Its early days but the makings of a Hollywood screenplay started to possibly get written in eastern China on Sunday afternoon. Losing badly to the Guangsha Lions on the road, the Bayi Rockets’ veteran head coach Adiljan looked down the bench and called out a player’s name. There is a slight murmur around the arena as people pick up on what is going on. Bayi’s starting point guard Tian Yuxing is beckoned over to the bench and the substitute is sent into the fray. At seventeen and playing in his first professional game, everything is moving a little too quickly for him. In fifteen minutes of play, he will shot 3-of-5 from the field for 7 points but also pick up 5 fouls and turn the ball over twice. It doesn’t matter too much though given that it is garbage time and the Rockets are on the way to getting blown out 128-86 by an inspired Guangsha Lions. The manner of the defeat is embarrassing but at least one silver lining for the new Rockets player is that his dad got to see him play his first professional game in person. What makes it more special though is that it would be the old man himself, Adiljan, that gave him his first start in the league.
The story, which helped to somewhat distract from an awful loss for an awful team is now perhaps the only thing that Bayi fans have to look forward to this season. Once the best team in China and perhaps east Asia, the Rockets have struggled to compete in recent years because they are not allowed to sign foreign players unlike the rest of the CBA. This season, other teams have been able to sign up guys like Delonte West, Michael Beasley, Andray Blatche, Jordan Crawford, Al Harrington, Sheldon Williams and Metta World Peace; that’s over forty years of combined experience in the NBA between them. The Rockets on the other hand, fought over the scraps of local free agency, most of whom want nothing to do with a team on a decidedly downward slide. Things got so bad that the organization’s sponsors, the People’s Liberation Army itself, tried to stop one of its most beloved players, Wang Zhizhi from retiring.
Adiljan himself may well soon be stepping away from the frey at the end of the season but in the meantime, he is giving the fans something to cheer about even when they are losing by over 40 points; the continuation of a dynasty within Bayi basketball. Adiljan is himself a wildly popular figure in China despite being retired for almost fifteen years. A small, balding figure, Adiljan did not look like much of a player in his pomp but the Uigher from the west of the country was a point guard with the brain of a super computer and the ability to make unworldly passes. The leader of the Rockets during the team’s unrivaled dominance during the 1980’s and 1990’s, Adiljan picked up a reputation as the Chinese Magic Johnson. According to legend, he would practice his passing and hone his court awareness late at night in the gym with a variety of Bayi assistants and keep diaries of his practice methods that dated back years.
The result was possibly the most unique floor general Chinese basketball has ever known and whose stats in the CBA era don’t reflect the impact he made on the floor. When Wang Zhizhi emerged as a sixteen year old in the first ever CBA season in 1995, the offense quickly began to revolve around the teenage big man instead but it was still unquestionably Adiljan’s team. The two players, along with power forward Liu Yudong, would be the cornerstones for Bayi winning five CBA titles in a row during the early years of the league. When the CBA allowed overseas players to enter the CBA in 1996, Adiljan was one of the few players the foreigners loathed to play against and despite being into his thirties by then, still had a lethal crossover and could cooly knock down a three-pointer if he wasn’t shown close enough attention at the perimeter. After retiring in 2000, the captain transitioned into coaching, working as an assistant for Wang Fei, the Rockets’ mastermind behind all five of their titles. Eighteen months later, Adiljan would be the head coach of the team after Wang quit due to health issues and his protege would win three titles in his first six years at the helm.
In recent times though, things for Bayi and Adiljan himself have been tough. As the quality of foreigners in the league increased, Bayi have been continuously outgunned by better equipped provincial sides who are not constrained by the Rockets’ ‘Chinese only’ stipulation. Relying heavily on great but decidedly past their prime players like Wang Zhizhi and Mo Ke, Adiljan himself came under renewed criticism for lacking fresh ideas- although some will argue there is little he could have done given the Rockets increasing struggles with recruiting local players. Bayi’s only hope has been to slowly try and bring through a new group of young players but this takes years and in the meantime, the losses have been building up.
