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Sichuan Blue Whales win promotion to CBA, round out new foreign lineup

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The CBA’s newest expansion team, the Sichuan Whales, will enter their inagural season with three foreign players, Hamed Haddadi, Herve Lamizana and Johnny Flynn, as well as a foreign head coach, J.T. Prada.

Southwestern China has been starving for some top level basketball for a long time. They won’t have to wait any longer.

Last month, the CBA officially announced the promotion of the Sichuan Jinqiang Blue Whales to the Chinese Basketball Association, and will become the 18th team in the league.

The decision, which was officially announced on September 29th, ends what had been a long-time rumored end-result to the league’s expansion plans. Dating as far back as summer 2012, the CBA had been evaluation expansion plans with the idea of promoting a team from the second-tier professional league, the National Basketball League. For various reasons, those plans were put on hold and the once-in-a-few year opportunity for teams to rise up to the top professional level was carried over to 2013. Even then, it wouldn’t be until several months after the conclusion of the NBL season for a final decision to be announced.

However, despite the off-season spending spree that teams went on in order to push for a NBL championship and the delay in making a decision, it was widely known that the final decision would ultimately come down to two teams: Two-time NBL champion, Jiangsu Tongxi and Sichuan. Seen as a neck-and-neck race, Sichuan upped their chances significantly by winning the title over Tongxi. Combined with Sichuan’s big market, a modern arena and an ambitious basketball-loving owner, the title pushed them over the top in the CBA’s appraisal rating system and into the country’s top division. Conversely, it appears that Tongxi may have hurt themselves due to their head and assistant coach being suspended by the CBA for a year after they fought with referees during a game in the summer of 2011.

Yet while the true reasoning behind the CBA’s ultimate decision may never be completely clear, one thing is: Southwest China has a basketball team again. It is possible that only the hardcore of CBA fans can remember the Yunnan Honghe Running Bulls. Back in the early 2000’s the Mengzi-based team were the sole representatives for all of southwestern China when they were promoted to the big leagues after winning the second-tier National Basketball League crown in 2004.

The promotion of the Bulls to the CBA seemed like a good move at first by the Chinese basketball officials. Yunnan put up a competitive side and in the 2004-05 season finished fourth in the South Division, qualifying for the playoffs where they knocked off the Liaoning Hunters in the quarterfinals before falling to the Jiangsu Dragons. They followed up their inaugural season success with another fourth place finish and a ticket to the playoffs in the 2005-06 season, but lost to the Beijing Ducks in the quarterfinals.

It seemed the only way to go was up for the Bulls until allegations of unpaid wages to players and crippling debts began to surface. Once confirmed CBA officials kicked the team out of the league prior to the start of the 2009-10 season. While the ban was supposed to be for only one season, there were no signs of the Bulls making a return and professional basketball in the southwest was doomed.

The Chengdu-based team has been working hard during the off season to make sure they can produce a competitive team for the upcoming season. The team recently announced three new import signings, Hamed Haddadi, Herve Lamizana and Johnny Flynn, in addition to a new foreign head coach, J.T. Prada.

Flynn, the former sixth overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft will join the team after spending one season in Australia’s National Basketball League with the Melbourne Tigers. The New York native had a very promising NBA career which saw him start out with the Minnesota Timberwolves. However, injuries and a dip in his numbers after his rookie season saw him move around to the Houston Rockets, Portland Trailblazers and Detroit Pistons before making summer league appearances for the Indiana Pacers and Los Angeles Clippers.

Lamizana, who played college ball at Rutgers and has represented the Ivory Coast national team on several occasions, is no stranger to the CBA, having played for the Shandong Gold Lions in 2006/07 and the Tianjin Golden Lions in 2010/11.

Similarly, new head coach Prada is not new to the CBA, either. Prada coached Fujian SBS for several seasons last decade, helping the team reach the play-offs three times and helping to lead what was the most successful period in the team’s nine-year history. Afterwards, he worked as a scout for the Minnesota Timberwolves starting from 2009. This past summer, Prada returned to Fujian to lead their goal of qualifying for the 2013 China National Games. Although team finished with the best result in the province’s history, they ultimately came up short. The decision to hire Prada, who is more than familiar with the league, its players and its overall culture, is a good move for an ambitious team that has goals of finishing in the top-10 this season.

The chemistry between the veterans, foreign imports and young players will be key to the Blue Whales success this upcoming season, but the biggest impact could come from Iranian center  Haddadi. While he did not play much during his time in the NBA, the 28-year-old has proven how much of an offensive and defensive threat he can be during the FIBA Asia Basketball Championship as he helped his country win titles in 2007, 2009 and 2013. It will certainly be interesting to see how the 7-2 Haddadi matches up against other centers in the league such as Wang Zhelin, Li Muhao and Randolph Morris.

Sichuan are taking the right steps in getting a strong squad together and they should have no problem getting fans in the seats during the season. They’ve strengthened their Chinese roster by signing point guard, Lv Xiaoming, and are also rumored to be chasing Mengke Bateer. However, one of the big questions will be whether they will experience the same financial problems like the Bulls a few years back. It is possible that the CBA has learned from its past mistakes in allowing a team in severe financial difficulties to continue playing in the league, so Sichuan may not have the same problems.

As for now, professional basketball is back in the southwest of China and hopefully it is here to stay.

It look a while, but the Sichaun Blue Whales have been officially promoted to the Chinese Basketball Association.

Jon Pastuszek also contributed to this report.

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