Q+A: Jim Yardley
Author on Yao, Lin and the Chinese basketball system.
SLAM: Right, but I’ve been surprised by how little impact that had for years. Do you think it’s finally starting to initiate more changes throughout the League?
JY: I think change is starting to happen, especially since I left. Bob Weiss was actually a breakthrough figure. Foreign coaches had been in China for years, but Weiss was the first big name. And his success in turning around the Brave Dragons influenced other teams. More and more teams have started hiring foreign coaches with experience in the NBA. Also, the league is gradually transitioning in its ownership structure. Fewer and fewer teams are now owned by local governments, or by government sports bureaus. More teams have private owners, and some of them are trying to emulate the Guangdong model. Not all, of course. The owner of the Brave Dragons is a private entrepreneur but his treatment of the team is decidedly old school.
SLAM: There is a younger generation of Chinese players, exemplified in your book by “Kobe” and Joy playing with more passion and more out of love. Is this an actual trend?
JY: That, to me, is one of the wonderful things about the league. The young guys love the game, and are desperate to win, and to play the game in a more free wheeling style. You can see their passion for the game.
In December, I met an 18-year-old kid playing for the Guangsha team in the Chinese league. He also played on the Chinese national junior team. His name is Wang Zirui. I think he has the potential to be a very, very good point guard. I hope so.
SLAM: As you detailed recently in the NYT Magazine, the NBA’s China plans are struggling. How ecstatic are they about Lin?
JY: The NBA remains very popular in China, but they have seen their ambitions curbed in recent years. They wanted to create their own NBA league in China, if in partnership with the CBA. But the Chinese league turned them down. They talked about creating a network of arenas. But that also hasn’t happened. Television ratings had sunk since Yao’s best years—say, 2005 and 2006. Again, the League was still popular, but the NBA was facing challenges in finding new revenue streams. Now along comes Jeremy Lin.
Fans in mainland China and Taiwan are going nuts. Knicks jerseys, real and counterfeit, are flying off the shelves. I assume television ratings are shooting up. Given that Yao retired last year, Lin would seem to arrive with absolutely perfect timing for the NBA. He doesn’t solve some of their deeper issues, about finding new ways to make money, or about developing a league. But I assume they are absolutely thrilled.
SLAM: Did David Stern sacrifice 18 virgins to make this happen?
JY: I heard it was 24 oxen.
SLAM: There was a great line in your book about the failure of the CBA to change, from someone who had been hired to analyze the league: “You can’t really understand something if your job depends on you not understanding it.” Does that still apply?
JY: It’s important to remember that the CBA is a government bureaucracy as much as a sports league. It is run by guys who either played or coached in the league, or by other bureaucrats, so they are invested in the status quo. However, they are facing real pressure to improve the quality of play, since fans need only watch the NBA on television to see a better basketball product. The CBA is trying to do this in superficial ways, by bringing in cheerleaders and game time music and stuff like that. They also seem more interested in developing better talent.
But many people question whether the league can ever achieve its potential if it remains controlled by the government. The ultimate responsibility of the CBA is not to put on the best possible basketball league for fans; it is to develop a national team to compete for China in international competitions. Several years ago, the CBA hired a consulting firm for advice on how to improve. The consulting firm drew up a plan in which the league would be largely separated from the government sports administration. There would be transparency in accounting, and other things. Needless to say, the CBA didn’t go for it.
SLAM: Is there an inherent conflict between one organization running the league and the national team?
JY: Yeah, lots of people think the CBA has got to attain greater independence from the government. It can’t develop properly otherwise. If the goal is to make the CBA a true commercial basketball league, then you can’t have government officials running it. Officials make policy that may or may not be conducive with winning CBA games. Private owners, dominated by a commercial impulse, just want to do whatever they can to win games.
SLAM: How excited were you when you found out that Bonzi Wells was coming to the team you were following?
JY: I had mixed feelings. Bonzi’s arrival meant another former NBA player, Donta Smith, would be cut; I really liked Donta and the team was doing really well with him. However, I realized that Bonzi was a hell of a story, and he was. He is a very complicated guy, and I hope I captured some of that in Brave Dragons. One thing I found interesting was the relationship between Bonzi and Boss Wang; they clashed, big-time, yet Boss Wang really respected Bonzi.
SLAM: Boss Wang is a seriously crazy dude and the Brave Dragons have long been notorious for being mercurial and terrible. The year I was following God Shammgod off and on for SLAM, they went through four or five coaches—and had a translator who couldn’t really speak English. Did you choose them to follow because of their nuttiness and the assumption that whatever happened would be interesting and fun to write about?
JY: Someone told me that Boss Wang was like a Chinese Steinbrenner, or maybe a Mark Cuban in his early days. To be honest, I knew almost nothing about Boss Wang when I hooked up with the team. I had heard that Weiss was coming to China and I contacted him to see if I could spend time with him. At that point, I hadn’t decided whether to follow one team, or to jump around the league, tackling different themes and subjects through different players and teams. But once I got to Taiyuan, and settled in with the Brave Dragons, I realized that I had a hell of a story with just this team. It was oftentimes hilarious, oftentimes heartbreaking but always interesting.
SLAM: Foreign players in China are in a tough position: They feel they need to score 40 ppg to earn their contract—and sometimes the teams directly make them feel that way. But doing so does not help Chinese players develop. Do they feel that tension?
JY: As a foreigner, where your livelihood is at stake, you do have to be something of a basketball mercenary in China. The system is weird: Teams are usually allowed only two foreigners, and those foreigners are the highest paid guys on the team. They also are limited in their playing time. So when they are in the game, they’ve got to justify their contracts, which means shooting and shooting often.
Some guys just flat out gun at will. Others, though, manage to fit into the team and score their points. But, absolutely, tensions do arise between foreign and Chinese players after a long season. Usually, it boils down to respect; if one side doesn’t offer it to the other, problems can arise.
SLAM Senior Writer Alan Paul lived in Beijing from 2005-2009. He is the author of Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing. Visit him at alanpaul.net, or on Twitter: @AlPaul.