Mitch Kupchak Interview about Sun Yue
Q: What has been the process in bringing Sun over to the Lakers?
MK: We drafted him a year ago and our feeling at that time was that because we had 2 picks in the second round, the other being Marc Gasol, we felt that if we drafted players who were not from our country we could encourage them to play internationally because we really didn't have room on our roster in 2007-08 and if we would have drafted an American player, he probably would have come to camp and we probably would have had to cut him, even if he was pretty good. So we wanted to draft guys that we could encourage to stay in Europe or in Sun's case, in China, to play, because our roster wasn't flexible enough and in Sun's case we thought he needed another year of play. As it turns out, Marc Gasol had another year of play also and he blossomed as a player; he really had a good year in Europe. We also knew that we would have room this year on our roster.
You can't have these discussions with players until after you draft them really and initially when they were drafted they were thinking that they would be Lakers last year (2007-08), but the more we talked to them about the roster and encouraging them to stay overseas for a year, they realized that would probably be the best thing for them as well. Of course we traded Marc Gasol when we got Pau, his brother, and I think Marc is going to be a good player. European players are different, so he's going to have to prove it this year, but I think he has a chance to play in this league for years to come. Memphis also wanted Sun in the trade, but we wanted to keep at least one of those 2 guys so Memphis wanted Marc and we are happy that we were able to keep Sun Yue, because we liked him when we drafted him. Ronnie Lester went to Singapore in January to watch him play and indicated that he would continue to be considered a prospect, as he played well.
Based on what we indicated to them a year ago, we initiated talks to bring Sun Yue over this year. It was a very unique and arduous process with one hurdle after another. Jim Perzik spent countless hours wading through the issues, and there were many, because we hadn't ever dealt with a player from Asia or in this case China before. We'd dealt with European players and European teams, but never with a Chinese player. The hurdles were many. We ended up getting it done, but if there's a gold star that goes to anybody (for getting this done) then it goes to Jim Perzik, because he had to go through a Chinese lawyer in Washington DC who represented the team, Aoshen, in China. Rightly so, the Aoshen team thought of Sun Yue as a part of who they are, since they brought him on when he was very young and they watched him grow and turn into an international player with great success.
In some regards, you admire that type of possessive nature and you have to be very respectful of how they look at their players. It was a very long process and ultimately the necessary documents were filed with FIBA (which governs international basketball). When you're dealing with a player that is under contract with another team internationally, they have to sever their relationships with that team and FIBA has to issue the NBA and the Lakers a letter saying that he is not longer under contract with anybody and you are free to sign him. That's a process that literally took weeks and almost months to get accomplished. It took great patience from Jim. The attorney in Washington DC was incredibly helpful in portraying our interests and how we do business to the team in China and was able to convey to them what has to take place in order for Sun to become a Laker. There are certain rules that exist and only a few players have been sent by China to the NBA and the team that we were dealing with had never sent a player, so the process to them was very very new. And some of our rules don't make sense, even if you're American, so you have to convince them that it's a rule we have to deal with whether it makes sense or not and it was a process.
Finally we got the letter of clearance. All this took place after we had negotiated an agreement with Sun. Negotiating the agreement, which I did with the agent, was a relatively simple procedure. Normally it's the hardest part of a deal, getting the player to sign a contract, but that was the easy part. Getting the letter of clearance and conveying how the NBA and FIBA do business and making sure the Aoshen team owners understand that there are no hidden agendas. That was the hard part. But Jim Perzik and the attorney in Washington DC, they were able to get it done.
That was about 2 or 3 weeks ago. Now we're dealing with the issue of the visa. So you being to see that a player that was drafted in the second round, who may or may not be good enough to make our team, there's an awful lot of work going into that one player.
My understanding was that he was at the American Embassy or Consulate on the 17th, Wednesday of this week, and it's my understanding that he did get a visa. We're hoping that he can get here sometime between this weekend and next weekend before the beginning of training camp next Tuesday.
Were you able to leverage any of the experience that the Rockets had with Yao (Ming) or the Bucks had with Yi (Jianlian) or was it a totally new process because we're a different team and we're dealing with a different team than those players (Yao and Yi) came from?
