In the summer of 2007, the hype of the NBA Draft centered around two college freshman stars with tremendous, albeit short lists of accolades and a little known but highly sought after international basketball player in Yi Jianlian from China. The debate about which college freshman star in Kevin Durant and Greg Oden would be the number one pick focused almost entirely on their future ceiling as a player and whether the Portland Trailblazers could build a championship contender around them. Amidst that debate, economic analysts probed into the financial windfall that was Yi Jianlian and the endless matrix of wealth, global Chinese business, advertisements, new Asian and Asian American markets, and the subsequent local tax revenues tied to him. The tide of Chinese business had arrived on NBA shores and many teams, the Golden State Warriors being one of them, wanted every part of it.
But Yi as a global commodity (in 2007) could not have existed had it not been for Yao Ming, who was of similar national curiosity as the NBA and its fans faced east...far east, that is, seriously for the first time in 2002. Skills aside, Yao Ming represented more than the actual enjoyment of the game as entertainment for fans, but the hard and growing transparent truth of the NBA as a global business.
Simply put, fans had to understand that teams did not necessarily have to put their fans (or basketball for that matter), in their best interest when it came to cashing in on China's economic growth. And teams weren't going to sugar coat this reality either.
Yao Ming was a risk teams were willing to make regardless of what showed up in the wins or losses columns and as a result, the Warriors, soon after, became a team that had and has aggressively sought to better market themselves to the San Francisco Bay Area Asian American population. In a 2004 ESPN.com article focused on Asian Americans growing interest in Yao Ming and the NBA, former Warriors President of Operations Robert Rowell had this to say about the logic of C.R.E.A.M when it comes to Chinese basketball players like Yao Ming:
"Here in the Bay Area, we get to experience and have a strong understanding of the power of Yao Ming," Rowell said. "Our number one priority is to put together the best basketball team, but it would be great to have a Chinese player on our roster."
Yao introduced the Asian marketing turn in the NBA and the growing transparency of global marketing to NBA draft strategies. But it wasn't just about the marketing, but rather the general NBA paper trail of non-basketball related decision-making. That is, Yao (and Yi) were important for global trade and the impact that this trade brought to cities in need of an economic tax base and teams interested in generating more revenue. Sometimes this mattered more than the actual product on the court. In light of Yao's possible forthcoming retirement, basketball analysts have written their Yao basketball eulogies in the same vein, documenting Yao's imprint on the NBA in economic terms and what opportunities that he provided for his current and former teammates and other NBA colleagues.
Which brings us to his legacy. Another notable Yao Ming Staples Center memory came when Yao wasn't even playing. It was about an hour before this year's All-Star Game, and the media interview room was taken over by Sprite's China division. There was Sprite signage everywhere, TV monitors and speakers blaring loud music. There was a crowd of Chinese journalists. Then out came Kobe Bryant, who sat down and took questions from a moderator, all to promote an ad campaign with Taiwanese star Jay Chou.
I can't imagine Kobe doing any other corporate promotion right before the All-Star Game, not even for Nike. But that's how much these players value Chinese endorsements. We've seen players such as Steve Nash and Baron Davis sign deals with Chinese shoe companies. Maybe these things would have happened eventually without Yao. But not as quickly, and not for as much money.
There have been many more articles like this circulating on the Internet. Yao was more than a very good, borderline great NBA player. He was more than the successor to line of great centers before him. He was more than Shaq's nemesis. He was arguably the NBA's greatest global commodity and a gigantic wealth generator. And he also forced fans to think about the global business side of basketball, as boring as that might be, that populated the news as much as what his stats were from the previous game.
A brief trip down Warriors memory lane, or Hegenberger Road, can tell us a lot about what Yao meant for the NBA, let alone the Warriors, a team that highly sought him and subsequently Yi, his brethren of similar hype.
The failure of the Warriors to land Yao Ming in 2002 guided some of their alleged pre-NBA draft day maneuvers in the summer of 2007. Tied with the Chicago Bulls for the worst record in the 2002 NBA season, the Warriors had a 22.5% chance of landing the number one pick in the draft. Of course as typical bad luck would have it, the Warriors slipped to number #3, drafting who would possibly become the most hated Warrior of all-time in Mike Dunleavy Jr. Two years later, Robert Rowell, quoted in the ESPN.com article from 2004, openly explained his desire for a Chinese player. He fully recognized how the Rockets almost quadrupled their number of Asian American attendees over the course of a season and what that meant for future revenues streams.
After missing on a Chinese player the first time around, the Warriors were allegedly aggressive in placing themselves in the right draft position to get Yi. Analysts had Yi going to the Milwaukee Bucks at the number 6 position, believing that this small market team was willing to take a gamble to help boost their revenues. Coming off their 2006-2007 "We Believe" Run, the Warriors were rumored to be dangling Jason Richardson and their first round draft pick in exchange for the Milwaukee Bucks number 6 pick.
But as Warrior fans, we know the history of that fateful draft that led to yet again the all-too-soon dismantling of a relatively successful (by Warriors standards) squad, one that had just done the impossible of taking down the number one seed in the Dallas Mavericks just months prior during the NBA playoffs.
This history is less important than the current future of the NBA that players have been fixated upon for quite some time now. With Yao's possible retirement, his former teammates have gushed about what Yao has done for them as far as receiving endorsements abroad that they could never have achieved in the U.S. market. When I wrote in 2007 about the NBA's global investment in placing Yi in a big market for financial reasons, some Golden State Warriors fans were naive to the larger economic ramifications of the NBA draft as an international marketing strategy of tremendous financial consequence. These fans did not seem to want to understand that the NBA was heavily investing in an international market and corporations and struggling local U.S. economies were interested in investing in globalization no matter the costs. In 2007, Rust Belt cities like Milwaukee hoped to tie themselves to the Yi's (at the time) shooting star with interests in trade with China and Pacific Rim hubs like the San Francisco Bay Area hoped to solidify and strengthen their ties to China if they landed him.
This brief history of the Warriors rumored aggressive interest in Yi Jianlian emphasizes the legacy of Yao to the common "cents" of the NBA and the reality that fans are forced to confront when the business side of basketball has come to matter more so than the Xs and Os.
The NBA has always been a business. But, with China's rapid ascent in the global economic arena so far in the 21st, the NBA, Yao, and Yi forced fans to think differently about the basketball they watched on television even when they deliberately refused to wrap their heads around this increasing reality that global economies hugely matter to the direction of professional basketball.
The 2011 NBA Lockout has further reaffirmed Yao's incredible economic presence in the NBA as his former teammates and NBA colleagues have continued to brand themselves in China when they can longer in the United States without the NBA's backing (Kobe calls China "a home away from home"). The business side of basketball has reared is ugly head to shatter fans idea of the NBA as "just a game" and players are not shy about admitting that money matters more than just getting back on the court. The brief story about Yao, Yi, and the Warriors attempts to get either player, however, has been a larger narrative of the Asian marketing turn of the NBA and the hypervisiblity of the NBA as a global economic entity. Although Yao (or Yi) never played for the Warriors, the Warriors past tells us much about how much Yao will continue to matter to fans of the NBA beyond what he did on the hardwood.