Yi Jianlian: The First 31 Weeks

The All-Star votes are in, and to nobody's surprise, there aren’t any Bucks in the Eastern Conference starting lineup. The starters are Jason Kidd, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, and Dwight Howard. That’s a pretty formidable group, and when Kidd and Wade are the most questionable picks of the bunch, you know the fans could, and have done much worse. Garnett led everyone with 2,399,148 votes. Given his superb play and Boston’s rabid fan base, it follows that millions of people left-clicked and hole-punched the Big Ticket all the way to Big Easy.

One of the biggest stories of fan voting was Allen Iverson’s narrow, come-from-behind win to secure the second guard spot out west. Regardless of the fact that Chris Paul and Steve Nash should have been fighting for the other spot, it was Tracy McGrady who was in line to start following the fourth returns. McGrady, however, probably wasn't too upset upon hearing about losing his lead in the final quarter mile of balloting. If you recall, McGrady attempted a rarely-used strategy in elections, the anti-campaign.

"Right now, I think I might have to pass on that," McGrady said. "I'll attend, but I don't think I can play."  

Apparently, it's easier to get people to not vote for you than get people to vote for you. We know this now because voters cooperatively stopped choosing McGrady so frequently, and Chris Bosh still came up over a million votes shy of starting despite his best self-promotional effort, which aimed to show his, umm, versatility.

Lost in McGrady's recent attempt to cancel any potential trips to New Orleans was his almost year-long uneasiness about going to the Big Easy for All-Star weekend. McGrady expressed worries about player safety in New Orleans almost a year ago in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. McGrady's two reasons for skipping out, safety and admitted unworthiness, are actually pretty commendable.

Nonetheless, the real question is: why did someone that didn't want to play in the game and didn't even deserve to start anyway because there were better options, need to plead with voters not to vote for him in order to narrowly miss the cut? The obvious answer is...

(Geography/About.com)

I shouldn't really need to fill in the blank, but the correct answer is China. More specifically, Chinese teammate and NBA and international superstar, Yao Ming. Yao has been voted in as a starter all seven seasons in the NBA, even his rookie season in 2003 during Shaquille O'Neal's prime. In 2005, Yao received the greatest number of All-Star votes ever: 2,558,278. Granted, McGrady was a fan favorite and All-Star before arriving in Houston, but it certainly helps playing on China's favorite team. Just ask Shane Battier, who last year finished fifth among Western Conference forwards, directly ahead Shawn Marion, Lamar Odom, Josh Howard, Pau Gasol, and Carlos Boozer. This year, Battier wasn't the only Rocket forward to amass more votes than Howard, as rookie Luis Scola finished eighth among forwards.

When the Bucks chose Chinese sensation Yi Jianlian with the sixth overall pick in last June's draft, reaction ranged from thrilled to flabbergasted. After all, Yi wasn't interested in working out for the Bucks prior to the draft, and few had seen the youngster play.

It didn't take long for conversation to shift from the 7'0" rookie's play on the court to his massive commercial appeal and potential off the court. It's no secret that Milwaukee isn't the gigantic, bustling metropolitan area of New York City or Chicago. With Yi in the fold, one of the NBA's smallest markets was instantly provided with international intrigue. Yi, we came to learn, was being crowned as the next generation of Chinese basketball, a hip favorite among the large, young legion of fans in his native country.

"Yao is more traditional Chinese people, and Yi is more like some kind of young power," Wang said. "Also, they have different fans.

"People in their 30s or 40s like Yao. Yi was loved mostly by the young people. He looks so cool there. When he came out in the airport in the U.S. (on his arrival in Chicago), he was wearing sunglasses and he hardly looked tired."

We know today that the Bucks made a wise basketball choice by selecting Yi, whose performance on the court has consistently rated him as one of the top handful of rookies. However, the Bucks' brass, led by owner and savvy businessman Herb Kohl, surely was aware of their newest investment's off-the-court potential. Most obviously, matchups pitting Yi Jianlian against Yao Ming would bring huge media exposure to the franchise. Yao Ming and the Rockets come to the Bradley Center this Saturday, February 2; the first time they squared off, hundreds of millions tuned in.

Even more attractive than the big television ratings are the economic possibilities which the Yi/Bucks marriage enables. The world's largest economy, the United States, will continue in the coming decades to make many crucial investments and business deals with the world's fastest growing economy, China. With dozens of Bucks games suddenly being broadcast in China, the Bradley Center now represents a unique stage for Chinese and American businesses alike to advertise their wares. The Bucks, with a captive audience of millions of passionate Chinese basketball fans with an insatiable appetite for updates about their basketball golden boy, are set to financially capitalize on this dynamic. While revenue sharing means the Bucks don't directly benefit from things like Yi jersey sales, they've already signed a four year deal with Peak, the Chinese athletic apparel company whose ads have been showing up on the BC scorer's table since November. But Wisconsin businesses like Rockwell Automation are also keen on getting in on the action:

Rockwell's ads, displayed in waist-high Chinese characters, are jarring enough to make local fans wonder where in the world the Bucks are playing. After all, the ads are directed at sports bars in Shanghai and factory dormitories in Guangdong.

The Bucks charge sums into six figures for what amounts to at least one cumulative minute of exposure to some 150 million Chinese per game.

"We're doing this solely to target our Chinese customers," said Rockwell spokesman John Bernaden.

