By Guan Weijia
BEIJING — Chinese media and fans are usually harsh, sometimes even cruel.
Even Yao Ming, the symbol of China and the greatest basketball player ever produced by the world’s most populated country, was criticized by a lot of Chinese Yao-haters. Even today, there are still a large number of Chinese fans who disapprove of Yao’s achievements, judging him as tall but awkward, calling him “Yao the Stupid” (In Mandarin, it is pronounced Yao Da Sha).
The criticism of Yi Jianlian is more severe, of course. Fans are dissatisfied with his performance in the NBA, believing he is wasting his talent and playing too soft. Yi has many nicknames, none of which are complimentary.
In team workouts before the NBA Draft in 2007, agent Dan Fegan insisted that NBA teams who wanted to have a look at Yi would have to agree to a solo workout. As a result, a chair served as a defender in Yi’s workouts, and ESPN’s Bill Simmons dubbed him “Chairman Yi.”
In China, even four years later, that nickname has stuck.
It is hard to imagine this happening in other countries. There are a lot of international players who underachieved in the NBA, but fans in their home countries still adore and worship them. Take Juan Carlos Navarro and Sarunas Jasikevicius as examples. Spanish fans and Lithuanian fans blamed the relatively poor NBA accomplishments of those players as the fault of their NBA teams, which provided them few chances. Pau Gasol is no exception. In many American fans’ eyes, he is too soft. But to Spanish fans, he is their Michael Jordan.
Yi is not as lucky. Every day, if he surfs on the Internet, he can see a huge amount of criticism and judgment from Chinese basketball fans about a player who in 2003 was called “the next Yao Ming” by Time Magazine.
The question is: Why?
The answer is cultural.
Indeed, Chinese fans expect Yi to be a new Yao. But they also want their country’s lone NBA representative to be perfect and flawless.
Now that Yao Ming has retired, Yi has become the No.1 star of the Chinese national team. The pressure he bears is difficult to imagine and measure, but Yi has performed better in FIBA competitions than in the NBA.
At the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey, Yi had an average of 20.2 points and 10.2 rebounds, leading the team into the Round of 16.
In the final game of the FIBA-Asia Championship on Sunday, he had 25 points, 16 rebounds and six blocks, and his rattled-in free throw with 29 seconds left provided the winning margin in China’s 70-69 victory over Jordan. After the final, Yi won tournament MVP honors.
This is the first MVP award Yi has earned while playing for the national team, indicating that Team China has become Yi’s team, and the Era of Yi in Chinese basketball has begun. In October, he will return to the U.S. to continue his training.
What remains to be seen is whether a job awaits him in the NBA. Some have suggested that because of the NBA lockout, Yi, an unrestricted free agent, will go back to the Chinese Basketball Association. But one of his friends told me that, unless the NBA lockout lasts for a whole season, he will not be back. Yi’s former boss, Guangdong Tigers general manager Chen Haitao, has also confirmed it.
“After Yao retired, I am carrying more and more responsibility. For our team, I must do everything I can to get victory. It’s doubtless,” Yi said. “I hope that I can show fans a better and stronger Yi Jianlian.”
Some other items of note from China:
_ Wilson Chandler is in Zhejiang Province now, taking part in training with his new team, Zhejiang Guangsha. Chandler said that he hopes to go back to the U.S. as the champion of the CBA.
_Yao Ming provided commentary on eight games of the FIBA-Asia Championship. In October, he will start his study in Shanghai JiaoTong University, majoring in Financial Management.
_Daniel Mauro Panaggio, former assistant coach of the Lakers, will be the coach of Shanghai Sharks, which is now owned by Yao Ming. The Sharks’ new international player remains to be decided.
Guan Weijia is a columnist for Titan Sports, The Beijing News and qq.com. His columns for SheridanHoops.com will appear every Wednesday.