Last season’s 10-22 record left a bad taste for everyone with the Bayi Rockets, including Wang Zhizhi. But with the changing landscape in Chinese basketball, Bayi’s current status as league cellar dweller going to remain permanent?
The Bayi Rockets have the longest history, the most championships, the most former National Team players, and as we’ve learned this month, the most support from the Chinese Basketball Association.
In what’s being called “The Bayi Rule” by some in the media, the CBA has enacted new special import regulations this season, the most important of which will aim to even the playing field for the all-Chinese Rockets: Against Bayi, teams are only allowed to play their foreign players — Asian imports included — five combined quarters. In the fourth quarter, only one import player can take the court.
In addition, teams who qualify for Asian imports (the teams who finished in the bottom four last season) have the option of bypassing a third Asian import all together and play their regular two imports seven quarters instead of the regular six. Currently, Tianjin, Shandong and Foshan all have third Asian imports, whereas Jiangsu is still making up their mind.
While the latter rule may be a prelude to wiping out the Asian import altogether next year, the Bayi Rule’s long-term implication is much less clear. The league’s reasoning, however, is pretty straightforward: Give Bayi a better chance at winning some games this season.
Last season, the Rockets stumbled their way to what would be a historically bad campaign. The eight-time CBA champs finished in 14th place at 10-22, by far their worst season ever. Besides setting records in futility, the team hit a new bottom mid-season when home fans in Ningbo chanted for legendary longtime head coach, Adijiang, to xia ke , or be fired.
And as frightening as last season was for the Five Stars, its nothing compared to the very real fact that it could get worse both in the near and far future. As in, a lot worse.
As representatives the People’s Liberation Army, Bayi is not allowed to sign foreign players. 10 years ago, when the league attracted lower-level foreigners and skipped back and forth between one and two foreigners per team, the Rockets could dominate the league behind a roster chock full of National Teamers who were filtered into the team from the old system of recruiting and selecting China’s best players specifically for the military. One of those guys: Wang Zhizhi, who would eventually leave for the NBA in the early 2000s before coming back to the team in the middle of the decade.
Times have changed, though. The old Soviet-styled system is fading, and Bayi no longer has a monopoly on China’s best talent. Whereas a decade ago they could have re-stocked their armory with future Team China players, they’re now likely looking at a post-Wang Zhizhi era (he’s 35 years-old, remember )with no dominant Chinese player stand in his place. Furthermore, teams in the CBA are now able to attract high-level foreigners, which has resulted in a large talent disparty between Bayi and the other 16 teams.
So for this year, limiting the amount of time foreigners can face the army team in theory should give them a chance to redeem some level of respectability. But, what if it doesn’t? What if, despite this new rule, Bayi still finishes at the bottom of the league? Is the league’s next step to impose even stricter restrictions on foreigner playing time? Or would they go so far as disallowing opposing teams from playing foreigners altogether?
That’s where things get murky — and possibly dangerous for the development of the league. Degrading the quality of the league and the progress its made over the last few years to give some face and some wins to Bayi, who at present remain adamant of doing it the all-Chinese-no-foreign-way, would result in a big step back for Chinese basketball. And it likely wouldn’t result in a new golden age for the Rockets, either, with DongGuan, Guangdong, Xinjiang and Beijing all possessing better if not equal Chinese rosters.
It’s a tricky situation for both the league and Bayi: Keep the league the way it is, and the team is likely never to sniff the playoffs again. Change the rules to make it easier on the army guys, and you’ve artificially watered down the league to create an artificial platform that Bayi isn’t good enough to stand upon on their own.
Or, as longtime China basketball scribe, Su Qun, suggests, just let Bayi have foreign players. Maybe it won’t be like the old days, but then again, the old days are long gone and it’ll help the team and its players get back to respectability.
But in China, jun dui bu neng you wai guo ren. In the Army, there can be no foreigners. That’s the way its been, and if history and the overall attitude towards foreigners holds true, that’s the way it’ll likely stay.