The best basketball player in China right now isn’t on the Beijing Ducks, Qingdao Eagles, Shanghai Sharks or the Guangdong Southern Tigers. Or any other CBA team for that matter.
No, the best basketball player in China right now plays for the Shanxi Flame. And her name is Maya Moore.
In case you missed it, Moore, an Olympic gold medalist, two-time NCAA champion, a WNBA champion and a European champion as well, is playing in the Women’s China Basketball Association this season. Part by choice, part by necessity, Moore, like Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi before her, is using the WNBA off-season to play abroad. Whereas male superstars in the NBA can take the summer off to rest and recovery, playing almost year-round is a reality that even top players like Moore have to live with. The average salary in the WNBA is $72,000, and max deals are capped at $105,000 annually. Compared to other professions, that’s hardly chump change. But compared to the salaries that are paid by professional teams overseas, some of which come in the high six figures for top players, playing ball in the off-season comes as a huge chunk of a player’s annual income.
With Europe still feeling the effects of a financial downturn, China and its very considerable money has recently emerged as a top destination for the world’s elite women basketball players. Besides Moore, Tamika Catchings (Guangdong), Jayne Appel (Henan), Liz Cambridge (Zhejiang) and Sophia Young (Beijing) are all playing on different teams in the Middle Kingdom.
As a foreigner playing professional ball in a completely different language and culture inside China, everyone’s experience is unique. Moore is certainly no exception. With a Spanish head coach who speaks minimal English, a Korean teammate who speaks a few words of English and zero Chinese and Chinese teammates who speak no Spanish, no Korean and basic-at-best English there are four languages being spoken in the huddle, all of which are being communicated by three separate translators.
On the court, the experience is quite different as well. Unlike the CBA, where teams can have two and sometimes up to three foreigners, teams in the WCBA are only allowed one non-Asian import. The increased pressure placed on each Westerner to perform at a high level every game is another aspect that separates the on-court dynamics from those in the States.
Yet Moore, who has clearly been the best player in the league so far this season, hasn’t lived down to any of those challenges thus far. Still playing in the WNBA with the Minnesota Lynx when the Chinese season started last month, Moore joined the Flame mid-season for their third game — a mere eight days after playing her last WNBA game against the Indiana Fever in the league’s finals. Starting the 2012-13 campaign 0-2 without her, the Flame are now 9-2 since her debut and Moore is averaging an outrageous 43.9 points, 12.9 rebounds, 4.4 steals and 1.9 blocks per game according to Asia-Basket.com.
Besides helping out in the box score, Moore is also helping out in other areas as well, the most visible of which is team outfitting. Unlike in the CBA, where new league sponsor Li-Ning supplies a huge box of gear to every player free of charge, the women in the WCBA have to pay for their shoes and sweats out of pocket — a considerable expense for the vast majority of Chinese players who earn fractions of what their male counterparts make. So Moore, who became the first woman to sign an endorsement deal with Brand Jordan last year, is supplying her teammates with free Jumpman gear, including a sweet pair of Flame-colored yellow and red shoes that most of her teammates have been wearing in-game.
Presented with the chance to see Moore in person last weekend against NiuBBall’s home city squad, the defending champion Beijing Great Wall, we did what any Beijing-based basketball fan would do in that situation; we quickly jumped onto Line 1 and made the long trek out to Shijingshan.
We’re quite glad we did, too. The 6-0 guard was simply dominant in Shanxi’s 83-75 win. Displaying her full arsenal of offensive weapons, Moore finished with 45 points, 16 rebounds and four assists while playing all 48 minutes. Defensively, Moore roamed everywhere along the baseline, clogging up cutters, helping to stop dribble penetration and coming over quickly from the weak side to body-up opponents from in close. The performance further entrenched our belief that Moore is a transcendent athlete and that her journey is story that simply requires attention.
NiuBBall caught up with Moore this weekend in Beijing to discuss the experience of playing in Shanxi, her experience this summer in London, and her trouble finding a good slice of cake in China.
NiuBBall: If you had to describe your experience up to this point in one word, what would that word be?
