Tim Noonan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2007, 12:00am

It's all about money in China these days. I know that, so do you and so does the corpse of Mao Zedong. Basketball is no different. After watching the largely listless display by China's national team at last year's world championship, it's safe to say they have little chance of capturing a basketball medal next year at the seminal shrine to Chinese culture commonly referred to as the Beijing Olympics.

Even with NBA star Yao Ming and some very promising youngsters, unless they suddenly start playing inspired defence, it won't happen.

It's a shame, really, because basketball is such an integral part of the country's fabric. No less than Chairman Mao used the game as a propaganda tool during the Cultural Revolution when he had prints commissioned with images of mainland basketball behemoths towering over hapless western hoopsters.

Somewhere in the bowels of his mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, the Marxist maestro must be spinning in his crystal-plated coffin over the bourgeois soap opera that China basketball is becoming. This past week, the owners of the Beijing Aoshen Olympian basketball team threatened to sue the coach of China's national team because his disparaging quotes about their star player, towering point guard Sun Yue, may have hurt his stock at the upcoming NBA draft on June 28.

Now why would a Beijing team be so upset that their best player is becoming devalued in the NBA? After all, you would think that Aoshen would do everything in their power to keep Sun on their roster if they hope to field a competitive team next year. But if and when Sun is selected, his club will receive a healthy chunk of his NBA contract as 'compensation' for releasing the 22-year-old.

According to several sources, Yao's team in China, the Shanghai Sharks, received close to US$8 million of his US$15 million contract with the Houston Rockets a few years back. While Yao was the number one pick in the draft and Sun will likely not even go in the first round, visions of dollar signs were no doubt dancing in the minds of Aoshen officials.

Those visions were dashed when the national team coach, Lithuania's Jonas Kazlauskas, expressed his frustration at Sun missing national team preparations to attend a pre-draft training camp in Orlando for NBA scouts. 'If you ask me which skill Sun needs to improve in terms of playing in the NBA, I'd tell you he needs an all-around improvement, because he is not strong enough to join the games there,' the China Daily quoted Kazlauskas as saying.

He went on to say the national team currently had only two NBA-level players, Yao and Yi Jianlin. Almost immediately Aoshen threatened legal action.

'We take this as defamation and would take it to court unless the coach makes an apology,' the club said.

'This is not defamation, this is the reality that Chinese players have to face,' Kazlauskas countered. 'If you don't want to accept the truth, how can you help the team prepare for the Beijing Olympics?'

But despite overtures from the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) to cool the situation, Aoshen refused to back down and said they were very serious about legal action. On the surface, you would figure that a Lithuanian coach going up against a local team with a modicum of political juice in a Beijing courtroom would have no chance.

However, who knows where the trial might be heard, because Beijing Aoshen Olympian currently play their home games in the Richard and Vivian Felix Event Centre on the campus of Azusa Pacific University, just north of Los Angeles. Because Aoshen refused to release Sun for national team duty a few years back, they were thrown out of the CBA professional league and subsequently joined the American semi-professional ABA league. Seeing as California is the overzealous litigation capital of the universe, Kazlauskas might actually be better off in a Beijing court. Either way, it's a messy situation.

'Jonas is one of the best friends Sun has,' said an Asian based NBA scout. 'The Aoshen owner should remember that Jonas fought hard just to give Sun a shot with the national team. Things can also get mixed up when communicating in Lithuanian to English to Chinese.'

The same scout said that while Sun turned some heads at the camp in Orlando, he still projects as mid-second-round pick. Should Sun make the NBA, a big if, there is little doubt that a year with the big boys would immeasurably help him and the national team at Beijing next year.

Yi, on the other hand is definitely ready for the NBA right now both on and off the court. A sure-fire lottery pick, the moment his name is announced by NBA commissioner David Stern, Yi will automatically become a millionaire and his Guangdong Tigers team will get a pretty fat compensation package as well.

Adept in English, Yi has spent the last few months preparing for the NBA draft in LA. He has been living in a luxury pad, dining at the trendiest bistros in town and strolling down the red carpet for the premieres of Spider-Man and Shrek.

Born in Shenzhen and toiling under the grey and lifeless haze in Guangdong the last few years, it's easy to see how the kid has become so enamoured with Tinsletown that his management team is desperately trying to get him on one of LA's teams next year.

But Yi will be long gone before either the Clippers or Lakers, sitting at number 14 and 19 respectively, have a chance to draft him. Chances are good Sun will still be available though, regardless of what Kazlauskas said.