate to them.”
American players must also deal with Chinese basketball fans. Not all of them hold positive views towards the import policy.
Says basketball commentator Zhang Weiping, “Look at how Chinese leagues rely on import players. U.S. players are almost always the absolute center of the team, no matter if it’s offense or defense. Chinese players are only in charge to pass the ball to the front court, and let import players take care of everything else.”
Zhang told the Qianjiang Evening News said, “It is bad for young players’ improvements as they play less; many skills need to be improved by repetition during games. Since the time limitation of foreign players is canceled, this would definitely be the result.”
Zhu Yanshu, a famous basketball commentator on the Taiwan Videoland sports channel, thinks the foreigners are caught in a difficult position. On his blog, he writes, “If they score too much, people would criticize them for blocking domestic players’ improvements, but if the stats are not good, there is no point to recruit them.”
However, Yi Yang is more skeptical.
“It is only a superficial phenomenon that import players block the cultivation of young players,” Yi Yang clarifies. “The real issue is whether the team can devote enough time and energy to cultivate young players. In the past twenty years, China has [had] fewer and fewer young players, as fewer kids are willing to pursue sports careers. The CBA is less competitive. This would not be an issue if Chinese leagues were productive and kept providing new competitive players, just like the NBA. Do you ever hear the NBA worrying about foreign players blocking the growth of domestic players?”
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The CBA is still trying to strike a balance between utilizing highly skilled foreign players and developing Chinese talent. During the 2009-2010 season, the CBA allowed teams in the first three quarters of a game to use just one import player, but a team could have two import players playing simultaneously in the final quarter. Rules for the upcoming 2010-2011 season have not yet been announced.
"Though it takes a lot of time and energy and money, [last year’s rules were] totally worth it because both parties got what they want,” Yi Yang concludes.
Ruoqi (Alex) Zhou is an undergraduate majoring in business administration and international relations at the University of Southern California. This is her first feature article for US-China Today.