Unexpectedly called to duty, former NBA all-star, Steve Francis, made his debut in China's local basketball league, the CBA, with ice packs still taped to his ankles.
While Congress has worked hard in recent years to compel China to increase imports of American goods, the U.S. has been extremely successful in exporting at least one product to the mainland: NBA-proven talent.
In recent years, American players have started to arrive in droves to the mainland to play in its commercial basketball league, the China Basketball Association (CBA). Established in 1995, this local league of now 17 teams across China doesn’t generate nearly as much interest and excitement as their imported American compatriots from the NBA.
However, as basketball has taken root in schools and public courts throughout China, the CBA has increasingly found a receptive audience. As viewer numbers – 436 million last year – and advertising dollars have increased, so have team budgets and consequently a desire to sign foreign players to increase the talent pool.
That interest paved the way for a relaxation earlier this year of the $60,000 monthly cap on salaries for foreign players, a move that league organizers hope will improve the quality of the game in China and generate a buzz amongst a Chinese audience that is already extremely well informed about NBA rosters.
Enticing market conditions including attractive promotional opportunities – many former and current NBA players have signed lucrative shoe contracts with Chinese shoe companies – has undoubtedly caught the attention of a slew of former and current NBA players.
To be sure, before the salary restrictions were lifted, for much of this decade there has been a steadily growing flow of former NBA players signing up to play in the CBA.
However, over the past two years, the transaction wire on popular American sports websites have shown a noticeable up tick in American players forgoing NBA contracts in favor of the relative unknown of China.
This tide is underscored by the 2010 class of American free agents, which is headlined by the return of former NBA all-star Stephon Marbury for a second season in the CBA (Foshan Dralions).
Joining him in China this year will be another former NBA all-star, Steve Francis (Beijing Ducks), a former NBA dunk champion, Fred Jones (Guangdong Tigers) and former NBA first-round draft pick, Josh Boone (Zhejiang Cyclones).
Even before the arrival of these more heralded NBA implants to the CBA though, American players have been making their mark, often to the dismay of some Chinese league organizers.
In particular, the superior talent and experience of the American players have allowed them to dominate the league, leading to skewered scoring statistics like this one: Out of the top ten scorers of the CBA last season, nine out of the ten were American players.
The only Chinese player to crack the top ten? Former NBA player, Wang Zhizhi.
The threat of these players stunting the development of local homegrown Chinese players was the onus behind regulations enacted that limited CBA rosters to just two foreign players per team and a rule passed just last year that required teams to play only one foreign player for the first three quarters. After that, both imported players from each team would be allowed to play together.
Regardless of the restrictions, the recent arrival of so many foreign players (at last count around 14) with such a broad range of experience from the NBA – from all-stars to fringe players – only spices up what has been in the past a very drab league that even locals derided for its poor play.
The strong, if not outrageously outlandish, personalities alone of some of these American players should ensure a measure of publicity this league has never seen.
From Marbury’s always entertaining twitter proclamations to the hilarious story coming out last week of Steve Francis’ unexpected debut with icepacks strapped to his calves virtually guarantees that the Chinese Basketball Association will be a mainstay here on Behind the Wall for quite some time.