Tracy McGrady made one of the most hotly anticipated debuts in Chinese basketball history this weekend after a fevered build-up in which he caused a near-riot at one of his sell-out appearances.
The hype surrounding McGrady has sent excitement soaring for the start of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), which will feature three former NBA All-Stars this season.
McGrady, 33, who played with Yao Ming at the Houston Rockets during a 15-year NBA career, and fellow All-Stars Stephon Marbury and Gilbert Arenas head a cohort of 28 ex-NBA players who have made a new start in China.
Their presence has helped persuade fans to ignore hefty price rises and snap up tickets for the 17-strong league, which precedes an eight-team championship playoff in February.
Marbury’s Beijing Ducks, the reigning champions, open the season against Yao-owned Shanghai Sharks, while the Fujian Sturgeons will host McGrady’s Qingdao Eagles in a game which sold out weeks ago.
McGrady caused a sensation when he signed for Qingdao last month, selling out each of the club’s three pre-season exhibition matches against a team of American players.
The seven-time NBA All-Star scored 34 points in 28 minutes in the second game, but there were angry scenes when he played only 98 seconds of the final warm-up this week. Fans hurled water bottles and other objects and chanted for McGrady to play, bringing the game to an early halt as the shooting guard was ushered from the court by security guards.
In Qingdao, a coastal city famous for its beer, McGrady will team with center D.J. Mbenga who won two NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009 and 2010.
He will look to follow the trail blazed by Marbury, who last year led Beijing to their first ever CBA title and was honored with a bronze statue outside Wukesong arena, the basketball venue of the 2008 Olympics. Marbury, now embarking on his fourth season in the CBA, has also traded on his huge popular appeal to expand his Starbury line of sports shoes in China, branded with a snappy “love is love” advertisement campaign.
The 35-year-old multi-millionaire had a reputation for bad off-court behavior in the NBA, much like Arenas, who has signed for the Sharks after a two-week try-out. Nicknamed “Agent Zero”, Arenas, 30, was a three-time All Star in the NBA, but was suspended in 2009 after he brought a handgun into the locker room of the Washington Wizards, his team at the time.
McGrady’s team lost the season-opener on the road by 92-95 to Fujian Quanzhou Bank despite Tracy McGrady’s 34 points, 8 rebounds and 9 assists.
With 1.3 billion potential fans, China has been the financial promised land for ex-NBA players and the CBA itself has established a robust organization valued at $2 billion.
The CBA has hardly enjoyed a smooth ascendance alongside this country’s basketball boom. American players and agents describe broken contracts, unpaid wages, suspicions of game-fixing and rising resentment toward foreign players. Several players have left China after failing to receive paychecks.
Those are not the only problems as coaches, visiting players and their agents suspect that the outcome of some games is predetermined.
Players recounted locker-room lectures in which they were told to slack off on the court. On other occasions, they said, the best players had to sit out particularly competitive games or were sent home once their teams made the playoffs.
All the above may explain why Chinese Basketball gets very little respect outside of China, which is particularly true for Europe, where the level is the highest in the world after the NBA.
The image the Europeans have of Chinese Basketball is one of billionaires with ego’s out of control, who know nothing about the game and only care about showing-off by overpaying import players. These billionaires are totally obsessed with “big name players”. They are only interested in American players; black American players, to be precise. No Chinese team would ever want Dirk Nowitzki or Pau Gasol. Even if they came for free.
The Europeans look in disgust at the Chinese league and see it as a “freak show”.
It stresses the difference between the European sports culture and the Chinese one. In Europe, sports is a metaphor for a tribal war and the athletes are seen as gladiators who are defending the honor of their club, city, and country. In China, sports is entertainment and business. It is a totally different approach.