Maya Moore: I’d have to go with interesting. It’s been kind of a culture shock just because I can’t communicate very well with the Chinese people, but we’ve been playing pretty well. So it’s going well on the court. It’s just a little different culturally. The basketball is… pretty thorough out here. But, the place where I’m playing, we’re doing a lot of learning so the coaches are doing a good job in being patient and trying to teach. We’re coming together pretty well.
NiuBBall: Yeah, you’re undefeated since you’ve arrived. What were your goals coming into this season with Shanxi and how has the experience compared with your initial expectations?
MM: Knowing that I was coming into a team mid-season, I was just trying to come in and observe for a little while, just to see who was who and get a feel for the team. Then once I got on the court I was just myself, being energetic, being a team player and encouraging my teammates. That part of it went as expected. I wasn’t really sure about the competition level, but I’ve been able to score a lot of points and I think my athleticism has helped me a lot. It’s also caused me to get fouled at lot as well [laughing].
But it’s two games a week, it’s pretty intense as far as travelling a lot, staying in hotels, being on the road… so you know, I’m just getting used to being away from the comforts of the U.S. That part of it is kind of hard, just being away from friends. And having to transition so quickly from one season to another, I knew it was going to be crazy but you can’t really imagine it until you go through it. Going a week from my last game in the WNBA, playing in the finals, and then playing here. It was eight days. But that’s kind of the nature of pro life right now.
NiuBBall: Despite all that, you haven’t really missed a beat. You’re putting up some unbelievable numbers. Just from your stats alone, you wouldn’t be able to tell that you’ve had such a short transition period.
MM: Yeah, it’s like I said. I think my athleticism and the competitiveness that I play with has been helping me a lot to overcome jetlag or whatever it may be. My teammates have been doing a good job of finding me and they all have been playing their roles very well. It’s been pretty fun to see the town [of Taiyuan] get excited and the fans get really excited for myself and the team.
NiuBBall: You played in the Olympics this past summer, you played in the WNBA as you just mentioned, now you’re here. Before all that, you were in Spain. When the season in China is over, pretty soon it’ll be time to play in the States again. Is there ever a concern of burning yourself out?
MM: It’s definitely a concern. It’s something that every women’s player basketball has to tackle. For me, I’ve tried to give myself at least a couple of months every year to recover just so that I don’t burn out or overdo it. Last year, I took the fall off and then I went over to Spain in January and I played through April. This year I’ll go a year straight. I’ll go a year straight. I’ll go January 2012 to February 2013 and then I’ll have a couple of months until WNBA training camp starts up in May.
NiuBBall: This year in the WCBA there’s a lot of players besides yourself: Tamika Catchings, Liz Cambridge, Jayne Appel, Sophia Young… is it a little weird to be going up against these familiar faces in China of all places?
MM: It’s different. It’s very different [laughing]. I’m so used to seeing them with their other teammates in the WNBA and maybe a little bit overseas in Europe. It’s funny, the only other English speaker when you’re on the court is your opponent. But everybody’s kind of in the same boat so you have that connection with them. We’re all going through the same things. Just to watch how we interact with our teams, it’s pretty fun. There’s more posts here than guards, so I haven’t really had to guard any of them. I think Sophia will be the only one I’ll actually have to guard. It’s interesting because there’s only one of us that can be on each team.
NiuBBall: You’ve accomplished a lot in your career already – a 90-game win streak, three national titles, a WNBA championship, an Olympic gold medal, a championship in Europe… Do you have a favorite?
MM: It’s hard to choose because each championship… I’ve played for so many special teams. It’s so hard to say. I describe it often as choosing which one of your children you love the most. You love all your kids. But the Olympic one is definitely the biggest stage and having that opportunity at such a young age was such an awesome experience and just do something that I’ve never done before, that gold medal was very special. And just the way it happened with my former coaches from the Univiersty of Connecticut and also having two Lynx teammates with me as well. I also had a former college teammate in Tina Charles so I just had a lot of familiar faces, people that I love working with and it was definitely very special.
NiuBBall: Where would a WCBA title rank?
