Milwaukee Bucks: Yi Jianlian and the toll of perception

ORLANDO, FL - OCTOBER 31: Yi Jianlian #9 laughs with teammate Michael Redd #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks during player introductions before the game against the Orlando Magic at Amway Arena on October 31, 2007 in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2007 NBAE (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - OCTOBER 31: Yi Jianlian #9 laughs with teammate Michael Redd #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks during player introductions before the game against the Orlando Magic at Amway Arena on October 31, 2007 in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2007 NBAE (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Yi Jianlian‘s time with the Milwaukee Bucks, and in the NBA, was strange from start to finish as the perception of him, and his perception of America, did little to help.

Nothing about Yi Jianlian was how it seemed during his time with the Milwaukee Bucks, or at least that’s how it often appeared. In truth, that was enough to make what should have been the significant difference between perception and reality immaterial for many when it came to the mysterious Chinese big man.

Yet so much was shrouded in mystery when it came to the Guangdong native, that over a decade after he was drafted, in many ways we’re no closer to establishing what was true, what was imagined, and what may simply have been lost in translation.

If ever there was a player who could act as living and breathing proof of how a narrative can grow legs of its own and take off in the NBA world, it was Yi.

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It’s not unusual for there to be an element of uncertainty surrounding young overseas draft prospects, particularly those coming to the U.S. from Asia, but in Yi’s case a closer look at the questions already circulating from his youth career may have provided something of a warning for what was to come.

Three years prior to Yi being drafted, Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated wrote about China’s new sensation as he competed in Athens at the 2004 Olympic Games. Even then, the opening of that piece provided something of a sample of the ongoing questions and confusion that would follow Yi in the years to come.

"“Yi Jianlian’s age is a mystery, even to his teammates on China’s basketball squad. ‘He is 16, you say?’ asks Yao Ming, the team’s star center. ‘I thought he was 17.’ Some think Yi could be as old as 22, but he is listed by the Chinese Olympic Committee as 16 and is thought to be the youngest hoops Olympian in history.”"

The status of being the youngest Olympic basketball player in history is instantly impressive, but the possibility of Yi being as old as 22 is the kind of red flag that was to make for a complicated pre-draft process over the 24 months that followed.

(Details of Yi’s age remain something of a mystery to this day. A quick Google search shows Yi to be 30-years-old, while the big man’s Wikipedia presents his age as 33. The source of this discrepancy is a 2008 report from Li Zhigang of Sports Illustrated China, who found a high school registration form from Yi’s hometown which placed his date of birth in 1984, rather than the 1987 date which had been provided to the NBA.)

Under the guidance of his agent, Dan Fegan (who died tragically in February 2018), Yi’s path to the NBA was carefully managed, plotted and controlled. Fegan prepared tapes of Yi in action to send to NBA teams, while only a select number of teams were invited to attend his workouts as attempts were made to guide the seven-footer toward a preferred market.

Of course, those workouts became the thing of legend in their own right. Rumors circulated about Yi staging an infamous workout where he went one-on-one with a chair, with the supposed incident becoming a frequent point of reference for Bill Simmons, then of ESPN.

While the story of the workout with the chair subsequently became widely accepted by fans and media throughout the NBA, its veracity has become the source of scrutiny in recent years.

Matt Giles of Deadspin undertook a detailed investigation in 2017 where he concluded the video, which many believe they have watched, likely never existed, and the origin of the story may have originated from a Danny Ainge comment where he mentioned a chair as a figure of speech to reflect Yi’s 1-on-0 workout.

In other words, the Yi Jianlian workout tape could fall in the same category as Shazaam and the spelling of Berenstain Bears as examples of the Mandela Effect.

After the publication of the Deadspin investigation, Chris Mannix of Yahoo! Sports confirmed that at the very least a workout with a chair did actually happen while he was in attendance, although it didn’t play out in the way it has been characterized in the years since.

"“First, to be clear: Yi did not conduct a full workout against a chair, at least not the one I saw. In the spring of 2007, I was dispatched by Sports Illustrated to write something on Yi. It was a multipurpose assignment; whatever I would write for SI, I would flesh out and write a longer cover piece for the new SI China. So through Yi’s agent, Dan Fegan, I arranged to sit in on Yi’s workout with the Sacramento Kings.The workout wasn’t all that memorable, but three things stuck out. First, there were a lot of drills that showcased Yi’s athleticism. At 7-feet, 246 pounds, Yi was an excellent athlete, and I recall seeing a lot of him getting out in transition. Second, he wasn’t working out against anybody. Not unusual — it makes little sense putting a raw, Chinese player in against a more polished college star.And third: There was a chair. I don’t recall Yi posting up against it (that wouldn’t make much sense, anyway) or dribbling around it. But I remember when Yi was running through catch-and-shoot drills, the chair was used as a prop for a screener. He would run around the chair, catch and fire midrange jumpers.”"

Whether Yi posted up a chair or not in pre-draft workouts isn’t all that important, but considering the various oddities and questions that followed him throughout his NBA career, it was fitting that a bizarre incident from before it even began would effectively end up amounting to his legacy in the U.S.

One team who would be unable to confirm or deny the legend of the chair was the team who ended up selecting Yi with the sixth overall pick in the 2007 Draft. The Bucks weren’t among the teams invited to Yi’s workouts, and according to Steve Keating of Reuters, they were even actively discouraged from selecting him.

"“With only a tiny Chinese community, Milwaukee had not been on Yi’s list of preferred destinations. His agent Dan Fegan neglected to invite the Bucks to private pre-draft workouts and cautioned them not to waste a valuable pick on his client.”"

