Amid all of the increasing import and export business between the U.S. and China, one highly valued American commodity has peaked in recent years: NBA-caliber basketball players. And the interest is mutual.
Now in its 19th season, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) season will tip off next week with its most prized class of Americans. Many have played in the NBA and are still young and talented enough to return to the world's top hoops league.
The groundwork for the popularity of today's CBA was laid in the mid-1990s, under sometimes difficult conditions. Since then, everything from the league's rising salaries to Stephon Marbury to the 2011 NBA lockout to the struggling European economy to the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement have made China the top overseas option for American players.
In the beginning, John Spencer vividly remembers how rough it was in 1996 and '97. He was living in China and playing hoops in the second season of the CBA—the first one to allow foreigners. During training camp in the fall of 1996, the 6'8" Spencer, who was a top international player at the time, recalls having to walk outside in the freezing cold to go to the bathroom and "squatting in the nastiest hell hole you could ever imagine."
Then there was the time he caught the flu and had black soot coming out of his nose—due to the local pollution. The hospital room where he got an X-ray for the problem housed a random Harley-Davidson motorcycle. In his apartment in Chengdu, he couldn't have the heat and washing machine on simultaneously because the building's power would go out.
On the court, Spencer recalls when the team's training staff tried to use cold spray in his eye once after it got scratched. Then there was the time an opposing player chipped his tooth and a dentist in Nanjing bonded both of his front teeth. He had to fly to Hong Kong to have the treatment corrected by a better dentist.
"It looked like I had one big ass tooth in the front of my tooth. I couldn't even spit," Spencer, who's now an NBA agent, told Bleacher Report. "Living in China during that time was miserable. I had diarrhea every day from the food. I went over to China weighing 265 pounds. When I came home, I was 225."
Regardless of the poor conditions, Spencer said the overall experience as an American was overwhelmingly positive. He said everywhere he went, the fans treated him like a celebrity—they even wanted to touch his hair—and called him either Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson or Mike Tyson.
"I could tell you stories and you would pass out, but the thing about basketball in China has less to do with what happened on the court, but the passion of the fans in China," he said. "They appreciate what you bring to the table, and that's why the Americans like going there, because the Chinese fans are so appreciative of what you bring to the game—your passion, your skills, your desire, your hard work. That's what makes the country so special. It's an amazing place."
A Big Boost for Chinese League
Spencer, along with James Hodges, Marlon Kimbrough, Kennard Robinson, Wayman Strickland and Nantambu Willingham, was in the first wave of Americans to play in the CBA—and they were embraced like stars. That was especially true for Spencer and Hodges, who were nicknamed "The Rebound King" and "The Dunk King," respectively.
At the time, that was the kind of fanfare that IMG, the marketing arm of the CBA that had been promoting sporting events in China since the 1970s, was looking to inject into the league.
"They wanted to get NBA players, but there were no NBA players going to China," Spencer said. "I was the closest thing in 1996 that had seen an NBA court."
"Bringing (the Americans) in was something that we negotiated with the CBA to add pizzazz, add a fun factor," said Dana Magenau, then head of sales for IMG. "Nobody was dunking in the league in the first season until we brought in some American kids. It was really to spice up the game, to improve the quality of the game. They also brought a more physical game. The Chinese were very good at shooting three-pointers and stuff like that, but they didn't have a particularly good game inside the paint, and they weren't flashy."
Spencer and Hodges, the main American standouts, initially didn't want to return for the 1997-98 season—but former IMG executive Richard Avory, known as "the grandfather of Chinese basketball," really wanted them back.
In response to that desire, Spencer said that he and Hodges changed the financial landscape for Americans, leading more to come to China.
"(Avory) said, 'Name your price,' and that was it," Spencer said. "I went from $12,000 a month in my first season to $30,000 in my second. We made (the league) pay us to come back, handsomely. Some of my Chinese teammates were only making $200 per month."
Hodges added: "We were pioneers. We turned a bad into a good over there. It was hard at first, but we made it happen. We made the platform for China basketball."
It was that big money that got more American players' attention, such as Chris Andersen. The current Miami Heat player signed with the CBA in 1999.
