Thursday, July 19, 2007

China's NBA Problem

When Yao Ming was chosen as the number one overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, China successfully used its influence to ensure that Yao ended in a situation that benefited both him and China. China was pleased with the success of their not-so-subtle machinations that resulted in Yao playing in a city that boasted both a heavy Asian influence and no competition for playing time from an established American player.

Fast forward to 2007. With the Number 6 pick in this year's draft, the Milwaukee Bucks franchise took Chinese forward Yi Jianling, who has been touted as the next great Chinese player. Neither Yi's agent nor the Chinese government was pleased, as Milwaukee does not have a large Asian population, and there are a number of other players on the Bucks' roster who could potentially be a bigger star than Yi- which in turn would limit Yi's playing time and thus his opportunity to get better against NBA-caliber competition. These handlers are pushing to get Yi traded to a city where he would be able to play more and have a more Asiatic audience.

China has always been one of the more overtly racist countries- in fact a good friend who is of Chinese origin states bluntly that Asia is the most racist area in the world. they have also been accustomed to throwing their weight around with few consequences, as the only nation with the power to counter their moves has been reluctant to do so. However, this may teach China the limits of their ability to influence foreign events, and could potentially backfire catastrophically on them.

The owner of Yi's Chinese team, Chen Haitao, apparently has stated that Yi would not play for Milwaukee. The Beijing Times reported that,
"The national team and the Olympic Games are now our key considerations," Chen said. "If Yi goes to a team where he can't compete, that would be being irresponsible to the national team."

Well, that may be irresponsible to the Chinese national team, but American teams are not required to consider the Chinese government's wishes in drafting players. They draft to improve themselves, and if Chinese players want to play in the NBA, they cannot dictate to American sports teams- and neither can the Chinese government. NBA teams draft players based on their own decisions of how to improve. Milwaukee thought that Yi might be of some use, so they drafted him. His obligations to the Chinese national team, or China's desires do not enter into it. From the Bucks' perspective, if he is good enough, he will play. If not, he will sit. China's desires do not enter into the situation at all.

There is also another factor to consider. the owner of the Bucks is United States Senator Herb Kohl. As a member of the United States government, he is well-placed to resist any outlandish demands from China about Yi, and China can ill-afford to offend the United States. And of course, if Yi refuses to play for Milwaukee, then Milwaukee can simply keep him from playing at all, and Yi will neither improve nor be able to play for any other US team. And future Chinese players will be tarred with the Yi brush. Just as Darko Milicic's failure made European players less popular, as this year's draft clearly showed, Yi's refusal to play where he was drafted may rebound negatively on China. And that is something China does not want.

Ultimately, I believe that Yi will probably play with Milwaukee. China's leverage in this case, unlike with Yao, is not strong enough to force the Bucks to trade Yi, and Yi's own actions make him less attractive to other teams. Nor does he have the track record of success that would convince a team to take a flyer on him. But the entire situation may end up being a black eye both for Yi and for China- something that neither can afford.

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