Yi And The Bucks: The View From China

The NBA's popularity in China is
growing and the current chatter
is about Bucks draft pick Yi.

July 26, 2007
by Dan Makowski / special to Bucks.com

It's another typical summer day in Guangzhou, the capital of Yi Jianlian¡'s home province of Guangdong. The temperature is over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the extremely high level of humidity makes the air almost drip, and people of all ages have their trusty umbrella in hand, not because of a sudden downpour, but to shield themselves from the summer sun.

Even with summer break upon schools in China, there are still groups of students coming and going from downtown Guangzhou's Guangdong Industrial College on this blistering summer day. Meeting with teachers? Going to the library? No. The basketball courts are the place to be.

During a break in the action, the topic of the Milwaukee Bucks top draft pick Yi Jianlian comes up. Since the Bucks drafted Yi with the 6th pick, the process of trying to sign Yi has left many with rather strong opinions. The students intelligently debate if Milwaukee is too small, whether Yi will get enough playing time, and whether Yi will eventually sign with the Bucks. Being NBA fans who love to play basketball themselves, their overriding conclusion is that Yi will definitely be in a Bucks uniform come the start of the 2007-2008 season. The dream of all basketball players is to make it to the NBA, and Chinese players are just the same. For a Chinese basketball player though, it is a dream that seems even further away than for others. When Yi plays his first NBA game, he will be only the 4th Chinese person to do so.

Yi being drafted by the Bucks has put Milwaukee at the forefront of almost all discussions for Chinese basketball fans. The above students had never heard of Milwaukee before the Bucks drafted Yi. One blogger on the popular basketball website HoopChina astutely observed that no matter what happens, Milwaukee, the Bucks, and Yi are all tied together. Opinions vary, and everyone has one about the Bucks and Yi. This in itself has become a controversy. Talk of Yi has taken over the Bucks section of the ChinaHoops website in such a way that it has left some people wondering if Yi topics should be banned from the Bucks section until after his status with the Bucks becomes certain.

While speaking with a resident of Guangzhou surnamed Li, it¡'s hard for him to say if Yi¡'s current approach to negotiations with the Bucks is the best way for Yi to go about it. Li conveyed that he doesn't know who is in control, Yi himself or his agents. Lots of different parties are trying to influence Yi, Li believes, and he doesn't think Yi has all the control, even if he wants it. Will Yi end up with the Bucks? It's once again very hard for Li to say. Li says that if it were him personally, he doesn't know if he would go to the Bucks at this point. As he explains, the problem of "saving face", a way of keeping one's reputation and integrity in the eyes of others, would be a large issue for him.

"Saving face", or in Chinese, "Mian Zi", is often a dictating force in the relationships of people and in interacting with others. It influences how people interpret how people act towards each other. For example, if one person feels another person is disrespecting him or making him look bad in front of others, no matter how large or small the issue, this could create a significant problem of "Mian Zi".

Another blogger on the HoopChina website also takes this approach in expressing his thoughts. The blogger says that he would love to see Yi play for the Bucks, but the appropriate time for making a deal happen has already passed, for reasons relating to the "Mian Zi" problem. 1) Milwaukee Bucks fans are already too mad at Yi and would not welcome him. 2) If Yi were to have signed right away, everyone at the Bucks organization would have done their best to help him, but now, nobody will care about Yi after these prolonged negotiations. 3) The "Mian Zi" issue itself; if Yi were to sign with the Bucks now, why didn't he sign earlier? Why go to the Bucks now and subject oneself to constant booing and heckling when one could keep his dignity and continue holding out or return to the Chinese Basketball Association?

Although "Mian Zi" is an issue that most people in China would consider, it is not something that Li, the bloggers, or Yi himself should be worried about. All professional athletes are heckled. It comes with the territory. But if Yi comes to Bucks, embraces Milwaukee, and works hard, he will be welcomed with open arms and have all the support he could ask for.

A student from China currently studying at the University of Wisconsin ¨C Milwaukee has another reason as to why Yi's road to Milwaukee has taken its current path: Chen Hai Tao, owner of Yi's former team the Guangdong Tigers. Another Chinese blogger on HoopChina writes how he originally was a huge fan of the Guangdong Tigers, and thought the organization was a great help for Chinese basketball players. The team has helped train many of China's best players and has positioned the country in a place to hopefully compete at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. But now, for the sake of profit, Chen Hai Tao has ruined the reputation of the team's best player, Yi Jianlian. The blogger continues his harsh criticism by writing that Chen is just looking out for himself, not Yi, not the Chinese National Team, and definitely not the 1.3 billion Chinese people waiting for potential Olympic glory.

Everybody has an opinion for why Yi has not yet signed with the Bucks. As for if NBA fans in China would be happy seeing Yi play for the Bucks? An overwhelming YES is the answer. A recent poll on the highly influential Chinese website Sina.com found that of 20,000+ respondents, 82% want to see Yi remain in Milwaukee and play for the Bucks. In a related poll, 71% of people feel the Bucks are a suitable team for Yi to start his career with. A Chinese manager for a Spanish restaurant in Guangzhou also echoed these thoughts. "I just want the (negotiations) over with and want to see Yi in a Bucks uniform."

Yao Ming¡'s impact on basketball in China cannot be stated in words. One fan playing basketball on a court near Guangzhou¡'s popular shopping destination, Beijing Road, said that he wanted Yi to play with Yao Ming for the Houston Rockets. Why? He watches every Yao Ming game and plans to watch every Yi Jianlian game. If they played for the same team, he¡'d save himself a lot of time!

The full impact Yi will have on basketball in China is yet to be felt, but its continued and growing presence is certain. Chinese basketball fans know Yao, Yi, Lebron, Kobe, and D-Wade, but the average Chinese person only knows Yao and Yi. As the 2008 Olympics in Beijing continue to approach, Yi¡'s stature in China will only increase. Before it¡'s time for the Olympics though, there is still an NBA season to be played. The Milwaukee Bucks and NBA fans in Milwaukee and China alike all hope that Yi spends it in a Bucks uniform.

Dan Makowski is a 2006 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he majored in Asian Studies. He has been living in China since the early part of 2007 and currently lives in the Guangdong region where he works as a freelance translator. As an avid Bucks fan, he has agreed to share some of his experiences with Bucks.com, as well as provide insight on what the Chinese community is saying about the Bucks and Yi Jianlian.