"He went to China because he needed to help his family financially, and he believed that it was the quickest way into the NBA," said Andersen's former high school coach and mentor, Rob Stewart. "He has always said that the experience was a good one. He enjoyed the people and the culture."
The CBA also picked up steam in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the emergence of Chinese stars Mengke Bateer, Adi Jiang, Yao Ming, Hu Weidong and Wang Zhizhi. During that time, Donnie Nelson and Ross Perot Jr., who were involved with the Dallas Mavericks, came over to scout. NBA commissioner David Stern also made a trip to check out the CBA as the NBA's China office was expanding.
In 2001, the same year that Wang and Mengke joined the NBA—Yao arrived the following year—the CBA landed its first prize player, New York City streetball legend God Shammgod, who had played for the Washington Wizards from 1997-99.
Becoming a Trend
Over the years, as the salaries and living conditions improved, more and more Americans traveled to China—including notable NBA veterans Ike Austin, Scott Burrell, Lamond Murray, Mark Strickland and Roy Tarpley.
The Americans were put up in nicer apartments or five-star hotels, and transportation was sometimes provided. (Most of the Chinese players, on the other hand, lived in dorms and commuted themselves.) Then after the 2008 Summer Olympics, China's restaurant and shopping options became more inviting to Americans.
While the CBA is run by the government's Chinese Basketball Federation (CBF), team owners operate independently, and they have opened their pockets to Americans. That was especially the case in 2010 with the first million-dollar signings of Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury, who saw an opportunity to change the game in China.
Liu Zhengning, an editor from China's People’s Daily newspaper, wrote, "The CBA has become the NBA’s backyard," an image enhanced by Marbury.
"I had envisioned coming to play basketball here," Marbury said over the phone from China last week. "It was something that I thought about...as far as the game and my brand (Starbury) growing. A lot of people said I was crazy, I was just talking. But this is a viable market where people will come here to play basketball.
"Basketball is changing globally as we know, and China is the biggest market in the world with over 300 million-plus people that are registered to play basketball in a population of 1.3 billion-plus people, and growing. The market is beyond crazy."
While Marbury said he believed more elite Americans would eventually come to China, he didn't think it would happen just a year later in the fall of 2011. It did, because of the NBA lockout.
That year, Aaron Books, Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith took their talents to China. While the competition was intriguing, it was the money—between $1 and $3 million tax-free, according to NBA agents Dan Curtin and Jeremiah Haylett—that was too good to pass up. And there were perks: Some had a personal chef, driver or assistant for guidance around the country.
"It was different at first, but it was good. I got to see a lot of cool things," said Chandler, who said he would consider playing in China again after his NBA career is over. "The first city I went to was Beijing. I saw the Forbidden City, the Great Wall. I spent a lot of time in Shanghai also. I had a good translator, and I was well taken care of as far as getting around the city seeing things and talking to the coaches. The whole team, the owner and general manager made sure I was doing well."
Matt Beyer, China's first foreign sports agent given a government license, said the lockout was a "big game-changer for the CBA."
"The CBA spent money, and it was really exciting," he said. "It drove ratings up in the lockout year, and CCTV ratings took over those of the NBA. It really made people take the league seriously who previously I think kind of regarded it as kind of a joke."
Arenas, McGrady in the Mix
Then in 2012, Gilbert Arenas and Tracy McGrady signed with the CBA. One of the most significant aspects of their stay was their commitment to instructing their teammates and the country's younger players. Each CBA team has two to three junior squads, for ages 13 to 18, that serve as a feeder system.
"Not only are the foreign players improving the game action, but they're also inspiring and teaching the Chinese players," said Terry Rhoads, once Nike’s first sports marketing employee in China and now the head of the local ZOU marketing agency.
"For example, when Gil Arenas played on the Shanghai Sharks team last year," Rhoads said, "he was immediately embraced by his Chinese teammate because his attitude was 'I'm here to help you guys in any way that I can.' It was a common sight to see Gil pull aside a young player and give him a tip on how to lose a defender on the dribble, or how to better play the pick-and-roll."
