Post by Leon Zhang
July 29, 2012
As the Chinese men’s basketball team enters the last stage of preparation for the 2012 London Olympics, it is a sad fact that there are not many definitive profiles of these players, let alone ones in the English language. In this light, let us present you a series dedicated to giving a backstory to the players that will no doubt shine on the world’s biggest stage. After profiling Liu Wei, Wang Zhizhi and Wang Shipeng, we profile Yi Jianlian, the centerpiece of the current National Team setup.
Name: Yi Jianlian (易建联)
Height: 7’0’’ (2.13 m)
Weight: 250 pounds (113 kg)
Position: Power Forward/Center
Team: Free Agent
Yi Jianlian is our last entry in this series of previews, and if you’ve been following Chinese sports at all recently, you’ll notice that he is quite important. Other than “tall, handsome, and famous” though, what else makes him a great choice to represent his nation?
Yi was born in 1987 (or 1984, we’ll get to that) to two former professional handball players who transitioned into working as postal workers, moving to Shenzhen when he was two years old. Though at first his parents objected to him attending a sports school, a chance tournament that Yi and his friends entered brought the young athlete into the focus of a coach in Shenzhen. He struggled to adjust to his new surroundings (a well told anecdote relates that he was unable to finish a 400-meter run), but after a while Yi displayed extraordinary speed, flexibility, and raw talent, and at 13 years of age having already surpassed two meters in height, he was promoted to the Guangdong Youth Team. Many call-ups for both club and country followed, including some time for the country’s youth team and at the age of 18, he suited up for the CBA club Guangdong Hongyuan.
Yi would play five seasons in total in the CBA, working his way up from averaging only five points to a 25 point, 11.5 rebound effort each night. His swift ascent was marked by many accolades, including a CBA Rookie of the Year award, inclusion onto the All-Star team in 2004 (making Yi the youngest player to be honored), and a regular season MVP in 2005.
The big man became a focal point on offense, leading his team to three straight CBA championships and in 2006, was named CBA Finals MVP. Yi was simply dominant in the domestic league despite being under 20 years old, overwhelming interior defenses with turn-around jumpers and pure length, height, and athleticism. Joining the National Team in 2004, his playing time was limited to just over 10 minutes per game, but he showed promise at the World Championships in 2006, attracting the eyes of scouts worldwide. Soon, the NBA would come knocking for this young power forward who both drew comparisons to Kevin Garnett and was dubbed “The Next Yao Ming”.
Though the Guangzhou native first declared for the draft in early 2006, he withdrew his name and opted instead to enter the NBA in 2007, citing a need for more experience. Guangdong couldn’t match the success from the previous year, however, and the team lost to the Bayi Rockets in the Finals. Before the ’07 draft, accusations of age-fixing came up after Yi was listed in a previous tournament as being born in 1984 instead of 1987. Later, reporters found similar documents, though Chinese officials have blamed the discrepancy on a typographical error.
Then, an interesting twist occurred when the Milwaukee Bucks selected Yi with the sixth overall pick. The Bucks had not been invited to Yi’s pre-draft workouts and were in fact warned to not pick him on the basis of Milwaukee’s weak Asian community. Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl, owner of the Bucks, went as far as travelling to Hong Kong to recruit this new talent. Chinese officials continued to demand a trade to a locality with a larger Asian presence, but in the end, with the Bucks’ promise that Yi would have enough playing time to develop for the 2008 Olympics, the former Southern Tiger started his NBA career with the blessing of his caretakers and the anticipation of many fans.
Neither the Bucks nor Yi would disappoint. Sticking to his organization’s promise, head coach Larry Krystkowiak handed the starting power forward position to the Chinese 7-footer in place of incumbent Charlie Villanueva. Yi delivered, recording 19 points and nine rebounds against Yao Ming’s Houston Rockets, a game that was watched by 200 million Chinese. Averaging 12.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game in December, he was named the Rookie of the Month, and drew praise from coaches like Del Harris, who anointed Yi “the most athletic 7-footer in the NBA”. Injuries would derail his promising rookie campaign, though, as a season ending knee injury sidelined him after April 2 as he was hitting his stride. He ended up averaging 8.6 points and 5.2 rebounds on the year, though he showed flashes of enormous potential. As assistant coach Brian James related, “the injuries he had bothered him more than people realized”, and Yi was unable to cope.
Yi and Bobby Simmons were traded the very next season to the New Jersey Nets for Richard Jefferson. This came as a rather large surprise for everyone involved, including Yi, who adjusted well and came away averaging 10.5 points and 6.2 rebounds before breaking his little finger. Back after the All-Star Game (where, incidentally, he finished third in voting for forwards), the Net never really found his form, and was removed from the starting lineup. He had a solid 2009-2010 season, averaging 12 points and 7.2 rebounds, but was held to only 52 games after another series of injuries. Traded soon after the end of the 2010 season to the Washington Wizards, Yi was not given a qualifying offer. Faced with the NBA lockout, he found himself turning home to to the CBA and Guangdong. Unfortunately, he was felled with yet another injury just three games in. Returning to the NBA after the lockout, Yi found a home in Dallas, spending much of the season at the Mavericks’ D-League affiliate before playing in the first playoff game of his career against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Through his struggles as an NBA player though, the talented forward cemented his place as the unmistakable centerpiece of the post-Yao Chinese National Team. In the 2010 World Championships, he logged over 20 points per game and was also the top rebounder tournament-wide. Yi further cemented his place as one of Asia’s best, earning MVP honors in the 2011 Asian Games while leading China to a championship. The national team will certainly need his soft touch and interior presence this summer. Just as Yi Jianlian will carry the flag for the Chinese Olympic delegation, as the star of the team, he will symbolize all that the Wu Xing Hong Qi represents on the court.
Fun Facts: Yi has his own logo; he likes Range Rovers and hip-hop; he was ranked fourth on Forbes’ Chinese celebrities list; known for a relatively bland personality, reporter Wang Meng relates that when asking Yi a question, “you’ll know what kind of answers he’ll give. You don’t even have to ask the question. You can just write it down.”