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News » China's hoop dreams are souring 2009-07-25

China's hoop dreams are souring 2009-07-25

China's hoop dreams are souring 2009-07-25
With its huge population, China seems a financial promised land for the National Basketball Association and its stars.

The N.B.A . has established a robust commercial organization in China valued at $2 billion. And for players, there is the prospect of lucrative endorsement deals.

But the Basketball boom has not solved the problems of China's own professional league, the Chinese Basketball Association. Last month, the league announced that it lost $17 million in its last season, which ended in May.

American players and agents describe broken contracts, unpaid wages, suspicions of game-fixing and rising resentment toward foreign players. Several players have left China after failing to receive paychecks.

Players and coaches in the C.B.A. said some problems escalated last season after the league loosened salary and court-time restrictions on foreign players. Those moves were part of an effort to heighten the game's appeal to China's growing N.B.A fan base and to bring in more lucrative sponsorship deals. The association also hoped the imported players would help raise the overall quality of play and bolster China's prospects of fielding a competitive team at the 2012 Olympics.

The efforts yielded conflicting results. TV ratings soared. The foreign players found starring roles. The top 15 scorers were non-Chinese, and former N.B.A . players, like Bonzi Wells and Dontae' Jones, frequently scored more than 40 points a game.

At the same time, the dominance of foreign players fueled frustration.

''Foreigners should play supporting roles, not dominate the game,'' said Zhang Xiong, director of operations for the Chinese Basketball Association.

Li Xiaofeng, 20, a restaurant manager and C.B.A. fan, said: ''I don't like foreign players. They got most of the chances to shoot and score. How about our own players? They don't have the chance to bring their skill and talent into play.

''Our Chinese players' ability is limited by the current rule. It's our C.B.A. Chinese players are fundamental.''

Some Chinese state news media outlets went so far as to call imported players a ''malignant tumor.''

Chinese players like Wang Yong of the Dongguan Leopards support the increased participation of foreign players. ''Chinese and foreign players are a harmonious blend,'' he said. ''I've learned a lot from them this season and feel I am a better player.''

Foreign players bridled at accusations that they were selfish, saying they were simply following orders.

''The coaches tell you you're the main scorer,'' Corsley Edwards, an American who played for the Yunnan Bulls last season, said in a telephone interview.

The league has other problems.

Coaches, visiting players and their agents suspect that the outcome of some games is predetermined, an accusation the league rejects.

Players reported

locker-room lectures in which they were told to slack off on the court. On other occasions, they said, the best players had to sit out particularly competitive games or were sent home once their teams made the playoffs.

Gabe Muoneke, an American player who joined the Yunnan Bulls last season, said he was told by a Chinese teammate that a November game against the Shanghai Sharks was fixed.

''He said, 'Listen, my bookie told me we're going to win today, so don't worry,''' Mr. Muoneke said in a telephone interview from Puerto Rico, where he now plays. The Bulls claimed their first victory of the season, 107-97.

Mr. Muoneke said the incident confirmed what he and other players have long suspected: that game-fixing is a problem for the Chinese league. ''It's common knowledge that Chinese teams bribe referees,'' he said.

Awvee Storey, a former N.B.A . player with the Liaoning Hunters, said he often sensed his Chinese teammates were going through the motions.

''I felt a lot of times we were playing just to play and not to win,'' he said.

The league and Mr. Storey's team denied allegations of game-fixing. The Yunnan Bulls contended that their international players did not understand Chinese Basketball.

''C.B.A. referees are not very good,'' said Wu Li, a spokesman for the Liaoning Hunters spokesman. ''Lots of people think referees make bad calls because they are being influenced by teams or coaches, but we don't know of any proven cases.'' Mr. Wu also said that the foreign players' bad attitudes had caused many problems.

Mr. Edwards said he had been struck by how often the team's managers took referees to dinner, a violation of league rules. ''They wine and dine them like they're a nice hot date,'' he said.

When asked about game-fixing, Mr. Zhang of the C.B.A. said, ''There haven't been any problems like that.''

Giovanni C. Funiciello, an agent who has sent players to China for more than eight years, said that although most games are played fairly, betting is a problem. ''Do I think some games to a degree are influenced?'' he said. ''Yeah, I would say so.''

The accusations have led to a spate of articles in the state-controlled Chinese news media about game-fixing and bribery, and the C.B.A. vowed to crack down on such cheating.

Last November, it announced harsher penalties for official misconduct. Social interactions between referees and team officials are now prohibited, and referees are not allowed to leave their hotels without permission before and after games.

''This season we will put a knife to the neck of any referee who is involved in match-fixing or bribery,'' Liu Xiaonong, the league commissioner, said last year, according to China Daily. ''If a league is frequently linked to rumors of match-fixing, it means it has a big problem.''

The N.B.A . is undoubtedly watching these developments with interest. It has created a robust operation here, with corporations including Bank of China and ESPN investing $253 million to acquire an 11 percent stake in the N.B.A . endeavor. The N.B.A . is also involved with building 12 Basketball arenas in China.

''I'm not aware of cheating, but we're not involved with it,'' David Stern, the N.B.A . commissioner, said in a telephone interview. ''That's totally 100 percent under control of the C.B.A., and they've made it clear they'd like to keep it that way.''

The Chinese league also faces allegations by its players that teams have reneged on contracts or failed to pay their salaries. Many former N.B.A . stars were lured to China this season by six-figure salaries, in addition to free meals, lodging and family visits. Local players, by contrast, earn about $14,000 a season. Faced with ballooning budgets and bleak championship prospects, some owners have chosen to throw in the towel, leaving imports unpaid and abandoned.

The story is familiar to players like Mr. Muoneke and Mr. Edwards, who left the Bulls over contract disputes. Edwards played for three months, then the team's general manager told him he would not be paid the rest of his salary. Filing a claim with the league got him nowhere, Mr. Edwards said.

His Chinese teammates face a similar plight. In May, long after their season ended, they sent a letter to the C.B.A. saying they had yet to receive 70 percent of their salaries, as well as sponsorship fees and bonuses. The issue has yet to be resolved.



Bonzi Wells on the sideline after an injury at a Chinese Basketball Association game in January. Mr. Wells is one of many former N.B.A . stars who have played for Chinese teams.

Photo Credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN/Getty Images-AFP

Author: Fox Sports
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Added: July 25, 2009


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