This season, the CBA has its biggest and most talented American roster across the board, for one because the league added an 18th team, the Sichuan Blue Whales. In addition to Marbury, who recently signed a three-year deal with the Beijing Ducks, the top imports include Earl Barron, Bobby Brown, Donte Greene, Hamed Haddadi, Ivan Johnson, Darius Johnson-Odom, Johan Petro, Shavlik Randolph, Josh Selby, Sebastian Telfair (Marbury's cousin), Von Wafer, Delonte West and Shelden Williams.
They're all earning between high six figures and $2 million net this season, according to Curtin and Haylett. For the other lesser-known players, the minimum pay is around $350,000 net.
"(The CBA) is getting bigger every year," Brown said before he left for China. "I was keeping up with it when I was in Europe. My boy Pooh Jeter played in it last year, and he said it's better, the market is great, basketball is great, the money is good—and you get to come home earlier than Europe."
Increasingly Attractive Alternative
The salary and the early return to the U.S. are key reasons why the CBA has emerged as the hottest foreign destination for Americans. While nine out of 10 American players would rather live and play in Europe because of the lifestyle and linguistic flexibility, according to Curtin, because the European financial climate has gotten worse due to the suffering global economy in the past five years, it subsequently affected the basketball market.
There were situations in Europe where sponsors dropped off and teams' payrolls became a mess. According to Curtin, only a few European clubs are still doing well, such as Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and CSKA Moscow. In China, however, most of the CBA teams pay, and pay on time. There's also no salary cap in effect.
The CBA has also become a bigger attraction in NBA circles because in the new collective bargaining agreement, ratified in December 2011, lower salaries for most players became the norm. With the veteran's minimum and mini mid-level exception of $3.18 million arguably becoming the two most demanding and competitive salary levels this past offseason, NBA opportunities grew thinner. And the closest rival contracts were in the CBA.
Then there's the luxury of the CBA season's length, which goes from November to mid-February. Unlike European leagues that run from the fall to usually April, the CBA enables Americans to return to the NBA in the same season for a prorated minimum deal, or showcase their skills in the D-League to get called up.
"For an NBA guy on the borderline, China can be really attractive," Curtin said. "You're making potentially more money, and then you're also able to come back and double dip and play in the NBA, and still keep your name fresh in peoples' memories."
Haylett said aside from the NBA, "everybody wants to go to China" and that "most guys leave the country happy." He's already planning an NBA return strategy for one of his top clients, Ivan Johnson, who played for the Atlanta Hawks last season and is now with the Zhejiang Golden Bulls.
"I've started to consider it," Haylett said, "especially with the injuries that are going around the league already, and looking at the big guys that have nagging injuries. I'm keeping my finger on the pulse in the market."
Staying in NBA Shape
There's a third incentive for Americans. While there's typically one game per week in FIBA leagues, the CBA season features games three times per week, which is more in line with an NBA schedule. So for any player closing in on an NBA deal in February, they're more physically and mentally prepared for the transition back to the States. Also, their progression is widely available for international scouts to watch on CCTV-5, which reaches 900 million viewers.
Additionally, Curtin and Haylett said former NBA coaches and front-office personnel are becoming more prevalent in the CBA, because of the lucrative salaries and opportunities to develop the local talent. They've observed the CBA's profile growing as the NBA and major sports brands, such as Nike and Adidas, continue to expand their outreach efforts in China. Just two weeks ago, the NBA had arguably its biggest presence in the country to date with the league's preseason Global Games.
That increase of Americans working as front-office consultants has made negotiating player contracts with CBA teams an overall seamless process.
"In contrast with other places, China is one of the easier ones to deal with when it comes to payments on time and communicating," Haylett said. "China is relatively more accommodating."
There is a limit to how many imports can be on each CBA team, in addition to the 16 Chinese players: They can have two import players who are American or European. The five teams with the worst records from the previous season can have a third import player from the FIBA Asia region. While that third import is not limited on playing time, the main two imports can combine for only six quarters in a game.