In spite of the best efforts of Yi’s representatives, the Bucks had an advantage over their many rivals when it came to accruing knowledge on the Chinese youngster. Former Bucks coach Del Harris had coached Yi as a part of the Chinese national team during the 2004 Olympics, while his son, Larry Harris, was the man tasked with making the call on the sixth overall pick as Milwaukee’s general manager.

That reasoning was even put forward as a passionate defense for the risky selection when Larry Harris addressed the media following the draft.

"“You’re always defending decisions and things that you do. It’s the nature of the beast in professional sports. I guess having a father that coached him is irrelevant. I guess that doesn’t matter, and he’s been coaching for 50 years.I can tell you this. There isn’t any other GM in the league talking about Yi who ever coached him, other than my father. I think I have a leg up on some people. But what I don’t want to get misconstrued out there is, I’ve never seen the guy, and I woke up (Thursday) and drafted him. It’s just not the case.”"

In fact, the Bucks were said to have scouted Yi over 30 times in a four-year period, yet that did little to help them convince a player who adamantly didn’t want to play in Milwaukee. It’s not uncommon for international players to threaten refusing to play if they end up in a situation not of their choosing following the draft, but few dug their heels in like Yi did with the Bucks.

Yi had a certain perception of America established, perhaps based on formative experiences in Los Angeles attending parties, and film premieres for Shrek the Third, and Pirates of the Caribbean. In his eyes, Milwaukee did not fit the bill.

As a result, the Bucks were forced to make an unconventional push to sell Yi on signing a deal to play in Milwaukee. Over the course of two months, not only was Yi lobbied by NBA commissioner David Stern and China Basketball Association chief Li Yuanwei, but joining Bucks owner and then U.S. senator Herb Kohl in the push to sell Milwaukee was the then Governor of Wisconsin, Jim Doyle.

Shortly after Yi had signed a multi-year deal, Doyle even took a break out from a trade trip to China to have a face-to-face with Yi in Beijing, providing him with details about Milwaukee and the excitement among fans for his arrival in the city.

Before the deal was officially done, Yi’s representatives did everything in their power to force a trade elsewhere. Speaking to China Daily in the aftermath of the draft for an article titled “Yi Jianlian’s team plot escape from Milwaukee“, Yi’s Chinese agent Zhao Gang revealed:

"“We started to contact teams that had shown an interest in Yi right after the Draft. His representatives and I won’t sit here and do nothing just because he was picked by Milwaukee. We are considering Yi’s future at the Bucks and are looking at trade possibilities.”"

Asked about playing for the Bucks while in Dallas with the Chinese national team in the days that followed his selection, Yi simply denied to comment.

Eventually, on August 29, the Bucks and Yi finally agreed to a multi-year deal in Hong Kong, where Kohl had spearheaded a team of Milwaukee representatives. The Bucks’ willingness to make the trip to visit Yi was reportedly significant in him agreeing to sign with the franchise too.

Considering the long road and all of the controversy and confusion that the process to get Yi to play in Milwaukee involved, his tenure as a Buck could hardly have been any more inauspicious.

Yi played in 66 games for the Bucks as a rookie, averaging a modest 8.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. Viewed as a potential foundational piece alongside Andrew Bogut when he was drafted, just one year later, a matter of hours before the 2008 Draft, Yi was traded to the New Jersey Nets.

The Bucks, now under the control of John Hammond following Larry Harris’ firing, took back Richard Jefferson in the deal, and were happy to use Yi as little more than an incentive for the Nets to take on Bobby Simmons‘ unwanted salary. From the ESPN report at the time:

"“Milwaukee has been looking to rid itself of several bloated contracts and decided it was worth trading the rookie that former general manager Larry Harris selected last year along with the rest of Simmons’ contract. Simmons has two years and a little more than $20 million left on his deal.”"

At the time of his dismissal, Harris believed the Bucks were close to contention, yet history proved him to be very far wide of the mark as the best Milwaukee could deliver was two first round exits in the five years that followed.

For Yi, moving on from Milwaukee provided him with the opportunity to play in the kind of larger markets he had desired prior to the NBA Draft, yet stops in New Jersey, Washington and Dallas did little to help his career.

After just five seasons, Yi was out of the league by the end of the 2012 season, and although he briefly pursued a comeback with the Lakers in 2016, it ultimately failed to stick.

In Bucks history, there’s no question that Yi stands out as one of the franchise’s most monumental draft busts, yet many believe that overall characterization as a player is unfair to Yi. Speaking to Matt Giles for his Deadspin feature on Yi, Pete Philo a former Timberwolves scout remarked:

"“Yi Jianlian is definitely not a bust. A bust can’t play in the Olympics and score 30 points. A bust is a guy that never developed and just can’t play, and you can’t say that about Yi. He could be a backup 4 [or] 5 in the league right now. Yi just always had bad timing.”"

In the same piece, ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla pointed to the dysfunctional situations Yi found himself in during his time in the NBA as causes for his failure, while Kevin Pelton, also of ESPN, referred to the manner in which Yi’s success in China is often completely overlooked due to his NBA career souring the perception of him as a player.

In reality, it’s hard to assess Yi without considering all of the strangeness that accompanied him to America. The confusion surrounding everything from his age, his willingness to sign with the Bucks, and even the oft-discussed chair workout points to the incredible dysfunction that already followed Yi, regardless of whether he later ended up playing within directionless organizations and situations.

Depending on perspective, Yi’s legacy could be viewed as a tangled web of lies that was much more interesting than his actual abilities, or as a case of honest misunderstandings and cultural differences that were ultimately too significant to bridge.

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Either way, the perception of Yi was always tied up in what people had already heard about him, rather than what he could have been set to demonstrate. Perhaps those whispers were worth taking on board as a warning sign, or maybe Yi Jianlian could have been so much more if not for a pile of misconceptions that helped to bury his NBA career.