Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Lost in Translation?

I've been holding off on posting about the latest developments in the Yi Jianlian saga because there's been speculation that the latest firestorm--surrounding comments attributed to Guangdong Tigers owner Chen Haitao--may have bogus origins. Supposedly Chen said Yi would return to the Tigers next year if the Bucks didn't trade him, in spite of the fact that Tigers reps have in the past few weeks dismissed this very possibility. Curiously he cited a lack of playing time and not the small-market stature of Milwaukee as the main concern, which immediately makes him either a liar or a fool, given playing time is one thing the Bucks of all teams can guarantee. All indications are the Tigers have a significant financial stake in Yi's future earnings, and therefore want him in the NBA next year, though they'd prefer a bigger market. Chinese basketball officials meanwhile are desperate for Yi to play in the NBA ahead of the '08 Olympics in Beijing, but it's a little unclear how much sway they have over the Tigers.

The first doubts over the story's truth were suggested by a couple Chinese posters on RealGM who said Chen had already denied the quotes in the Chinese media, and the JS is now also reporting that Guangdong vice chairman Liu Hong Xinjiang was later quoted saying "Yi could eventually wear a Bucks uniform." And now Aran Smith of is also picking up on the questionable validity of the original story:

A bogus news story was released in China on Tuesday that Yi Jianlian's Chinese agent and Guangdong Tigers chief Chen Haitao said that Yi would "definitely not" play for the Milwaukee Bucks. The report has been denied by Chen himself plus a Guangdong Tiger's VP who responded with two words - "BS".

Apparently some media sources in China don't care if their reports are not factually accurate as long as they generate interest.

Most amazing is that the report was picked up by numerous AP news sources all over the web and and was given credibility when in fact the story is unsubstantiated.
Of course if the Tigers were "blocking" the move it would actually make some sense, as it would put pressure on the Bucks while allowing the Tigers to bear the brunt of media pressure making Yi look more like an innocent bystander. Amid the controversy Yi has come under increased scrutiny both here and in China, a dangerous proposition for someone whose value is so closely tied to maintaining a marketable image. His wranglers have attempted to keep Yi insulated from the issue by not allowing him to speak publicly on the matter while his agents work behind the scenes, though it's unclear how much they can do given that without the Bucks' permission, any team they talk to about a trade could be charged with tampering.

It's also unclear how unified the Yi camp is, as a number of parties have some influence over the situation but each have their own motives. The rumor is that Guangdong hired agent Dan Fegan without Yi ever meeting him, and that they have an agreement over how they will divvy up Yi's various endorsements in the US and China. So if Guangdong and Fegan are in roughly the same boat you'd think Guangdong would be eager to bolster Fegan's bargaining power with a threat to bring Yi back to China next year. Up until now that hasn't been the case, and regardless of their public stance all indications are that the Tigers stand to gain much more from allowing Yi to enter the NBA. Same holds true for Fegan, though if he was hired based on a promise to steer Yi to a big market then he's not likely to be caving to the Bucks demands while he still has time to play chicken. Hence the speculation that Yi's camp could fire Fegan in order to win themselves a scapegoat. Even if Yi does go back to play in China the Bucks would retain his rights, so he would have to sit out and play no professional basketball for a year in order to enter the draft again. Which really doesn't appear to be in anyone's interest.

There's also the added complexity of the 2008 Olympics being in China, which has made Chinese basketball officials and the general public there especially concerned that Yi play in the NBA next year. The prospect of another year playing in China against inferior opposition will do him little good developmentally, especially given that he's most likely 22 and not 19. The Chinese are long-shots for a medal to begin with, and Yi's unwillingness to play for the Bucks would only hurt their chances.

Oh, and what does Yi want? On the one hand many suggest he really doesn't care that much and is simply desperate to play in the NBA, even if it is in Milwaukee. His comments after the draft didn't sound like a player dead set against coming to Wisconsin, and even if he's in agreement with his camp's current course of action Yi has never been to Wisconsin. He doesn't "know" that he'll dislike playing for the Bucks. If Yi was an NBA vet who had visited Milwaukee and knew other players who had played here, then you would have to strongly consider his disinterest in the town. But that's not the case. We don't really even know what Yi thinks about playing here, and if even if we did it's worth considering that the kid only knows about Milwaukee what his wranglers have told him.

Stateside fans have consistently shown a willingness to look past rookie malcontents--nobody talks about John Elway or Kobe Bryant being crybabies because of forcing trades as rookies--but I'm not sure whether the same holds true in China. Reading quotes from Chinese basketball officials and from Chinese fans, it's clear that there's a cultural angle that's probably difficult for the American media to fully grasp. Yi's biggest endorsement potential will be as a marketer of anything and everything in China, but his current act doesn't appear to be going over well with the Chinese public.

One thing everyone involved has? Some time. The Bucks don't open camp until October 1, and Yi has national team commitments for the next month or so. There's little reason for Yi's camp to give in unless public pressure becomes so intense that they're concerned Yi's marketability will suffer. If there really was no way Yi was willing to play in Milwaukee then they'd hold a press conference and Yi would say as much--you think the Bucks would hold firm if Yi himself said in front of a packed room of reported that he never was going to play for the Bucks? The Yi camp is obviously very concerned with shielding him from looking like the bad guy, and probably realize that they aren't in a position to burn their bridges in Milwaukee. So expect to wait, and in the meantime expect there to be lots of chatter, much of which will be lost in translation.

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