Overall, there are 30-plus American imports playing in the CBA this season, and there are still about three total roster openings, according to Beyer. There should be plenty of interest from U.S. agents in filling those spots. Just on Monday, after Josh Powell was waived by the New York Knicks, his agent, Jamie Knox, said the "preference would be China," as he looks for his client's next opportunity. (Since this story's release, Powell and Khalif Wyatt both signed with Guangdong Hongyuan.)
The Chinese are also specific about the types of American players they want: A scoring wing and a rebounding big who has a good mid-range game, as the CBA is an uptempo league with lots of three-pointers. In this system, the Americans tend to be the top scorers, and some receive financial incentives for being points leaders, according to Spencer.
"They want guys who score a lot," said Beyer, who has worked with a couple of American agents to place their players into the CBA. "The Chinese players are not going to provide all the necessary scoring. Like on certain teams, the import will be required to score 60 percent of the team's points."
Beyer said while some Chinese fans would like to see more imports, there are many others who would prefer more higher-caliber local players. The last Chinese player to make a splash in the NBA was Yao, who retired in July 2011.
Perhaps that would change if the CBF, the government body that runs the CBA as a state-owned enterprise (SOE), would help each team more with its development. They've been more focused on league-wide sponsorship, according to Beyer and Rhoads.
A Work in Progress
Ever since the CBA's inception in 1995, the CBF has always made money off the league through sponsorship deals. CBA teams can't generate free-market income and are completely dependent upon sponsorship dollars, which are dictated by the government. This season, nearly 20 companies are associated with the CBA, such as Nike, UPS, TCL, Tsingtao Beer, Konica Minolta and Li Ning, which signed on last year as the league's official apparel and footwear provider for five years at $350 million, according to Rhoads.
But only one team, Guangdong Hongyuan, is "mildly profitable," according to Beyer, based on "good ticket sales and strong sponsorship." He said all of the teams, which are either owned by a tycoon or government-owned company, need help on and off the court.
"Sports is heavily run by the government, but (the CBF) needs to innovate and adjust based on 2013 conditions, and sometimes that's hard to do because people and organizations get set in their ways. The CBA tries to run itself as a business and as a government entity," Beyer said. "(The CBF) needs to work with the clubs more closely to help them realize profits from marketing, merchandising, apparel, etc. because the current system has them all operating at a loss. Also, (the CBF) needs to encourage more grassroots development of talent outside of the traditional club incubator system."
Rhoads offered similar sentiments. Back in 2004, he was actually part of a group of sports marketers, media members and senior sports officials who came together for a six-month research assignment called the North Star Project. The objective was to examine the nine-year-old CBA and come up with a new blueprint strategy to help the league become more efficient, consumer-driven, market-orientated and financially profitable.
The idea that was discussed predominantly was taking the government-owned CBA and use a new business model like Major League Soccer (MLS) to completely release the CBA to free-market forces. That would allow for, according to Rhoads, "real salary transparency and better control of operation costs"—and every franchise would become privately owned. While the concept has never been implemented, Rhoads is hopeful.
"I'm not sure how many years away, but it will happen," Rhoads said. "For the CBA to realize its full potential as a business entity and for the league to really help propel forward China basketball by producing great players, it will need to have more independence from government control. The MLS model makes great sense because it would allow the basketball federation to maintain an ownership stake and have a voice in the development of the league, and realize there's more money than it could ever make."
If that happens in the future, how might the global basketball landscape be different for Americans? While the European financial recovery is definitely something to monitor, Spencer and Haylett have visions for some other emerging markets that could have their own kind of CBA one day.
"India," Spencer said. "They don't have a main league, and they're trying to build an infrastructure right now."
"There's a couple to watch out for," Haylett said. "The Philippines, of course. The fans are just diehard over there, and the good thing about the Philippines like Korea or the NBL in Japan, the Philippines are backed by corporations, so it's run very professionally, paid on time. Lebanon is another one, spending money and getting some quality guys. And then there's Venezuela and Mexico."
But no league outside of the NBA can match the momentum of the CBA right now. And just think, one of the players in China's premier basketball league might be on an NBA team next spring, helping it push toward a playoff berth. That's one of the many reasons why the CBA has put everyone in the industry on notice.