Arslan, the oldest of Adiljan’s two children, has been on the radar for a while, in part because of the latter’s willingness to allow his son to be part of the Bayi spotlight but also because of young guard’s talent. Born in 1997, the son of ‘the Magician’ has been part of the Chinese youth team set-up since he was 14 and has steadily been accruing more and more attention as a savvy ball handler in the mould of his father. In an interview in 2011, Adiljan suggested that his son’s overall goal was to evolve into an all-round guard that could generate his own offense but was primarily suited to getting others the ball. That was basically a description of Adiljan himself and there had been whispers amongst Chinese media that the youngster was showing the same kind of passing know-how as his father, albeit whilst playing at the high-school level. What was also interesting to see was Arslan showing the same fully developed prickliness that helped give Adiljan an edge in the mid-1990’s. Bayi were going through a rough patch as the 2011 season reached its midway point and a fourteen-year-old Arslan raised eyebrows by taking to the internet to publicly berate those criticizing his father, calling them ‘fake fans’ and that they could ‘go fuck themselves’.
Three years on, the teenager is now the next player Bayi hopes can gradually help it regain respectability in Chinese basketball. At 5″10 and 180lbs, he is basically the same height and weight as his father was during the latter’s time in the league. Despite the success Adiljan enjoyed, his no.5 uniform was not retired by the team (most Chinese teams seem to avoid doing this for various reasons that are too lengthy to explain here). Instead Arslan took it upon being promoted into the Rockets team from its feeder system.
Although it was a disappointing start for Bayi’s new no.5, another interesting aspect to Arslan’s debut was that the guard spent most of his time on the court guarding Li Jinglong, the son of Guangsha boss, Li Chungjiang. As a head coach with the Guangdong Tigers for over a decade, Li Chungjiang won seven CBA titles but was also a key member of the Tigers’ backcourt rotation in the mid-1990’s before he retired in 1998. Li’s Guangdong team would actually take on Bayi during the inaugural CBA Finals in 1995 and he and Adiljan guarded each other during the series. The sight of Li Jinglong and Arslan trying to shut each other down on the perimeter whilst their fathers’ shouted instructions from the sidelines did not go unnoticed by Chinese media, who found the situation quietly fascinating. Indeed, the two teenager are the first of what is being called in some quarters as Chinese basketball’s ‘Generation 2.0′, wherein the offspring of famous former players come through the ranks. The Shanxi Dragons’ head coach, Yang Xuezong, himself a decent player from his days with the Nanjing Thunder military team, also has a son in the league and more second generation talent is expected to follow. Exactly how many of them will stick in around in the CBA and more importantly will be any good is up for discussion but it is still an exciting development for Chinese basketball given that next year the league will reach its’ twentieth anniversary.
Fourteen years on from their fathers’ meeting on the hard court to contest for the first ever CBA title, Li Jinglong may well regard himself as being in the easier situation. Guangsha, despite having lost last season’s leading scorer Jonathan Gibson to injury, should be alright this year, even if they don’t make it into the play-offs. Bayi on the other hand are in real trouble and could well find themselves finishing as the worst team in the league for the first time in its modern history. It will be a long slog to pull themselves out of such a terrible situation but Arslan gives them hope for the future and will be able to get valuable minutes in which to increase his development during a wretched season for the Rockets. All Bayi can do in the meantime is just hope their young players will improve, learn quick lessons and then eventually come together to become a core through which the Rockets can slowly climb back up the standings. Guangdong, their old foes from ten years previous, laid the foundation for this by building up a proven roster of young players that helped them dominate the league for a decade, and Bayi will now be hoping for the same thing. Right now Arslan is still a pup but when the teenager becomes a man and if he can rescue the Rockets from their woes, drop whatever you are doing and start writing that screenplay; it’ll be amazing.