As CBA President, The Ball Is Now In Yao’s Hands


The appointment of Yao Ming to the head of the Chinese Basketball Association has been a long time coming. Since he retired from basketball in 2011, the former Houston Rocket returned to his home city of Shanghai and immediately started cleaning house. His first big decision was saving his former team, the Shanghai Sharks, from bankruptcy. Soon after, he brought in longtime NBA assistant Daniel Panaggio to coach the triangle offense as a way of opening up the offense to Chinese players and giving them more shots.

It was remarkably effective (the Sharks made the play-offs for only the second time in a decade) but since then, Yao’s attention has turned to bigger things; namely exerting influence on the CBA itself. A five year journey has now been completed. The announcement yesterday that Yao will be the president of the CBA is a further example of the player-turned-owner’s desire to change the league in a specific direction. 

For one, Yao is decidedly old school. He is alone among the CBA owners as someone who played in the CBA’s early days and can remember the days when the local players called the shots. Although certainly not a nativist, it is clear that Yao feels too much of the CBA is dominated by the American imports. One only has to read his autobiography and interviews on the subject to sense his annoyance that foreign players are being allowed to dictate too much of the offense. It is unclear how Yao is going to alter that (if he even can) but one should expect to see rules limiting the playing time or participation of foreign players being proposed within the next couple of years.

One rule that absolutely looks in danger is the so-called ‘third foreigner rule’. Brought in during the mid-2000’s, the rule allowed teams who finished in the bottom five to have an extra import for the following season. Other than allowing teams to ‘yo-yo’ between the bottom five and the final play-off seed, it largely did not affect the league too much until last season when Sichuan won the league after finishing 8-30 the previous season. Such an improvement was largely because Sichuan signed three extremely experienced foreigners that meshed perfectly with head coach Yang Xuezeng’s playbook. Local media were less than impressed that the CBA championship was decided with little to no involvement of Chinese players.

Yao has been a vocal critic of the third foreigner rule and is constantly airing his grievances about it. The rule, according to Yao, takes further playing time away from young players who would otherwise be able to play for a rebuilding team. This is not an unreasonable viewpoint. The ongoing struggles of the Chinese national team and the Sichuan debacle backs up the arguments of those who say Chinese players need more opportunities to develop. But Yao, who famously refused to allow his Shanghai front office to use the third-foreigner rule back in 2013, has been its most prominent critic and is now in the driving seat to remove the clause completely.

What we do know is limited but given his standing within Chinese basketball (as reflected by his winning of every vote on the election panel), Yao will have the green light to effect major change. He has already pledged to innovate the league beyond its current form, although he has given no clear proposals yet. He also plans to establish an independent referees organization (one that will almost certainly allow for higher wages and more rigorous training) and a Chinese Hall of Fame.

Chinese media itself is pretty pleased about the appointment. Sohu Sports noted the similarities between Yao and Arvydas Sobonis, a player whom Yao reportedly idolized in his early years. Both men returned to their native countries to become head of their basketball organizations and both had enough popularity and reverence to enact whatever changes they wanted. One writer has referred to Yao’s new role as ‘tailor made’ and most columnists are queueing to describe an underwhelming CBA that could now be saved by the most famous player to feature in it. Whether he can remains to be seen but now, after years of talking, Yao will get his crack at creating the CBA he has long envisioned.

2 thoughts on “As CBA President, The Ball Is Now In Yao’s Hands

  1. Andrew, I must say that I find any direction towards a ‘closed shop’ mentality in pro basketball leagues a retrograde step, especially when you consider that the NBA and Euroleague (generally considered the top two leagues in world play) have zero import restrictions and no plans to implement any. As great a player as Yao is, I find it hard to believe that he would seek LESS competition for Chinese players to develop, rather than more, from the Asian/Middle Eastern third imports. With 20 teams, I find it hard to believe that a talented young Chinese player won’t have a career in the game and will be forced out by imports, especially considering the success stories you commented on this year.

    In my home country, Australia, we had a similar debate about the value of imports and other restrictions (yes, the final quarter one also) and one common argument that held sway from top players and coaches was ‘cream always rises to the top’. I’m interested in what people think (westerners, Chinese, other Asian) but I believe a Asia-Pacific Champions league, to rival that of the Euroleague or AFC Champions League, is a necessary step in improving Chinese and all Asia-Pacific basketball because a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’.

    1. I think that’s a fair point but its important to consider the ‘win-now’ mentality of the typical CBA team. Make no mistake, ‘can’t miss’ talents like Wang Zhelin and Zhou Qi have been afford opportunities but I would argue that someone like Ding Yanyuhang is only emerging now because Shandong’s imports were constantly being switched and it allowed to Ding to seize the moment. That is not going to happen everywhere.

      I’m not privy to how things work in Australia but I don’t think Yao is/would want less competition for local players but rather ensure they have more playing time and opportunity. Its inevitable that more foreign players mean less minutes for local guys. Personally, I think it would be good for less foreign players to play in China and suspect Yao would push for that in some capacity.

      As for a Euroleague-style tournament in Asia, I would be 100% supportive of that.

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