When people talk about basketball in the U.S., it’s rare to hear any Asian players. And if they happen to mention an Asian player in the NBA, most likely it’s going to be Yao Ming.
With the success of Yao Ming, the popularity of basketball has greatly increased in China. Commissioner David Stern and the NBA also has plans for an NBA-affiliated league in China and envisions up to eight to twelve arenas in China.
But are there any other Asians that have played basketball in the NBA? Who was the first player of Asian descent to play basketball in the NBA, Yao Ming? Nope. The first player was actually 5’7″ Japanese-American Wat Misaka, the NBA’s first minority player. A first round draft pick by the New York Knicks, he is credited for playing three games, the same year when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American baseball player in 1947.
Forward it to the present day, 2009: there are actually more players of Asian descent, besides Yao Ming, in the NBA. They aren’t achieving the same amount of success or have the same impact on their team that Yao Ming does, but they are in the NBA, so that should count for at least something.
The first one that comes to mind is Yi Jianlian, sixth pick in the 2007 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks, later traded to the New Jersey Nets. Yi Jianlian seems be a new wave of Asian players coming from China with more talent; listed at 7’0 feet tall, he’s more athletic and faster than Yao Ming and can shoot the ball all the way from the three point line.
At this point, Yi Jianlian mostly does offense. If he can have this summer off from having to compete with the Chinese National Team, perhaps he can improve on his skills to have a more significant impact in the NBA. Also like other athletes from China, there has been controversy over his real age. My opinion? Whether he was born in 1987 [what he’s listed as] or 1984 [where there are new reports surfacing], age isn’t a greater factor on whether you can compete in the NBA. Yi Jianlian was a superstar in the Chinese Basketball Association; that’s not really saying much, but he does have expectations being a lottery pick and having so many fans hoping he has great success in the NBA.
Speaking of fans, there’s more controversy revolving Yi Jianlian: this isn’t necessarily his fault, but NBA fans are paying attention. The NBA allows its fans from around the world to vote for the All-Star game starters. Just as Yao has been receiving many votes for the All-Star game ensuring his spot as a West starter, Yi Jianlian is currently ranked third for forwards with 959,324 votes. Third is not good enough to win a spot as a starter, but if he ranks at least second then Yi will start at the 2009 NBA All-star game. Personally, I don’t care much about the All-star game because it’s a exhibition spectacular for the fans, but there certainly will be more controversy if Yi becomes a starter in the All-Star game this season.
Another player from China currently in the NBA is 6’9″ guard Sun Yue. He was drafted the same year as Yi as the 40th pick by the LA Lakers, appearing in three games. He wasn’t always on the active twelve man roster, but with backup PG Jordan Farmar going down with injury, Sun Yue can be seen with other active Lakers players, usually sitting next to assistant coach Brian Shaw. His story is a little different than other Chinese players, previously playing with his Chinese team the Beijing Aoshen Olympians. The Beijing Aoshen Olympians were banned from the CBA after refusing to release Sun Yue to play for the Chinese National Team, and the Olympians transferred to a minor U.S. league known as the ABA.
Here’s a video of Sun Yue, with other Lakers players being interviewed. Also just like many other names, people seem to also mispronounce Sun Yue’s name as the reporter refers to him as “Sun Yi”:
Now people may question if this player is Asian or not, but there is also another player on a NBA roster: 7’2 Hamed Haddadi from Iran, who is with the Memphis Grizzlies. Haddai was on the Iran Team that won the 2007 FIBA Asia Basketball Tournament, leading Iran to qualify for a spot in the 2008 Olympics. Joe Alexander is neither ethnic Chinese nor a Chinese citizen, but was born in Taiwan and also went to school and played in China for a few years. He also speaks Mandarin and has said that he considers Beijing his hometown. He was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks as the eighth pick in 2008 and is a candidate for the Slam Dunk contest at the next All-Star Game.
Other past players of Asian descent that have played in the NBA are Raymond Townsend (half-Filipino), Rex Walters (Half Japanese), Wang Zhi Zhi (Chinese), Mengke Bateer (Mongolian-Chinese-member of 2003 Champion Spurs), Yuta Tabuse (Japaese), and Ha Seung Jin (Korean). There’s also been other players who were either just drafted, appeared in the NBA D-League/summer league/training camp rosters/, or worked out for NBA Teams but never appeard in a NBA regular season game. Some examples are Yasutaka Okayama (Japanese – listed between 7’8-7’10), Liu Wei (Chinese), Sean Chen (Taiwan) and Sun Ming Ming (Chinese – 7’9). Then there’s the current head coach of the Miami heat, Erik Spoelstra. Eri’s Spoelstra’s mother is Filipino.
There’s also more players of Asian descent currently on NCAA/College basketball teams. If I have time, I will try to make a blog post pertaining to those players.