Zhu Fangyu, the all-time leading scorer in CBA history, two-time league MVP, four-time Finals MVP and an eight-time league champion officially retired on Saturday. With the announcement, the Guangdong Tigers forward ends a remarkable playing career that saw massive highs but also major lows.
Although born in neighboring Guangxi province, Zhu was discovered and then swiftly transplanted into the youth system of the Guangdong Tigers. Making his debut in 2000, Zhu became part of a starting line-up that included homegrown stars like Wang Shipeng, Du Feng, Su Wei and Yi Jianlian. By his twenty-first birthday, Zhu was turning in 20ppg seasons in China and despite his limited athletic skills, the forward was a vital cog for a championship contender. Zhu’s constistancy from beyond the arc also earned him the nickname ‘Rain of Threes’.
With Yao Ming’s successes in Houston, the Rockets even toyed with the idea of drafting Zhu in the second round of the 2004 NBA draft, much to the delight of Yao himself. But the Rockets never pulled the trigger on Zhou, possibly because they hadn’t forgotten the months of diplomatic and bureaucratic gamesmanship that Yao required before he could be released from his Chinese team. Zhu was not a game changing big man like his countryman (infamously, his draft comparison was Jason Kapono). So instead, Zhu stayed in China and collected titles on an almost yearly basis. When Yi Jianlian was drafted by Milwaukee in 2007, Guangdong responded by building the team around Zhu instead of an American import.
With the team on his back, Zhu enjoyed his best years. With Wang emerging as an outstanding wing defender and three-point shooter and aided by a meaty front court of Du, Su and American Jason Dixon (who remains the only foreigner to have his jersey retired in the CBA), Guangdong’s core won four consecutive titles. In that time, Zhu was CBA MVP once and was awarded Finals MVP in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Able to play both forward posistions, Zhu also averaged at least 20 + 10 for four consecutive seasons.
But as Zhu’s body aged, so too did the fortunes of Guangdong (and the national team to a certain extent). The full-time return of Yi in 2012 briefly returned the team to prominence with another CBA title that same year (and Zhu’s second league MVP crown) but by then, the potency of Stephon Marbury and the Beijing Ducks was becoming too much. Although Zhu became the league’s all-time leading scorer in the 2014/15 season, it was bookended by painful losses to Beijing and Liaoning. By 2016, the Tigers were on their final legs and the core trio of Yi, Zhu and Wang insisted on delaying the much-needed rebuilt for one final run. Their reward was a trip to the Finals aided by a weak postseason bracket. But in an anticlimactic twist, Guangdong were swept by Xinjiang, a team they had never lost to in three previous Finals meetings. It wasn’t the best way to go out but Zhu called it quits less than a month later.
Yet Zhu’s decorated career was not without red marks. Despire his shooting prowess, Zhu seemed uninterested or unable to expand on his overall game. Graded against the higher quality of the NBA, the forward projected to be little more than a good spot-up shooter, something that scouts picked this up reletively early on in Zhu’s career. Even though the forward’s peak years coincided with a surge in Chinese migration to the NBA, Zhu was content to be a big fish in a small pond. On the court, there were also issues. In 2010, Zhu made global headlines when he ignited a massive brawl between the Chinese national team and a crew of semi-professional Brazilians during an warm-up game for that year’s Asian Cup. Then, four years later, Zhu’s marriage to Olympic team gymnast Hu Mei came to a very public end amid reports of an affair. It is almost certain that Zhu also played a part in the messy palace intrigue that saw Guangdong delay the overhaul of their aging roster. Zhu’s legacy will be tarnished by that Final defeat plus the fall-out that saw friend and former teammate Du Feng lose his job as head coach.
Although Zhu should probably have retired two seasons ago, the legacy the forward leaves behind is significant. Obviously if the NBA had called his name, Zhu would have jumped ship. But instead of being a bench shooter in the NBA, Zhu stayed with Guangdong and formed the backbone of a team that won eight titles before being dismantled. In the current CBA era, it would be unfathomable for a slow-footed local forward to be the lead option on any team let alone a perennial champion. But for Chinese basketball, Zhu was a rarity; a consistently successful and recognizable star who never played outside of the CBA. That alone makes him critical to the story of Chinese basketball– even if few outside of the Middle Kingdom know his name.