Some 150 people have turned out on this Tuesday night to witness the most daring experiment in Chinese basketball history. If the crowd isn't larger, it's only because daring is a relative term: Chinese hoops hasn't exactly been a wellspring of innovation. Or maybe it's because the laboratory for this experiment is a community center gym in the Latino-rich LA suburb of Maywood. This is where the Aoshen Olympians will host the Los Angeles Aftershock in a midseason American Basketball Association game.
The experiment's guinea pigs are members of a Chinese Basketball Association franchise that was airlifted lock, stock and ball rack out of Beijing so it could be trounced in the Las Vegas Summer League's Global Hoops Summit. But these days they are enjoying a little payback in the fledgling ABA.
For anyone even vaguely familiar with the difficulty Wang Zhizhi and Yao Ming faced when they tried to leave China, the thought of an entire team skipping the country is unimaginable. But the Olympians have made no attempt to overplay their exodus. They're just happy to be here, bunking at the Buddhist-oriented University of the West, and hoping to get from their visit just what China's top junior team got from training in Oregon this past winter: better. By playing basketball outside the Chinese system, they're hoping to raise the level of the game inside China. Why now? Because the 2008 Summer Olympics will be in Beijing, and "face" is vital to the Chinese. Oh, and if the mastermind behind this plan actually pulls it off, he'll be celebrated as the godfather of hoops in a nation of 1.3 billion people.
THE MAD scientist intent on being Asia's James Naismith is Aoshen owner Winston Lee, a balding, middle-aged man who, on this January night, sits in the bleachers behind the Olympians' bench. He is surrounded by a bevy of young Asian women who clearly are not hoops fans. Lee's presence would be a little less conspicuous if everyone associated with the team weren't trying so hard to pretend he wasn't there. Or if he weren't circumventing his coach by signaling substitutions to a courtside assistant.
Like most mad-scientist types, Lee is an enigma. He not only swapped his Chinese first name, Su, for Winston, he also Americanized the spelling of his last name, Li. People who should know say he is a real estate magnate in both Beijing and California, but he's never done an interview or permitted himself to be photographed. He keeps such a tight leash on his people that George Pickering, the team's business manager, clams up when asked about Lee's love of basketball. "I don't feel comfortable answering such a personal question," he says.
The team's relocation to the States was set in motion two years ago, when Lee showed his dissatisfaction with the way the national team was being run by refusing to let his star player report. That boycott prompted the Chinese league to suspend Aoshen for the 2004-05 season. Lee barnstormed his team through Taiwan and Europe instead.
Upon its return, he agreed to let the Olympians' top prospect, 6'9" point guard Sun Yue, join the national team. Sun, much improved from playing against the international competition, almost broke into the starting lineup and played a pivotal role for the team in the 2005 East Asian Games.
The Chinese invited the Olympians back the next season, but Lee declined. This time, he tried to buy his way into one of the top European leagues, then tried to talk his way into the NBA's Developmental League. After the beatdown in Vegas, Lee finally found a home for his crew in the ABA. "We're interested in what he's doing," says David Stern. "But we're not interested in a team of one nationality."
Lee, for the most part, is. Besides a few American regulars (mostly in the backcourt; Aoshen is short on ballhandlers), the team is fullon Chinese. Recruited Yanks learn the priorities quickly: 1) facilitate the growth of Chinese players, and 2) win. "They're here to help us to the next level," says general manager Zhang Chang Hong, through an interpreter. "At the start of the season, the Americans were getting 60 to 80 of our points. Now it's a lot less, even though we're scoring the same. The Chinese players are getting better."
That's the spin from the front office in China, anyway, where Lee tracks the team's progress with a Steinbrennerian eye. To keep up with his team's progress, Lee has its home games broadcast on one of China's CCTV networks. At away games, his courtside assistant relays the blow-by-blow over a cell phone. Wherever the game is played, whether he's on-site or not, Lee is not shy about demanding a sub for an American he thinks has played too long or a Chinese player who is disappointing him.
Lee was intrusive even before a 13-game midseason visit in January. On Dec. 29, the Olympians won the first of back-to-back games in Tacoma. But with the SoCal Legends challenging them for first in the Spencer Haywood Division, coach Lashun McDaniel, who traveled the world playing pro ball before starting his coaching career in Italy, was thinking sweep. Trailing by 12 at halftime the next night, McDaniel started three Americans for the third quarter. When he did it again in the fourth, it wasn't long before he felt a tap on his shoulder. Lee's assistant was there to tell him to take out one of the Americans. A few minutes later, she told him to take out another. The Olympians lost. "Mr. Lee is a control freak, for sure," says NBA vet Paul Shirley, who played for Aoshen before quitting after Lee had him benched for missing a shot.
