|Monday, May 13
Updated: May 14, 4:16 PM ET
Coming to America -- and an arena near you
By Jim Caple
An interesting thing happened in Chicago earlier this month. Just about everybody who is anybody in the NBA -- from Jerry West to Pat Riley -- showed up at a college gymnasium in Chicago to watch a 22-year-old Chinese man play basketball. Scouts, general managers and owners representing at least 24 teams looked at his 7-foot-5 frame. They watched him shoot jumpers, sink three-pointers, pass the ball and drive to the hoop against Oregon's Chris Christofferson.
Yao will not be the first Chinese player in the NBA -- Dallas Mavericks forward Wang Zhi Zhi was the first last year and Denver Nuggets center Mengke Bateer joined him this season -- but then again, the Beatles weren't the first English band to play in the United States, either.
His workout drew enough reporters to cover a Hollywood murder trial. He already has a contract with Nike. He has been on the cover of ESPN the Magazine. Just think of the attention he'll receive once he actually sinks a basket in the NBA. Especially if he winds up in the Bay Area or New York, what with their large Chinese-American population.
You can practically hear executives sighing as they dream of a Ming Dynasty.
"This isn't just a big story for the NBA," West told reporters after watching Yao's workout, "it's a big story about the direction the NBA is taking."
It's a direction baseball took seven years ago when Hideo Nomo left Japan and sparked Nomo-mania in Los Angeles and throughout the majors. The second Japanese player in big league history (reliever Masanori Murakami pitched parts of two seasons for the San Francisco Giants in the mid-60s), Nomo was the 1995 National League rookie of the year and ushered in an immigration tsunami. When this baseball season opened, there were as many Japanese players (11) in the major leagues as there were Canadians, including last year's American League MVP, Ichiro Suzuki.
And baseball isn't just turning Japanese. There are four Koreans in the majors and several Taiwanese players in the high minors. And Cincinnati reliever Danny Graves was born in Saigon in the final days of the Vietnam War but grew up in the United States.
Dodgers pitching coach Jim Colburn was the Seattle Mariners' Pacific Rim scouting director for five years, helping the team sign Suzuki just before Colburn joined Los Angeles. When Colburn began scouting Japan, he had competition from perhaps five other major-league scouts. Now there are around 20 and he predicts that we've seen only the beginning of the Asian influence, particularly from Japan.
"I was in Japan for four years as a coach," Colburn said. "At the time I saw a lot of players who could be in the major leagues. But when I asked whether they would like to go play in the majors, they were afraid. They were afraid of the power, size and the image of Americans. Little by little though, that fear is being taken away. A lot more major-league players will come through Japan's professional ranks unless they impose some rule to slow it up."
This recent surge of Asian talent isn't surprising. We've seen Europeans in basketball and hockey for years. So when looking for athletic talent on the baseball field, why not look to the largest and most populous continent on earth?
"Asia is going to be the next Europe. It's up and coming," said Tony Ronzone, an international scout with the Detroit Pistons who played a key role in getting Zhi Zhi to the NBA when he was with the Dallas Mavericks. "I stayed in China about five months with the whole Zhi Zhi deal. It's unbelievable there. I found 20 7-footers between the ages of 13-20. In China there are 200 million registered basketball players. You look at the way the game is going and with those numbers, eventually it's bound to kick in."
Land of the rising players
In other words, the $27 million or so Seattle paid for Suzuki was a relative bargain. Not only did he win the batting title, a Gold Glove and the American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards, he also was the leading vote-getter for the All-Star Game. He was so popular here and in Japan that his naked photo reportedly was worth $2 million and his bobblehead doll was more coveted than Microsoft stock options. Japanese tourists stop their buses outside Safeco Field just to take photos standing next to the 6-foot poster of him on the wall.
No wonder the Mariners added a third Japanese player to the roster this season. Veteran reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa joins closer Kazu Sasaki in the bullpen. "This was my dream when I first came here," Hasegawa said, pointing to his Japanese teammates. "My first year, I was so alone. Nobody could talk to me. I dreamed about having another player to talk to."
Said Colburn: "A team like the Mariners would be missing something if they didn't scout Asia. The Giants, Oakland, all the west coast teams -- it adds a certain spice to a team because of the fans in the area. You have large Asian populations and those cities are doorways to Asia. That's part of the reason I pushed the Mariners to have a Pacific Rim scout, because I thought it would be a perfect fit for Seattle. Even if Kansas City had three Japanese players I doubt if they would have the same sort of impact.
"And having talked to Japanese players, they want a place that is a little like home. At least initially. As the numbers get bigger, it won't be that big a deal."
