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.
After being tabbed with the No. 6 overall pick based on his combination of size, reported shooting touch and youth, Yi has yet to prove himself even a league-average NBA player. Even in his best NBA season — a 52-game turn for the New Jersey Nets in 2009-10 that saw him average 12 points and 7.2 rebounds per game — he shot just 40 percent from the floor, posted subpar rebounding rates for a player his size and offered next to nothing defensively.
Beyond that, it appears Yi's NBA prospects are dwindling — he's played fewer total minutes in his last two seasons combined than he did in any of his first three, and he's had scarcely a sniff on the open market this summer despite being a tall unrestricted free agent who can run and chew gum at the same time. Even at blue-light special prices, NBA teams seem to no longer consider Yi that much of a bargain.
But, all that said, Yi is still the only Chinese-born player in the biggest professional league of arguably the second-most popular sport in the world; even if he's not one the better players in the league, the simple fact of him making it and sticking around for a handful of years (even if we might not remember the last couple) still ranks him among the best players in the world. He remains immensely popular on the home front and still one of China's most marketable athletes, with multiple national endorsements and his still-elevated international profile offering a ton of visibility that better-decorated Chinese athletes in other, more niche-oriented sports simply don't have.
And even though he's not an elite NBA talent, he's still viewed as one of the most successful players China has ever produced — a four-time Chinese Basketball Association champion, a three-time CBA finals MVP, a member of several incarnations of the Chinese national team and, as the international hoops mavens at The Painted Area recently put it, just about the only hope this year's Chinese team has of making it out of a Group B headlined by Spain, Brazil and Russia, provided he can get hot for a few games and pull an upset or two.
While few in the NBA hold out much hope for Yi putting it all together stateside, he still, to some degree, seems to represent a hopeful image to those he'll be representing. There are worse things to march behind than that.
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