Last fall, Kings assistant Pete Carril, a legend in China for his Princeton offense, coached Aoshen in several exhibitions. He got a load of Lee too. "He had a lot of ideas to share," Carril says. "I told him, 'I hear you own apartment buildings around here. Why don't you go take care of them?' "
Usually, Lee's deep pockets-and his experiment's potential payoff-compensate for his personality. By ABA standards, players on Aoshen (which is "Olympians" in Chinese, making them the Asian equivalent of the Los Angeles Angels) live very well. While the Aftershock wear mismatched T-shirts over unis as they stand in a layup line, the Olympians, in matching warmups, are led through an elaborate stretching routine by two trainers.
Tonight they're wearing white uniforms with yellow-and-red trim, but they have three others, in yellow, red and orange. Players' living expenses are covered, and word is they're paid in cash and at a much higher wage than players on other Chinese teams, at least enough to let them buy new kicks every week. They have their own videographer, a 13-member dance team and live streaming of their games available on their website. A half-dozen banners for sponsors, all Chinese, cover a wall of the gym, and Nike and Adidas reportedly have made low six-figure offers to outfit the team.
In the meantime, Lee is investing his own hardearned yuan in this experiment. Could it really be just for the glory of the motherland? Even if several Aoshen players play prominent roles for Team China, there's every chance it won't be able to improve on its eighth-place finish in Athens.
Ah, but there are other ways for Lee's plan to pay off. NBA scouts believe Sun has first-round draft potential next year, and Aoshen's unique story offers lucrative marketing possibilities in a country where all things Western are hot. If Sun becomes the first Chinese perimeter player in the NBA, he could challenge Yao as the hottest property off the court on both sides of the Pacific. "Lee's a genius or a madman, depending on whom you ask," says Terry Rhoads, a former Nike rep who heads a Shanghai-based sportsmarketing firm. "But he loves his team."
His players love their new digs, missing only the home cooking. "I eat American Chinese food and think about Chinese Chinese food," says Zhang Song Tao, a 7'1", 280-pound center who has recently hit the national team's radar. "Everything else, though, is better, and I'm a better player for it."
While they live in typical college dormroom conditions-their mattresses lie directly on shabby industrial carpet-the players love LA the way only citizens of perpetually smoggy, insanely crowded Beijing could. "Very quiet, good air," says Sun, whose untamed 'do and rail-thin frame have earned him the nickname Q-Tip. "You can rest your body and your mind. This is my dream."
Sun's dream has had occasional nightmarish overtones, thanks to a team brochure that touts him as an NBA prospect. This has made him a target for any ABA guard out to prove Sun is just a novelty. None of them, though, are 6'9" lefties with hops, floor vision, a decent jumper and a 96-inch wingspan. Then again, full-court presses turn Sun into a turnover machine. Shirley believes the kid's NBA future could be as a swingman. "These players have been coddled their entire careers," Shirley says. "They don't have a lot of 'want-to.' This has to be good for them, being exposed to the American game and how fast it is."
Not to mention physical. "In China," Sun says, "I'm the strong, fast guy. Here everybody is stronger and faster. A guy in the street can dunk on you. But I've improved. I think I'm ready."
Almost every NBA team has done a fly-by on Sun, but none has penciled him onto its draft board just yet. Part of the reluctance can be blamed on the high price required to get Sun out of his restrictive contract. "He's an intriguing prospect," says an NBA scout, "but the difficulty in the past of signing Chinese players kills him."
Back at the community center gym, the Aftershock put Sun to the test. Although their press induces most of his nine turnovers, his length is a problem for them at the rim. Sun finishes with a line that would be eye-catching in any league: 12 points, 14 rebounds, 8 blocks, 4 steals, 12 assists and a very un-Chinese 'bow to the ribs of an Aftershock guard. The Olympians win 85-76.
AFTER PRESIDING over a 4—9 run, Lee returns to China. With its owner no longer orchestrating substitutions or barging into the locker room to scream at the players, the team closes the season by winning nine of 12, falling one win short of the ABA's Great Eight Championship playoffs.
"Some of the guys were ready to go home," says McDaniel of a season-ending, two-point loss to the SoCal Legends. "Then in the fourth quarter, you could see it in their eyes: 'Hey, we could win this.' There were clearly some mixed feelings."
The team is currently touring Europe. Then it will compete in the LA Summer Pro League before beginning another stint in the ABA. There was talk of moving to San Francisco for next season, but the story is that Lee spent a day traipsing around Chinatown in the rain before deciding Southern California suited his needs better.
Wherever the team plays next season, the success of this experiment will be determined two years from now in Beijing. Lee can get his lucre back if his Sun eventually rises in the NBA, but a legacy as the master of modern Chinese hoops comes only if Lee's Olympians truly prove to be Aoshen.