Post by Jon Pastuszek
October 2, 2013
From the onset of the Beijing Olympians establishment, the team and its eccentric owner, Winston Lee, always set out to do things differently.
Now, after Lee’s sudden passing and the departure of star player Sun Yue, the Olympians might not be able to do anything at all.
On September 26th, Chinese media reported that Lee, the longtime owner of the Olympians, had died of a sudden heart attack in Beijing. It was later discovered that Lee had actually passed on the 18th, but the news had been withheld from the public for a week. Lee was 55 years-old.
Lee’s unfortunate and sad death coincides with another ground-shaking piece of news out of the Olympians camp: National Team guard/forward, Sun Yue, is signing with the Beijing Ducks. According to Chinese media, the deal is worth CNY 4 million per year over two years. In addition, three other Olympian players, Zhang Songtao, Li Wei and Huang Haibei, will join the Ducks for the upcoming season as well.
It will be the first time any Sun or any other Olympian player has participated in the CBA since 2004, the last year the team was registered in the league. Starting with the 2004-05 season, the team was banned by the CBA after Lee refused to release Sun to the China U-20 National Team and despite releasing him to the senior team a few years later, the two sides never hashed out an agreement to allow the Olympians back into the league as Lee preferred to work outside the CBA and its traditional, restrictive system.
Undoubtedly, the two major Olympian shakeups will cast a huge cloud over the future of the club. Yet for all the conspiracies floating around, the timing surrounding the death of Lee and the departure of Sun is completely coincidental. The Sun-to-Beijing rumors are strong every summer, but they were raised up to a new level starting in April after him and a group of Olympian players took the previously unprecedented step of joining up with the Beijing team for the 2013 China National Games preliminaries, which was coached by Ducks head coach Min Lulei and comprised mostly of Duck players. With the Olympians cooperating with both the Ducks and the CBA for the first time since in eight years, the road for Sun to officially return to China’s highest level of professional basketball had essentially been cleared and was likely signing no matter what.
The news of Sun’s departure from the Olympians should be welcomed by all. In the years since the Olympians separation from the CBA, the team has been wandering from one league to the next, first barnstorming in Taiwan and Europe before playing in American minor pro leagues such as the ABA and the WCPBL at the end of the previous decade. In 2008-09, Sun spent a year in the NBA with the Los Angeles Lakers, most of which was spent in the D-League with their affiliate, the Los Angeles D-Fenders.
However, over the last three years, the Olympians have gone away from playing in leagues and have instead settled on inviting outside teams to play exhibition games in China. The unstable, come-and-go schedule, as well as the lack of overall competition has affected the Olympians players, especially Sun, and as a result his game, conditioning and overall interest in the sport has decreased, with his poor performance in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship being the new low.
Now that he’s with the Ducks, that should all change. With Sun now firmly in hand, the Ducks will enter the 2013-14 season re-loaded and back in the championship hunt after being swept out of the semi-finals by Shandong last season. Though Sun looked truly terrible in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship this summer and is very out of shape, having regular high-level games will be to his benefit and the hope is that he will slowly be able to find his game and confidence in relatively short order.
What happens next with the Olympians is a completely different story.
After news of Lee’s death hit the newswire, it was immediately speculated that the Olympians, without their owner, would dissolve and that there would be a nationwide free-for-all to pick-up their senior and youth team players. For now — at least officially — that notion has been quelled and rumors of the team finding a new buyer have already begun. Beijing Enterprises, the company who recently lost out on their long and drawn out bid to move the Shanxi Brave Dragons to Beijing, has already been mentioned as a potential buyer, but at this point nothing official has been announced. However, sources have told NiuBBall that with nothing etched in certainty for the Olympians at the moment, CBA teams are officially making inquiries into acquiring Olympian players and that the future of the team is still very much in the air.
It’s the end of an era for the Olympians, one that will be remembered for Lee and his maverick, screw-the-system approach to running his team. Lee, who accumulated a fortune in real estate, investing heavily both in Los Angeles and Beijing, was never in agreement with the traditional Chinese system of developing players. His ambition was to produce a stock of Olympic-level Chinese players to represent the country on the world’s biggest international stage, hence the decision to name the team the Olympians. He invested heavily in player salaries and scouting, registered the team in American pro leagues — a previously unprecedented move — and hired a bevy of American coaches and players, including former Los Angeles Laker, Mike McGee, to help with his players’ development.
But as with most Chinese basketball club owners, Lee’s actions never met the level of his good intentions. Famous for his micro-meddling, Lee would watch privately broadcasted games from across the globe and order his coaches to make substitutions from his cell phone. Though the experiment was ambitious and welcome change from the monotony and proven ineffectiveness of the traditional Chinese system, in the end it never resulted in any player other than Sun getting to the National Team.
Still, Lee’s courage and out-of-the-box thinking deserves to be honored. He may not have seen it through the way he wanted, but Winston Lee will forever be an extremely important and relevant part in Chinese basketball history.