To the outsider, China and its population of 1.3 billion looks like a land of unlimited opportunity. With its booming economy, huge markets in almost every sector and a currency that is exchanged favorably from Western currency, the Middle Kingdom stands out like big red beacon for adventurous, global minded business people who think they can cash in here.
And with an estimated 300-400 million Chinese who claim to play basketball, a lot of people think there’s a lot of green to be made off the orange. China is considered by many as the go-to foreign destination for anything hoops. Whether its bringing an American university over to tour the country and up its exposure in the world’s leading foreign student market, or if its using the Chinese Basketball Association as a potential haven for locked out NBA players, basketball is viewed as a means to tap into China’s vast potential.
But rarely do these casual observers know the full story of doing business in China. And rarely do players, who are lured to China by six and seven figure paychecks, know the full story of playing basketball in the CBA.
Which is why, generally speaking, most of them don’t last here.
While scenarios are being formulated about Wilson Chandler and Earl Clark’s potential March NBA-return after the CBA finishes its season — or any other current NBA free-agent who decides to sign here this season without an opt-out clause — there is very little discussion about what will be the likely outcome in all of these players’ cases:
A mid-season flight back to the United States.
The evidence speaks for itself. The CBA has arguably the highest turnover rate of any professional league in the world. It is rare for a team to finish the year with the same two imports they started with, nor is it out of the question for teams to end the year with two completely different players altogether. Last year alone, only four teams, Xinjiang Guanghui (Quincy Douby and James Singleton); Guangdong Foshan (Stephon Marbury and Olumide Oyedeji); Qingdao Double Star (Dee Brown and Charles Gaines); and Shandong Kingston (Rodney White and Myron Allen) managed to hang onto their two imports the entire season.
There are a variety of reasons why so many players don’t finish out the full-season in China. First, Chinese teams are notoriously fickle with their foreign players and are quick to pull the plug if either the team’s record or the player’s individual statistics are not line with expectations. And as the CBA regular season is only 32 games long, owners won’t wait more than a few games to make a switch if they feel that’s what the team needs to turn itself around.
Granted, that’s as true in Europe as it in China. But, Chinese teams add to the situation by being blatantly corrupt about they way they do it, withholding letter-of-clearances (a FIBA document needed by a player from his former team stating that he is no longer under contract and is thus able to sign for another team), lying about the terms of deals, and sometimes not paying players altogether.
Shanxi Zhongyu, who is reportedly in negotiations with J.R. Smith, is arguably China’s worst offender. Owned by a Wang Xingjiang, an uber-rich former steel magnate who tried his hardest to sign Kobe Bryant during the NBA lockout before CBA officials barred all NBA players with active contracts from playing here this season, the Brave Dragons have a long reputation of unprofessionalism and corruption.
Lee Benson, a longtime CBA veteran who played most recently with Tianjin Rongcheng for part of last year, has played in China for parts of the 2004-05, 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons. Picked up mid-season by Shanxi in 09-10, his stay was cut short as Benson was released after only five games in order to make room for the newly-acquired Stephon Marbury, who signed with the team in mid- January. Though nothing illegal was done by cutting him, Benson alleged that Shanxi never paid him his full salary after he was released, thus violating the terms of their contract. Benson ended up taking the the case to FIBA, who ruled in favor of Benson at a tribunal in April of the same year.
Marbury finished out the year in Taiyuan with no problems. But he too eventually became familiar with Shanxi’s way of handling things when he was abruptly released less than two weeks before the start of the 2010-11 season after the two sides had reportedly agreed on a three-year contract extension earlier in October. Shanxi’s general manager at the time, Zhang Aijun, who had been hired that summer to change the team’s culture, told reporters that Marbury never actually signed with the team and that the club was only interested in making him an assistant coach. Marbury said in a May 2011 piece in GQ magazine that the team straight-up forced him out. Marbury ended up signing with Guangdong Foshan shortly after being released. Zhang and the team’s Chinese head coach ended up being fired later that season on December 31st after Shanxi started the year with a highly disappointing 1-5 record. Among the reasons for Zhang’s dismissal were unethically acquiring local players away from other teams and mishandling the team’s import situation.
Besides being at the mercy of teams, who can essentially terminate a contract whenever they want, players often fail to adjust to everyday life in China. Whereas some places in Europe offer a Western style of life that Americans are able to adapt rather easily to, China has a distinctly different language and culture. The case is even more apparent on the basketball court. After experiencing daily six hour practices, nine hour bus rides, unheated hotel rooms and stadiums, and endless meals of KFC and McDonalds — all while not being able to communicate directly with Chinese coaches, management and teammates — players often waive the white flag on their Chinese career and just pack up and leave.
In almost all cases, both longtime NBA veterans and players who are fresh out of the league end up going home for one reason or another. In 2009, Bonzi Wells said he couldn’t adjust to life in Taiyuan, so he went to the U.S. during the annual Spring Festival break and never came back. Last season, Zhejiang Guangsha’s Rafer Alston left for the States to attend a close friend’s funeral. He didn’t come back either. Javaris Crittenton, Mike James and Ricky Davis all reached mutual agreements with their Chinese teams last year because of issues with living in China.
Perhaps Chandler, Clark and Smith, if he signs here, will be different. Based on reality however, its highly unlikely that they are.