Yi Jianlian reportedly has a new reason to smile. (Getty Images)
News broke Tuesday that Chinese Olympic officials planned to choose an athlete to bear the nation's flag in Friday's Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics based on several criteria — whether he/she has "an impressive record in sports [and is] tall, handsome and influential." The pronouncement led many in the media to wonder if five-year NBA veteran Yi Jianlian — the 6-foot-11, 24-year-old leader of the Chinese men's national basketball team, which opens play in Group B of the Olympic tournament against medal favorite Spain on Sunday — would follow in the footsteps of iconic former national teammate Yao Ming, who carried the flag in 2004 and 2008.
Because you are reading an NBA blog, you know why that struck me as sort of weird:
Yi is certainly big enough at nearly 7 feet tall, but an, um, undistinguished NBA career that saw him go from sixth overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft to little-used bench player in just five years could mean he runs afoul of that "impressive record in sports" criterion. Plus, Yi would pale in comparison to Chinese basketball star Yao Ming [...] downgrading from "greatest basketball player in our nation's history" to "widely acknowledged bust" seems kind of weird, optics-wise.
Shows how much I know.
Multiple Chinese media outlets reported Wednesday that Yi has, in fact, been chosen to lead the Chinese Olympic delegation in the Parade of Athletes portion of Friday's festivities. The selection continues a 28-year tradition of basketball players as Chinese flag-bearers at the Summer Games, with Yi poised to follow in the footsteps of Yao (2004, 2008), Liu Yudong (1996, 2000), Song Ligang (1992), Song Tao (1988) and Wang Libin (1984).
Again, from an NBA fan's perspective, Yi seems like he doesn't really fit the "internationally successful/influential" mold, because we're much more familiar with his virtual disappearance from the NBA scene. But this is where we should probably remember that there's a big world outside the confines of our 30 favorite and least favorite teams.
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