Yao Ming's ambitious quest to bring China an elite basketball league

One of the world's most breathtaking sights is the nighttime skyline of Shanghai, an electronic garden of architecturally striking towers that seem right out of a Hollywood remake of "The Jetsons." Amazingly, nearly all of these steel-and-glass blades of ambition have sprung up in the past decade, testament to China's capacity to marshal its assets -- and do it quickly -- when the interests of government and the private sector finally align.

Standing on the promenade across the Huangpu River and looking up at the colorful mélange, it's easy to see a bright future for basketball in China.

"That's a neat analogy," said David Shoemaker, CEO of NBA China, the league marketing arm in the world's most populous country. "I've been with NBA China for six years, and even in that time the growth of the game has been quite incredible."

More than 750 million TV viewers watched the NBA in China last year. The NBA is the most-followed sports league on social media in China, with more than 115 million followers combined across all platforms, according to NBA China. And 300 million people now play the game in some form, organized or pickup, according to the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA),

Enter Yao Ming, who plans to heap Miracle-Gro on all that.

Yao, 36, is a Shanghai native, former NBA All-Star and newly inducted Basketball Hall of Famer -- and in February, he was elected president of the CBA. He's now the Adam Silver of the world's second-best-paying league. The first nongovernment official to hold the post, he aims to introduce a host of NBA-style reforms to Chinese hoops, which despite all its fans is an underperforming institution.

Domestically, the 20-team CBA is beset by scores of unprofitable franchises that lack major media and sponsorship revenue and often play in outdated arenas. The home for the Shanghai Sharks, the club Yao has owned since 2009, is a 5,000-seat arena that reminds of a utilitarian, NCAA Division II venue. When Jimmer Fredette, league MVP this year for the Sharks, lights up the place, it's all him -- no assist from Bose-boosted video displays hovering above center court.

The CBA has intense rivalries but no conferences. Officiating is seen as inconsistent at best, corrupt at worst. There's no free agency for Chinese players, who are bound to their clubs. And those clubs struggle to develop youth talent.

This season, NBA opening-night rosters included a record 113 international players from 41 countries. None were from China.

"But if they get it right," Shoemaker said, "the CBA in a few years will be filling NBA-quality buildings in all of the centers of China. Fans will be entertained with a quality basketball product and all the things that we know entertain our fans. There will be a vibrant merchandise business. We also no longer will be talking about Canada having the most NBA players (11). It will be China leading the way."

Growing pains

Diagnosing the ailment is Step 1. In his first news conference as CBA president, Yao was asked to identify the biggest problem facing Chinese basketball, which has long been part of the country's sports smorgasbord but only began to embed itself in the culture in a deep way after Yao's success in the NBA.

"The question reminds me of the year 2004, when our first foreign coach of the national team, Del Harris, asked me the same question," Yao said. "My answer then was, 'There's no biggest problem, because there are problems everywhere.'"

Many of the problems are simply growing pains. The CBA is only two decades old. And while government has invested in outdoor basketball courts across the country as part of health and wellness initiatives, it has yet to create a coherent system of moving youth through the stages of basketball development. Growing and enriching the pipeline are among Yao's responsibilities and reform areas.

"This is what happens in reforms, but every reform has its priority," Yao said. "What we need to do is to find the priority after research, and solve the problem and associated ones to create a virtuous cycle."

A key weapon: profit motive. Yao's rise to the top post with the CBA comes with more sharing of power between the government officials installed by the Communist Party leadership to oversee the sport, and the team owners with skin in the game. Moving forward, the owners will have greater voting power on league decisions and more access to marketing deals. It's a move in the direction of privatizing the CBA, no small step in a country where government unilaterally dictates the conditions under which a business will operate, if at all.

"The media dubbed it a rebellion," said Matt Beyer, an American agent for CBA players.

Yao won, guided by his insight from 10 years as an NBA player.

"He's been most vocal about the need to professionalize the game itself, in terms of the need for a standard set of rules," said Shoemaker, who talks with Yao regularly. "He wants rules that people understand -- a draft for players, more movement [via free agency], rules around salaries and salary caps, things that he as an NBA player had exposure to and now has chance to impart on the league."

None of this will come easily. A March 19 report suggested Yao received pushback from CBA owners on his first set of reported ideas: splitting the league into two conferences, increasing the number of games (CBA teams play just three months, plus playoffs) and restricting the court time of non-Chinese Asian players. The report also stated that he wants to move away from mandating national team participation for players, instead adopting the invitation model used in the United States. Right now, players committed to the national team can disrupt the CBA schedule.