MM: Well, it’s a challenge because I’m coming into the season playing on a new team, there’s a language challenge; we have four different languages being spoken: we have a Spanish head coach and a Korean player, and then we have English and Chinese. That in itself going through a season will be an accomplishment. But it will be another experience. I still think the WNBA level and the Olympic level are the best in the world, but this is also a unique experience that I will appreciate because of the journey. Every championship takes work, takes sacrifice, doing things when you don’t feel like doing them. So I think the experience for my team will be probably be more rewarding than for me getting another championship.
NiuBBall: So is there something more cerebral within yourself your trying to take away from this experience?
MM: Absolutely. There’s many things I want to see grow and happen, whether its relationships with my teammates and with the coaches, to grow and leave a positive impact as we work towards a championship, I always think those are the best memories. Any person that’s won a championship will tell you that it’s the journey with your team and your teammates. But also just getting people more exposure to basketball, women’s basketball and the game in general. The fact that I’m with Jordan Brand and just growing that interest with the fans. Just getting people excited about basketball and grow the game here in China as well as the fan base. And of course, we want to win it and play the best basketball possible.
NiuBBall: This past season with the Lynx, you weren’t able to defend your title. For somebody who has had so much success at every level to now finally come up short of a championship, is it rough to have to deal with failure?
MM: Well it’s not “finally have a failure.” A lot of people don’t remember the times I have failed. Every time I won a championship, there have been losses. I go back to when I was 13 years-old. My first AAU national championship was when I was a 14 year-old as a freshman in high school. The year before that we lost in the national championship. My freshman year in high school, we lost in the state championship game. We went on to win the next three. In college, we lost my freshman year. We went on to win 90 games in a row. My senior year, we lost in the Final Four. The next year, I won a WNBA championship. So it’s not like I don’t know what its like to have a devastating loss.
But the teams I’ve been on have been extremely awesome, so I haven’t had to deal with losing a lot. But I have lost and I know what its like to lose. I just try not to let it happen a lot. That’s what competitors do. They know how to handle failure. One of the things about Geno Auriemma at Connecticut, he put us in situations all the time in practice and set it up to try to beat us. We’d have to figure out ways to overcome those mistakes or challenges, giving the practice players a 10 point lead and you have to find a way to come back and win. Things like that. It’s the practice time that helps you overcome those losses or failures. Same thing with the Lynx, we approach it the same way so that when we get to the games we’re in a position to win. So you can bet that we’re going to take that finals loss and turn it into something special.
NiuBBall: Coming off that loss with the Lynx, do you feel you have a chip on your shoulder right now in China?
MM: I don’t even know if I’ve had time to have a chip on my shoulder! Everything happened so fast. It was not necessarily the best thing to go from one season to the next so fast, but it’s something that all of us have to deal with. It’s still very fresh in my mind and I’ve kind had to put it away a little bit. When it’s time to focus on the next WNBA season it’ll be very easy to remember how much it hurt to lose in that finals. But everyday I work hard, whether I win or lose.
NiuBBall: Given the interest around you already here in China and your affiliation with Jordan Brand, do you see yourself playing multiple seasons out here?
MM: Possibly. I like to take it one year a time. There’s definitely many opportunities to continue to play here. People are getting very excited asking me that question: “Do you want to play here again next season?” when the season is only halfway over. So you can just see the interest with the players, the fans and the people inside the Shanxi organization. It’s a possibility, but I haven’t decided yet.
NiuBBall: Most difficult place to walk without somebody stopping you: Storrs, Minneapolis or Taiyuan?
MM: Storrs by far [laughing]. There’s not place like Storrs just because of the history and the tradition of Connecticut basketball. But Minneapolis has definitely come alive the last couple of seasons to make the Target Center a tough place to play.
NiuBBall: I understand one of your favorite foods is red velvet cake. Any luck getting a good slice in Taiyuan yet?
MM: Absolutely not. I’ve been going through with withdrawal. Sometimes I get nightmares about not getting my cake. It’s only a couple of months, so I can hang in there. Cake in general is a lot different here. It’s very different. So I just eat ice cream, that’s the same [laughing].
NiuBBall: Maya, thank you very much and all the best during the rest of your season in China.