The N.B.A. Is Missing Its Shots in China

Sim Chi Yin/VII Mentor, for The New York Times

Wilson Chandler has learned to embrace his time in China, including the demands of media and fans, while the N.B.A. goes on without him. He has been playing as a forward for the Zhejiang Lions.

Published: February 1, 2012

Wilson Chandler was about six weeks into China, and having mostly acclimated to his strange new life, he wanted a tat. But even at 6-foot-8, Chandler had little available real estate — he already had approximately 100 tattoos, including a tribute inked across his neck to his grandmother Olivia, who raised him in Michigan, which is memorialized on his forearm, not far from the gothic lettering of his nickname, Thrill, stripped across his bicep. So the Chinese tattoo artist had to search before he found a space near Chandler’s left elbow. There he slowly etched “Qian De Le,” the Mandarin rendering of Chandler’s name, into his skin. A few mildly painful minutes later, China was indelibly stamped onto Chandler.

It is a souvenir from Chandler’s unlikely Chinese adventure. He has visited the Great Wall and the Forbidden City in Beijing, ridden the bullet train to Shanghai and begun his own Chinese microblog (a version of Twitter, with Chinese censors) while playing forward for the Zhejiang Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association in the eastern city of Hangzhou. Had this been a normal year, Chandler, 24, a restricted free agent and rising star with the Denver Nuggets, would have most likely spent last summer considering lucrative offers from the Nuggets and other teams in the National Basketball Association. But because of the N.B.A. lockout, and the prospect of losing an entire N.B.A. season, Chandler bolted overseas in September, among the first of several players to sign in China. Then in November, earlier than many anticipated, the lockout ended. Players who signed in Europe or elsewhere opted out of their contracts and returned, like swallows, to the familiarity and multiyear contracts of the N.B.A.

Not Chandler. If the Turkish league or the Spanish league was content to rent N.B.A. players for a few months, the Chinese league most definitely was not. China had demanded its own indelible stamp from the foreign players: a signature on a binding contract that forbade them to return to the N.B.A. before the end of the Chinese season, no matter what. They were trapped.

“I made a decision,” Chandler told me when I visited him in Hangzhou in the middle of December. “You make a decision, you live with it.” The C.B.A. regular season ends on Feb. 15, but because the Zhejiang Lions are likely headed to the playoffs, Chandler’s exile will probably last a few more weeks after that.

If Chandler is frustrated by his predicament, Commissioner David Stern can probably sympathize. Stern and the N.B.A. are confronting their own China trap, having misjudged what, for now, is possible there. Not too long ago, the N.B.A. had visions of empire: it formed a Chinese subsidiary, N.B.A. China, and made plans for an N.B.A. league in the country, complete with state-of-the-art arenas and retail N.B.A. stores selling licensed merchandise.

What made all this seem possible, even logical, was that the Chinese league was kind of a joke. I saw this firsthand when I spent the 2008-9 season following the Shanxi Brave Dragons, a team owned by an eccentric Chinese steel baron. The C.B.A. fervently wanted to emulate the N.B.A., but it was more like a crazy carnival instead. The refereeing was often shady, the coaching at best mediocre and the level of play sometimes downright awful. Even though basketball was one of China’s most popular sports, several teams struggled to attract more than a few thousand fans. The N.B.A. was far more popular, with higher television ratings and a huge fan base crazy about Kobe Bryant and other stars. The N.B.A. also had Yao Ming, the Chinese center who became an All-Star with the Houston Rockets and was so popular in China that domestic television ratings doubled and tripled for Rockets games.

Those advantages are now fading. Unable to overcome injuries, Yao retired from the N.B.A. after last season and is a part of the C.B.A. as the owner and public face of its team in Shanghai. Television ratings for the Chinese league have jumped, partly because of the added star appeal of exiled N.B.A. players like Chandler, while ratings for the N.B.A. have declined since Yao’s peak years. The C.B.A. has also received a boost from its most surprising star, Stephon Marbury, who has proved unexpectedly adroit at public relations in China after his tumultuous time in the N.B.A. Perhaps the N.B.A.’s biggest challenge of all is that the C.B.A. is part of the Chinese government, under the control of the ruling Communist Party.