Obviously, signing players under those conditions is a little more difficult than signing a kid from Nebraska. But at least Scott Boras isn't involved. Yet.
"It's sort of a haphazard set of landmines facing a scout," Colburn said. "If they ever got it organized like Japan, I think there would be a rush of players over here, more like what happens with players from Latin America."
Colburn and Hide Sueyoshi, Seattle's assistant director for international scouting, say they believe China is the next talent pool and the majors will begin feeling its impact in a decade. The country just opened a professional baseball league and the Mariners signed a Chinese prospect last summer. "China has the history that once they sink their teeth into sport, they go nuts," Colburn said.
Both Jim Kelly, player personnel director for the Toronto Raptors, and Donnie Nelson, assistant coach and player personnel director for the Dallas Mavericks, have extensive travels in Asia. They say there aren't that many more Chinese players near the NBA talent level. "The three here (including Yao) are not the exception," Kelly said, "but they're more like the cream of the crop. Wang Zhi Zhi is a talented player but he is a role player."
Nelson says we'll be lucky to see two or three more Chinese players reach the NBA in the next five years. "It's not like they'll take the league by storm."
There are a couple things against it. Signing a player can be as difficult as defending Phil Jackson's triangle offense -- it took Yao two years to come here and it's still not guaranteed. Once signed by an NBA team, half his contract will go the Chinese government. Secondly, while there are a billion people in China and while many are tall, particularly in the China's northern regions, Nelson says there still is a limited number of players big enough and talented enough to bump and grind in the NBA. Apparently, even Yao is going to take his lumps for a long while.
"The guys who will be given opportunities will be tall and talented. In the NBA, it's a game of height. Bigger is better," Nelson said. "We're not going to see a lot of guards from China because we already have that caliber of player here. Look at the CBA. We're up to our gills in that player.
"But every NBA team has a thirst and desire to get tall, talented players."
The important thing though, Lyons says, is not the number of Chinese players who immediately come to America, but "the number of kids who pick up a basketball who never would before."
Just as Detlef Schrempf led to Dirk Nowitski in Germany and other Europeans helped create a surge in popularity in countries from Lithuania to Croatia, the NBA hopes Yao will do the same for China.
"These three, the Great Wall, will pave the way for future players," Nelson said. "They'll see themselves as having a real chance. Whatever groundwork has been laid by Zhi Zhi and Bateer, it will go to another stratosphere with Yao."
Nelson, like Colburn, notes how China can make a sport grow fast when it pours its resources in. If the Chinese government makes a commitment to develop its basketball program, could that lead to a greater -- and swifter -- impact?
"It could be, because it's a very image-oriented sports society," Kelly said. "They always watch what is important in the world of sport. But if you go to a Chinese game there aren't many fans there. And China hasn't really dominated outside its region. Maybe Yao will spur something, and I hope so, because they have the numbers."
While Ronzone says China could be the next Europe, he acknowledges that the big question is whether the country can sustain the progress it has made. But after helping coach the national team last spring and delivering coaching clinics throughout the country, he's confident China will.
"I've been all through China. The Mongolian border. Places you can't fly in," he said. "I've combed that country and they're playing basketball everywhere.
"I just see that with these three guys in the NBA, guys will work even harder at their dreams."
What about the trade deficit?
This is already a major concern in Japan, where there are indications fans are losing interest in their own game with the departure of so many stars. TV ratings dropped considerably last year when Suzuki left and his former team is one of several with attendance problems. The day Suzuki made his debut with the Mariners, the Orix Blue Wave drew about 800 fans. Resentment exists among fans who complain there is no one left in Japan worth voting for on their All-Star ballots.
Just imagine if Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Mariano Rivera and Sammy Sosa left for Japan, with Barry Bonds packing his bags.
"It threatens them," Colburn said. "If you take the best players out of each league the popularity diminishes immensely. I don't know what the solution is. Maybe having a major-league team in Japan."
So as excited as Japanese fans are about the emergence of their players here, is it a good thing for their sport in the long run?
Sueyoshi is a Japan native who worked for the Blue Wave prior to joining the Mariners four years ago. He hopes the immigration will have a positive effect in his native country.
"The short-term impact may lead to lower attendance and TV ratings for Japanese games," Sueyoshi said. "But in the long term, they may come back as coaches or managers, or even as players, and they'll bring something back to Japanese baseball.
"Plus, young kids and teenagers will have more interest in Major League Baseball because this is the highest level, and in the long term, I hope that has a positive effect. Our hope is that kids in Japan will become more interested in baseball by watching Ichiro and Shinjo. That will be more important than whether more professional Japanese players show interest in Major League Baseball."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com