The opening of the Chinese Basketball Association All-Star game saw Yi Jianlian fed the ball deep in the left block on the South squad’s opening possession. He operated crisply: baseline shake, one-bounce and a drop-step to the middle, and a sweet little leaner off the board. He was a man with a plan – one that included courtesy to his North opponents when they went inside, by the way – as the Guangdong Southern Tigers star notched 34 points and 8 boards on his way to a South division victory, 120-117, and MVP honours for himself. All this, of course, in front of his hometown fans in Guangzhou, where the prodigal son had come home.
This was Yi’s showcase, in the first year of his return to China after an NBA career that was largely disappointing after he was a draft lottery pick, going sixth overall to the Milwaukee Bucks in 2007. He’s a seven-footer, he moves and jumps beautifully, and his shot is photogenic, and who knows why he couldn’t or didn’t cut it? After five seasons in four cities, either he gave up on The League or it washed its hands of him, hard to say. Certainly his last NBA year, sitting on the bench for the Dallas Mavericks, wasn’t what he was supposed to be. Grantland.com’s Bill Simmons (and in his 20011 Book of Basketball) has made Yi a punch-line because of the pre-draft private workouts that so dazzled NBA GMs. (“Nobody can beat a chair one-on-one like Yi Jianlian!” Maybe he just couldn’t make the adjustment when he wasn’t the biggest and fastest on the court anymore.). He’s still rather mechanical in the way he goes about dominating the CBA, but he still wows me, in my occasional views of him here, with his athleticism.
Stephon Marbury, too, came out of the starting gate with some bounce and intention for the North squad. I suspect, for him, that facing off at guard with league-leading scorer Quincy Douby, not to mention other young American point guards – guys that only had a cup of coffee, maybe, in the NBA, where I was a two-time All-Star – is plenty of motivation for him. He would likely have been the MVP if the North side had won: he clearly was ready to play from the tip, and finished with 24 and 11 assists. Pooh Jeter? Douby? He wanted to remind them, and fans, that there’s still an old Duck up in Beijing who can do more than just smile and sell shoes.
It’s a good thing for the league that Zaid Abbas doesn’t play with Starbury full-time, because the combination of a guard who can slice and dice like that and a forward who moves, who knows where to be and when, would be a great combination. They made a wreck of the first quarter, between the two of them.
Abbas is an interesting character, a moderately athletic forward with a brain and a motor and one way to play: hard. (He might’ve deserved the MVP in a North division win, as he scrapped for 30 points and an unreported number of rebounds.) My CBA guru tells me that, as the “Asian import” some teams are allowed beyond their two Americans, he has been central to the rise of several bottom-feeding teams who improve so much that he has to move on to another carp of a team the next year. This CBA rule does try to favour the downtrodden clubs, but it’s only a one-year fix. (Somebody better versed than me in league history should chart the rise and fall of the weak teams that the 3rd-import rule tries to help, and see if occasional dashes of Abbas really do spice up the soup, long-term.)
Anyway, even in an All-Star game, it impressed me that he wasn’t afraid to do what he does, which is move without the ball, clean up missed shots, and defend. No doubt he tried to tone down his D a little, and he did fire a frilly pass into the first row of seats early on, but he’s a meat ‘n’ potatoes guy. (Or maybe a rice ‘n’ falafel guy – he’s from Jordan.) Players like him are often reluctant to even try to do anything in glitter contests like this, and the CBA rosters have a heavy proportion of guys who can’t “get their own shot” off the dribble. I liked how Abbas’s feel for the game allowed him to shine even when it’s not, mainly, his mug of jasmine tea. Maybe, too, that’s why there was more of a team sense in the Chinese game. The NBA stars that don’t dominate the ball, guys like Joakim Noah or Dwight Howard, are pretty much a waste of space, since their team-centred fortes aren’t encouraged and you sure don’t want them jacking up threes. In either game, though, it’s mainly a point guard show, and this old PG doesn’t completely hate that.
The whole Guangzhou game, actually, was a much crisper affair in the early going than the NBA counterpart had been the previous weekend. Most of the guys weren’t too cool to play hard in the game’s beginning, and so there were fewer ugly attempts at fancy-ball and a more reasonable facsimile of guarding in the CBA version. And hey, if I was a real correspondent, I’d have watched the game live on Sunday night, but I was reading Red Mars and the sandstorm was coming from the southwest, and how would they get the dirigible back to Underhill on time? And why had Nadia and Arkady paid so little attention to their timing, or gotten so little warning from the base colony?
By the time Monday morning’s replay got started, my own time was getting short before, um, well, I had to go to class. For the NBA All-Star game, I had had no excuse – I just couldn’t make it past the first quarter. These things get a little tiresome, truth be told; even the NBA, without defence or coaching or a team concept, makes for a low reading on my personal Compello-meter. I guess the game heated up at the end a bit, but there must have been laundry, I guess, or some other call of duty.