MK: It really was a new process. The European teams are very familiar with us and their contracts have buyouts and all the GM's in Europe have dealt with players from their teams coming to America for years now. There have only been 3 or 4 from China and not every team has dealt with it, so it was new to them. That they basically had to give up all their rights to this player that they had nurtured for many years so he could have the opportunity to come play with us. Maybe they called the team that Yao used to play for or the team that Yi used to play for and said, "Listen, this is what the Lakers are telling me. Is that really how it is?" Maybe they did that, I would have done that, but our rules are steadfast with the league and there really was no away around getting this letter of clearance, but once again Jim, with the Washington DC attorney and with the league, they were able to clear up some issues and I think the Aoshen team at the end of the day was very satisfied with the arrangement.
Now that he is signed and he has a visa are those special difficulties gone now and he's just a normal player or are there still special accommodations to be made going into the future?
MK: I think they're over. Language is always a problem, but he speaks good English. I had conversations with him several times and I talked to him 2 weeks ago by phone right after we signed him and we interviewed him 2 years ago for the draft and his English is very good. I understood every word he said, he understood every word I said and then he even apologized and said that he was a little nervous and that his English was a lot better, but I thought it was fine.
On the basketball court it's easier to communicate. A lot of the stuff is universal so I think on the court it will be even easier for him. But language is normally a problem, but we don’t think it will be that big a problem. We'll probably look to have a tutor or an interpreter available, just in case, but I'm not anticipating a problem. When we signed Slava Medvedenko 6 or 7 years ago from the Ukraine, he did not understand a word of English. I think Sun Yue is going to be ok.
The other thing logistically that is going to create some problems, it's minor, but I think it might be considered very unusual to many of us in Los Angeles is that he doesn’t drive. He doesn’t have a license. So there are going to have to be accommodations so that he can get where he needs to go. I understand that he will be coming over here with someone that can help him, but that isn't really a problem for us, as long as he gets to practice and to games. Eventually, he's going to have to learn to drive.
Will his integration into the team be easier because we have so many international players already on the team or does it not matter since he is from Asia and our other international players are from Europe?
MK: I don’t see a problem. Most of our other international players have come from Europe, DJ Mbenga is from Congo, but really grew up in Belgium. I don’t see a problem. I think he'll assimilate into the community here. There is a very large Asian and specifically Chinese population here in Los Angeles. He speaks English and he's very likable. He's got a great sense of humor. I asked him what he wanted to be called, whether it should be sun or soon and he said, "Well my nickname is Q-Tip." So I asked him, "Well what should I call you?" and he said, "Well you can call me Q-tip or you can call me Q."
So I don’t see a problem. He's got a bounce to his step, he's got energy. I think our players won't have any problem embracing him. Now of course he's got to make the team and he's got to earn their respect so he may get the rookie treatment for the first month of the season. But if he earns his way, from my being around him based on his personality, I don't think he'll have any problem.
Do you think the fact that Aoshen played in LA for a year (2006-07 season) helps him?
MK: Absolutely. It helped him clearly with his English. They were more down south in Long Beach, but I'm sure he got out and got to spend some time in Los Angeles and went to games at STAPLES Center, so I think that was definitely a plus.
As far as a basketball player, how far along is his development? What kind of competition has he been playing against?
MK: He's played international basketball and he played at the Olympics this summer, which was top competition, and he played well. Last year his team kinda withdrew from the CBA, the Chinese Basketball Association, and they played in Singapore and they brought over American teams to play against and most of those American teams were at a level that was not even as good as our D-League players. So I don’t think that last year was a very keen year in terms of playing against the best competition. He did play a lot and he played every day. And the competition this summer was very good.
I spoke to Kobe last week, because Team USA played against China and Kobe said that he knew who the guy was. He said he was competitive and feisty and he did not back down. I know that he's athletic enough. I like his size, I like his skill level. I think he's a ball handling guard at 6'8". Those are all positives, but he hasn't played at this level and I think he'll show well, but the NBA is a different game. He'll face challenges he hasn't faced before, but I don’t think he'll back down. I think he'll embrace the challenge and at the end of the day if the guy is good enough after 28 days of training camp (and pre-season), we'll know it and he'll make the team. It's not something that will be ferreted out in a week or 2, maybe some guys will know in a week if they're good enough, but if you're with the team for 28 days, we'll know and he'll know too (if he's good enough).