When the Chinese Basketball Association comes up, you might think about Stephon Marbury as a cultural phenomenon, having won two titles overseas, and along the way earning himself a statue and and a theatrical play based on his CBA career. When you think about the sport of basketball in China, you might be inclined to acknowledge that the country is the second-largest NBA market outside of the United States. You remember how fans lose their collective minds over the arrival of LeBron James or Kobe Bryant as part of their Nike marketing obligations. You think the country is a hot bed for basketball.
All of this is true. But as those in the Western world are becoming more familiar with the CBA and basketball in China, they're also starting to discover a league with a reputation of not paying its international players and having the worst officiating in the world. They're also discovering a country that may be squandering its opportunity to position itself as an important part of the NCAA and NBA conversation.
The CBA—a state-owned league founded in 1995—currently consists of 18 teams, and each one serves as a potential landing spot for the army of players who can't cut it in the NBA.
But that changed this summer, when top college prospect Emmanuel Mudiay decided to forgo the NCAA system and instead take the instant financial reward of playing in a professional league. Mudiay signed with the Guangdong Tigers of the CBA for a one-year deal worth $1.2 million. What makes Mudiay anomalous is his career trajectory as both a future NBA lottery pick and one who has chosen to play in China as an alternative to the NCAA. If he has a positive experience in China this season, players in Mudiay's position will consider taking a similar route, and the CBA stands to benefit.
However, there is cause for concern. Aside from the difficulty of adjusting to a new culture, CBA teams have a history of simply not paying their overseas imports. Most recently, Chris Daniels of the Liaoning Jaguars found himself in the position of seeking payment from his team. In order to force the team's hand, FIBA—the governing body of world basketball—had to step in and deal with the issue. The Jaguars have told FIBA that they don't intend to pay Daniels, even though FIBA has levied fines on them.
There's precedent for this. Shavlik Randolph—who led the league in scoring in 2013 with the Foshan Tigers—found himself in the same situation when he had to sue his team for payments owed. J.R. Smith—who spent time during the 2012 NBA lockout with the Zhejiang Chouzhou—sued for over $1 million in unpaid wages which the team alleges were docked from his pay because of missed practices and meetings.
These lawsuits often float in legal limbo without any immediate resolution. Andrew Crawford—who lived in China for several years covering the league and runs Shark Fin Hoops, a comprehensive CBA-centric website—explained to me that CBA teams have a tendency to force players into China's complex legal system with the hope that they'll eventually give up on seeking lost wages. While such tactics damage the league's reputation and discourages other North American players from joining, it's a shortsighted approach these team are willing to take.
"There have been incidents in the past where teams haven't paid players and been taken to FIBA but I can't recall such pushback from a team. This is quite unusual, and I honestly think Liaoning thought they could buy time by playing tough," Crawford explains. "Ultimately, I don't think the team cares about the damage to the league and this kind of attitude is a wider problem across Chinese professional sport. It's not uncommon to hear of maverick owners in both the country's basketball and football leagues being willing to pull the whole house down around them just to spite everyone."
Aside from the financial disputes off the court, the competitive fairness of CBA games have come under scrutiny as well. It's no secret that the refereeing in the league is terrible. Home teams often get preferential treatment and, in many cases, the referees aren't even favoring teams as much as displaying their own incompetence.
"The officiating is absolutely as bad as people make it out to be. It's the little things like some refs not knowing the difference between a block and goaltending; you can see these mistakes happening far too often," Crawford tells me. "The league is hesitant to reform and retrain its officials because it would be paying them more, but this needs to happen. Tracy McGrady was so frustrated he threatened to quit and called the refs three blind mice. Most American players in China would probably criticize the officiating on the record if you put the question to them."
While some of the teams in the league are privately owned, many of them remain state owned. An oversight committee makes decisions on the league's behalf, leaving the owners and front office of the actual teams out of the decision making process. Yao Ming, who is the president of the Shanghai Sharks, spoke up against this last year, when he asked for policies to be made based on the needs of the clubs. He summarized it perfectly when he said, "We are running this more like a government than a professional league." By doing so, the quality of play is suffering, and people are starting to notice.
On top of all this mess, there are many people within the league who view overseas players as a threat. Currently, teams are allowed two imported players each. The two players can only be used for a combined six quarters per game. "There is real concern within China about a lack of new players coming through into the national team. This is causing a kind of ideological crisis within the CBA because the league and its fan bases like having a Stephon Marbury, but they also want their young Chinese players rather than watching the Americans do everything," Crawford said. "The new generation of Chinese players are struggling to live up to expectations and part of the explanation for their shortcomings is that they're not getting enough touches and reps in a league that's driven by foreigners. The U-23 team recently lost at home to India, which was probably the most embarrassing result in Chinese basketball history."
By all accounts, the CBA should be trending upward and positioning themselves as the premier international basketball league for both players who want to skip the NCAA process and as an alternative for players who are squeezed out of a job in the NBA. But with the lack of urgency to fix the on-court product and teams choosing to damage the league's reputation by withholding wages, there is little long-term planning being done to make the CBA what it could be. The league is simply making it up as it goes along, and squandering an opportunity to establish themselves as an important league in global basketball.
Crawford says that fans and media members in China are upset by all of this, primarily because it makes the league and China as a whole comes off as a nickel and dime operation. Despite all these problems, the CBA will always attract a certain amount of overseas players. "Aging stars will always be attracted to China. The pay is great, the season is short (teams currently play 34 regular season games), and these players get to be the man and inflate their numbers to hopefully springboard back into the NBA," Crawford said. "High schoolers like Mudiay are a different matter. It's all about showcasing your talent and no one really knows how Mudiay will do against professional competition. If he comes over and, for whatever reason, hurts his draft stock, it's going to hurt the prospect of future high schoolers coming overseas to play in China. At the end of the day, spending an entire year in China after graduating high school in North America is just a huge adjustment."
So, regardless, the CBA will retain some measure of relevance, but an awful lot more is being left on the table. How much the country and the league actually cares about all of this is debatable, but going by how they're responding to these problems, they obviously don't care very much at all. As it stands, the CBA is a promising league just barely managing to overcome its own institutionalized dysfunction. From afar, it feels like they can be so much more.
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