Yao has the full support of Silver and Shoemaker, who have taken the position that what's good for the CBA is good for basketball and thus the NBA.

In 2011, the NBA partnered with the CBA to create a world-class basketball academy in China for young prospects aged 12 to 17. Students live in an on-site dormitory, attend class, and train using NBA-approved methods on eight gleaming courts. Its teams already dominate national competitions. Last year, the NBA extended its reach into the school system, partnering with the Chinese Ministry of Education to pilot a program in 500 schools in 10 provinces in which physical education teachers are given training and curriculum to teach basketball.

The NBA also is underwriting youth basketball leagues for hundreds of teams in Beijing and Shanghai under its youth brand, Junior NBA. The goal is to get kids playing the game in the best development environments, in which creativity and fun are prioritized over training-focused activity. For all the abuses, exploitation and dysfunction in AAU, the basketball system in the U.S. still produces better players than China, where the notion of "let the game be your teacher" runs counter to ideas about manufacturing athletes through drills.

While China has found considerable success in individual sports like diving and gymnastics, the nation has struggled in team sports, including basketball, in which technique matters -- but so do court sense and improvisation.

"They train twice a day and a lot of times they stay at the facility they work out at," Fredette said. "They're there two to three hours in two sessions, dribbling, shooting, not necessarily playing basketball but doing a lot of drill work. That's great to an extent, but you also have to have that playing mixed in so you can get that natural feel when you're on the court of, 'How am I going to use this crossover during a game?' [It's] not just being able to do it while you're standing there."

Said Brian Goorjian, the Sharks' associate head coach: "They are great shooters of the ball and have got great hand-eye coordination. But their ability to communicate on the floor and body-language-wise, and [to] get enjoyment from [playing the game] is something that's been lacking. This is why we bring foreigners here. It's more than just the shooting of the ball and scoring the points. You're teaching them how to play, how to practice, how to get better."

It's why Yao brought Fredette, a colorful scorer, to Shanghai last season.

"Yao, when I spoke with him before the season, he wanted me to not only be just a good player on the court, but he said, 'Off the court, I want you to teach these guys how to be a professional and kind of lead them,'" said Fredette, the 2011 national player of the year in college basketball who since had bounced around the NBA and its D-League.

"When you're in the games, that's serious and you want to play, but at the same time you don't want to be tight. You want to be loose. I think that when you're loose, you play at your best."

Goorjian said Fredette, a former sensation at Brigham Young University, changed the culture of the team, made it more American with high-fives, butt-slaps and laughs. The team responded, going 30-8 and making the playoffs, with Fredette leading the league at 37.6 points per game. Fans responded as well, leading to sellouts of Sharks games before the season ended in March with a first-round playoff loss. Fredette's flair for scoring, and enthusiastic embrace of the local culture, sparked something powerful in China, where he soon was provided a shoe deal and his own commercial.

"It's about having fun and about making an impact," he said.

Fredette, 28, was the right man at the right time, playing for the right owner. If he returns to China next year, it will be with a different boss, as Yao has pledged to sell his ownership of the Sharks to avoid any conflict of interest with his CBA post.

Both the league and its players should have a lot more money to play with, as well. The CBA's media rights deal expired this month: The deal, with Swiss company Infront, was reportedly worth just $500 million over five years, despite up to 50 million Chinese tuning in for regular-season games and 200 million watching the final. Shoemaker predicts that the next deal could compare favorably to the five-year, $1.3 billion agreement in February to carry the Chinese professional soccer league.

The NBA's media arm won't be among the bidders.

"Not our business," Shoemaker said. But later, should Yao push through reforms, don't be surprised to see more NBA-CBA partnerships emerge.

"Short of dramatic advancements in air travel, it's hard to imagine the NBA will be in the position to put franchises in China to compete with teams [in North America]," Shoemaker said. "That's one logistical hurdle I can't see us eclipsing. But what I can see is increased attention around international competitions where [NBA-caliber players] are competing against each other but wearing different uniforms. Could the day come when we have club champions from NBA, China and the EuroLeague playing each other? That's possible."

One look at the Shanghai skyline suggests Yao should not be underestimated.

Tom Farrey is a reporter with ESPN's Enterprise Unit and regular contributor to Outside the Lines. He also serves as executive director of the Aspen Institute's Sports & Society Program.

ESPN feature producer Simon Baumgart contributed to this piece.