These economic maneuverings are an inevitability when you link two nations that are contemporarily synonymous with capitalism; one as recent history's torch bearer, the other trying to ride a new, tidal-like wave. The Bucks aren't likely to ever accumulate the resources or attention of the Lakers, Bulls, or Knicks. And as the latter example proves, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Still, there is plenty of room to grow, and with Yi on board, plenty of well-founded optimism that the Bucks will fulfill that potential. Ideally, Yi's progression into global phenomenon will be outdone only by his improvements as a basketball player. Although this month has been the most trying on the court for Yi, his season averages are indicative of a player with a bright future.

Thus, even at 18-29 and with a first-round date with the Celtics or Pistons as this year's realistic best-case scenario, Milwaukee's basketball future still has promise. After all, while the Bucks were seemingly betrayed by NBA lottery ping pong balls, they would be hard-pressed today to wish they had landed another player than what they got with the number six selection.

However, the Bucks must be careful not to treat their prized possession as little more than an asset, dollar bill, or valuable chip in their hands. Yi is a basketball player by trade, but he's also a person. Unlike most of us though, he's making a living half a world away from the comforts of home. His businesslike demeanor on the court occasionally gives way to a smile, and he is quick to give a helping hand to a teammate in need. Though his handlers' preference to keep Yi away from Milwaukee pre-draft was well-documented, Yi has been a model citizen since arriving in Milwaukee. Ask anyone who follows the Bucks closely, and they'll tell you how unselfish and hardworking he is. Despite winning a starting spot in preseason, Yi has attempted more than 11 shots in a game just once this month. On a team full of hot streaks, cold streaks, and question marks, the consensus is that Yi, while predictably plagued by occasional inconsistency as with all rookies, is a solid keeper.

The short-term benefits of the Yi era are difficult to gauge. The Bucks seem destined to hang around the crowded bottom of the playoff picture in the East this season. You wouldn't confuse a crowd at the Bradley Center with one at Air Canada Centre or Oracle Arena, but attendance isn't bad either, given the team's mediocre play and the relative size of the Milwaukee market. And many of the Bucks' newest fans live half a world away.

Attempting to cater to the cadre of new Bucks fans, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently unveiled a Chinese-language web site dedicated to the rookie power forward called YisWorld.com. The translations and multimedia allow fans thousands of miles away intimate glimpses into Yi's first-year progression. It's a generous service, but we don't recall Damir Markota experiencing a Croatian equivalent. Just as the Bucks' businessmen in suits and suites anticipate Yi's unique value, so too do the media, which have seen an influx of Chinese reporters join the ranks of Bucks beat writers.

The Bucks' fan base is undeniably growing, and with the bulk of the new followers living overseas, it follows that we haven't witnessed a sharp increase in game attendance. One way we can attempt to measure new Bucks fans is All-Star voting. Despite not appearing on the ballot, Yi racked up a handsome amount of votes. In all, Yi found his way onto 450,515 ballots, each and every one of them write-ins. That is representative of a pretty intense and substantial new group of Bucks fans.

Or is it?

Curiously, Yi's teammates didn't ride any noticeable wave of popularity. In fact, Michael Redd's 375,243 votes barely eclipsed last year's total of 351,277. For those scoring at home, that's a 6.3 % spike. On one hand, among top ten vote-getting guards in the conference, that's the biggest increase. On the other hand, we can pretty safely assume that 426,549 Yi voters didn't choose Redd on the same ballot. Surely some Yi voters this year picked Redd last year, but the fact remains: hundreds of thousands of Yi voters made the effort to write-in their favorite player, and proceeded to pass over the Bucks best player in favor of Dwyane Wade, Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, Gilbert Arenas, and others.

In some ways, they should be commended for that; it's no surprise that Chinese fans have evolved into more informed NBA fans since Yao arrived six years ago. Although early in the year he was making a great case, Redd obviously didn't deserve to start in this year's All-Star game. Still, that hasn't stopped the aforementioned Shane Battier and Luis Scola from accumulating obscene amounts of voter support. The lesson here is that the Bucks have a long way to go before truly securing any substantial basketball fan market in Yi's native country. If the All-Star voting results are a trusted measurement, China is bursting with Yi fans, but the country is still lukewarm on the Bucks. We'll get a better indication next year, when Yi's name is likely to appear on the ballot, and Bucks votes will inevitably go up.  

We might not ever know exactly how old Yi is; we are quite sure however that he's Yao Ming's junior. But unless another sensational Chinese basketball player emerges in the next few years, which is a possibility, Yi will represent the ultimate in NBA China for some time. Count the Rockets' gigantically talented center among the believers after the two squared off the first time in the NBA.

"You ask me how good he can be? I can't say that. But I think he'll be better than me."

One factor will ultimately and rightfully prove salient in determining the Bucks' popularity in China: winning. Of last year's top ten selling NBA jerseys in China, only one player sported a losing record on the court, Kevin Garnett. With no natural geographic incentive to cheer for any particular team, new Chinese NBA fans have their pick of 30 teams, and why wait around for the lottery every year if you don't have to?

To the Bucks, success means more, more, and more: revenue, fans, and above all, wins. The first 31 weeks of Yi has taught us one important lesson: these ideals are perhaps one long, tantalizing, and attainable reach away.

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