Basketball is one of the few sports you can play by yourself or have a full 5-on-5 game. It’s international appeal has grown dramatically over the years and you only have to look at the San Antonio Spurs to see how talent can be grown anywhere in the world.
China’s population of 1.35+ billion people is as good a place as any to find the next great basketball talent. The NBA welcomed Chinese big man Yao Ming into the league in 2002 and five years later we would get the another Chinese player, Yi Jianlian. It would be the first time the NBA would have two men of Chinese heritage playing at the same time. And on November 9, 2007, it would be the first time they would meet in an official NBA game.
Although coming from the same country the two men were very different. Yao Ming was born Shanghai, China’s largest city, to parents who were both basketball players. Larger than any kid since birth, he seemed bred to play basketball. He played his whole childhood, joining national and professional teams as a teenager. He grew to 7′ 6″ and had the skills of a great center.
With success on every team he was on in China he eventually made the decision to come Stateside where the Houston Rockets chose him as the #1 draft pick in the 2002 NBA Draft. Reebok has been on his feet for most of his professional career.
Yi Jianlian was born Henshan, Guangdong, China. The population of this country town is approximately 2% of Shanghai’s. As a kid his parent’s didn’t even let him play sports in school until a coach spotted him playing with friends. Eventually, his parents were persuaded and he quickly rose through the Chinese ranks.
Although tall, especially for Chinese standards at 7′, Yi was a shooter. His size and skill caused comparisons to Kevin Garnett. When he announced he would join the NBA, he was guessed to go anywhere from third to the mid-teens. The Milwaukee Bucks got the long power forward at the sixth spot in the 2007 NBA Draft. His relationship with Nike continued as he joined the NBA.
Although they played different positions and were very different, it would be the first time two Chinese-born players would face off in the NBA; that meant the eyes of the world were on them. Houston would host the matchup that would be watched by somewhere between 150-250 million Chinese fans live. The two of course met and posed for plenty of pictures before the game.
During the game the two would be switched on one another a few times. Statistically speaking, the young rookie wouldn’t have a bad game. Yi Jianlian would finish with 19 points and 9 rebounds, with 2 three-pointers shooting 58% from the floor. However, Yao’s game was on point as he scored a double-double going 28-10, with 3 blocks, 3 dimes and going a perfect 14-for-14 from the free throw line. Houston would be the victor that night winning 104-88.
Reebok and Yao Ming won that night, and won for years to come when the two played. Yi Jianlian had an up and down rookie season–that up and down continued throughout his NBA career. But Nike has stuck by him to this day as his presence in China is far greater than his appeal Stateside.
Although the NBA currently doesn’t have any Chinese-born players in the league, on November 9, 2007 we witnessed a historic moment in sports. Somewhere, some kid in China is putting up shots in hopes of making it into the NBA like his national heroes Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian.
Congrats Yao on Hall of Fame.