NBA Washouts Have China Calling Foul

On Dec. 9, the American basketball player Marcus Williams, formerly of the National Basketball Association’s San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers, did something no other player in the 17-year history of the Chinese Basketball Association had accomplished: He tested positive for smoking marijuana.

The fact that Williams, who played for the Shanxi Zhongyu Brave Dragons, is a foreigner was of particular importance to the bureaucrats who administer the CBA. Williams, and the dozens of other non-Chinese who play in the league, have long been viewed as necessary to improve the association.

But as the number and quality of foreign players has grown, a quiet yet unmistakable establishment backlash has formed against their role in the league, questioning whether such outsiders are stunting China’s development into a world basketball power and hindering its embrace of athletics as a proxy for national honor and international standing.

On Jan. 3, Guan Yin, an official associated with the government-run Shanghai Sports Institute, wrote an article titled “Foreign Assistance Is Like a Slow Poison” for the city’s Xinmin Evening News. In it, he laments: “We might as well take a look at this year’s CBA statistics: The top 26 scorers are all foreigners except for Yi Jianlian, who ranks 14th. Foreigners dominate the top-10 stats for rebounds, assists, and on-court efficiency, almost without exception. I can’t help but ask: Who plays a leading role in the so-called Chinese professional basketball league? And just whose league is it, anyway?”

By player count, it’s still a Chinese league. In the 2012-2013 season, roughly 25 percent of the league’s 250 players (or so -- rosters fluctuate) are foreign passport holders, and of those, about 70 percent are Americans, many with at least some NBA experience. Some, like Qingdao’s Tracy McGrady, were All-Stars. The recent influx of relatively expensive NBA talent is primarily stars at the ends of their NBA careers and players with discipline or reputation problems who are largely unsignable in the U.S.

The latter group rankles China’s pricklier basketball pundits, and it’s not difficult to find commentaries on China’s microblogs, or -- more prominently -- in its newspapers, wondering why China must be the destination of last resort for wastrel American basketball players looking for one more (big) paycheck.

Of the most recent versions of these arguments, none was more prominent than a Jan. 1 editorial in the West China Daily News, a Chengdu-based newspaper with daily circulation of more than 1 million.

In it, the editors discussed Williams, published the name of another American basketball player suspected of smoking marijuana, claimed that there are many other “African-American” pot-smokers in the CBA (an allegation aired in other Communist Party-owned publications, usually sourced anonymously), intimated that foreign players were guilty of colluding with international organized crime syndicates to fix games, and concluded: “Although the CBA cannot be considered one of the world’s top leagues, it can learn from and integrate with the NBA. However, the CBA wants good things from the NBA elite, not bad things like gambling and drugs while serving as a shelter for NBA trash.”

A whiff of xenophobia, and occasionally racism, permeates much of the critical editorializing about imported players, a fact no doubt encouraged by rules that limit the number of foreign players on a team and restrict certain honors to Chinese players.

Perhaps the most egregious example of the latter is a rule prohibiting a foreign player from winning the CBA’s most valuable player award -- even when it’s well-deserved, as it was when Stephon Marbury led the Beijing Ducks to last year’s league championship. More than 1 million disappointed fans subsequently supported an online campaign to build a statue of Marbury in Beijing.

The Bayi Rockets, the team owned and operated by the People’s Liberation Army, employs no foreigners -- only soldiers -- and remains a long-time favorite of patriots and government officials. While the team dominated the league during its early years, it hasn’t won a championship since 2007: Teams with foreign players have supplanted it. Most humiliating of all, the CBA has implemented rules that particularly restrict the time that foreign players can be on the court against Bayi.

However, in the eyes of many Chinese fans, the problem isn’t the foreign players, but the failure of China and its massive athletic bureaucracy to develop basketball players who can rival the international competition. Yao Ming, the now-retired NBA star who began his career with Shanghai’s CBA team, was the first -- and so far last -- Chinese-developed player to reach that standard. China’s basketball fans blame such a demoralizing state of affairs on numerous factors: race, culture and the state-run athletic system.

An anonymous microblogger in Guangzhou tweeted on Jan. 6 to the Twitter-like Sina Weibo service: “The word ‘China’ seems so feeble painted on the court. We can’t help it, Chinese players, even the Asian players, don’t really have much talent. In most cases, those NBA players have talent. Furthermore, do our Chinese players train hard? We can judge whether they do from their musculature.”

No conclusions are drawn about the allegedly poor musculature of Chinese basketball players as compared to their foreign counterparts, but the sense of frustration is palpable. Theoretically, this frustration should be enough to damp interest in the CBA. But the association has never been more popular in China, with record numbers of sponsors and viewers.

The reason is obvious even to the casual fan: The foreign influx has lifted the quality of play. It doesn’t hurt that some of the foreigners have NBA pedigrees familiar to the Chinese who grew up watching Yao Ming’s exploits. For these fans, what’s important isn’t Chinese dominance on the court -- it’s watching good basketball.

Indeed, much of the microblogged reaction to Williams’s drug bust and subsequent six-month suspension was quite different from the newspaper reaction, especially in the wake of the apology he tweeted to his roughly 11,000 followers on New Year’s Eve, which concluded, “I understand everyone’s disappointment and i will do everything to improve and grow from this.”

That tweet has been retweeted -- or forwarded -- more than 1,300 times and generated 2,200 comments in response, seemingly all positive, with fans wishing him a speedy return to their (suddenly) beleaguered team. “It’s nothing,” tweeted one fan in Taiyuan, home of the Brave Dragons, minutes after Williams published his apology. “Waiting for you to come back next season! Waiting for you to come back.”

Another fan in Taiyuan, who uses the handle SylarZhang went so far as to send off his favorite disgraced foreign player with a bit of English: “We will never never disappointed in you, and look forward to next season Return of the King, we all Shanxi fans waiting for you. Never give up! Come on Marcus!”

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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