If you’re like me, you are always surprised to hear about basketball players who once were once stars in the NBA, now playing in China. Specifically the Chinese Basketball Association. The first question I would ask is are they that deseprate for the money or do they just love the game of basketball that much? But then I did some research and discovered that it’s actually a good career decision for these players.
Why Do NBA Players Play in China? There are many reasons why a former NBA player would play basketball in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA); this includes a lucrative contract, endorsement deals, fame, and competition. In a massive country such as China with a huge market for basketball, more and more players are flocking over to the CBA from the NBA. Some players are on the verge of retirement, others just couldn’t cement themselves in the NBA.
Basketball in foreign countries can be hard to understand how things work there, so I will give a brief overview of the different leagues, salaries and structure of the CBA and the country of China and why more and more ex-NBA players are playing in Asia.
Why do basketball players play in China?
The average length of an NBA career is just under 5 years, due to injury, being unsigned, or not being able to find their place in the league. Many players who struggle in the NBA lose their love for the game of basketball only to find purpose in another league. One such player by the name of John Lucas III who stood at 5 feet 11 inches struggled to stay on one team for more than a year in the NBA, he lost his love for basketball until he decides to chase his dream overseas.
When he was played in China he felt like he had a purpose once again in basketball playing for the Fujian Sturgeons averaging 26 points a game and feeling like he was a superstar in China much like Lebron James in the NBA. Many NBA players who go to play in China find that they are instant celebrities as the fans are well aware of the NBA and its players.
The popularity to play in China came from Stephon Marbury. Marbury was on his way to being a superstar in the NBA upon entering the league but struggled. Some say it was ego others say he was just cancer on every team he played on. For a player that played 13 years in the league and averaged 19 points a game, in his 4 attempts at playing in the postseason, he never made it past the first round of the playoffs. (Ok, I lied, he did, but he was well past his prime playing 11 minutes a game with the Boston Celtics in 2009).
Marbury no longer wanted to play in the NBA at the age of 31 years old and decided to go to play in the CBA. It was the best thing ever did for his career dominating the league and being the star he had always dreamed of. Marbury was a celebrity in a huge market who successfully won 3 championships with the Beijing Ducks adding an MVP to his name.
Word got back to the US of Marbury’s Success and more NBA players from that time started to transition over to play in the league. The positives outweigh the negatives, the most difficult part of the process is the culture shock and being on the other side of the world away from your family.
How much do players get paid in China?
The average Chinese Basketball Association player salary is anywhere from 1 million to 2 million dollars a season. The max amount a player can be paid can be no more than 7 million dollars. Now you might be thinking that these NBA players should just stay in the NBA, but when you are only playing 46 games over the course of 5 months, those numbers don’t look so bad now do they.
This is why you are seeing more and more NBA players who are older or have lost a step play in the CBA and I think if your able to adjust to the culture which may be the hardest part then it’s a very lucrative deal. The CBA player salaries and salary cap seems to be on the rise also, this will be interesting in 10 years if players are making a couple more million a year for a shorter season.
How big the player’s name is to the basketball world matters as to how big of a contract you could potentially sign with the league. With a big name comes also shoe deals and endorsements in a market that is bigger than the US, not bad now is it. Your contract may be smaller in comparison if you were to play in the NBA, but if you factor in endorsements and other endeavors you may be making much more than had you signed an NBA contract.
How many basketball leagues are there in China?
China is made of almost $1.4 billion people and out of those 1.4, a reported 600 million are fans, and 300 million play the sport. 300 million is the equivalent to the population of the US. The US has over 10 professional and semi-professional basketball leagues in the country. China only has 4 levels of basketball. Those are as follows:
CBA – Chinese Basketball Association – First tier
The CBA is regarded as the best Professional Men’s basketball league in Asia, it’s inaugural season was in 1995/96. With 19 teams in the league, the CBA has shown steady growth every year since their birth.
NBL – National Basketball League – Second tier
The NBL was founded in 2004, with 15 teams this is a semi-professional league is considered a stepping stone into the CBA. Much like the G-League is to the NBA.
CUBA – Chinese University Basketball Association – Third tier
Only founded in 1996, University/College basketball has grown in the last 25 years. Much like the NCAA, players play in a year-end playoff tournament called the CUBA Big Eight. The top two teams from each division will make the playoff. That’s 8 teams out of 31, talk about a competitive league.
CHBL – China High School Basketball League – Fourth tier
Many future basketball hopefuls never had a chance to play basketball in high school in China, The CHBL suffered from over a billion people in the country but only 84 Schools that had basketball teams. In 2019 Nike had partnered with CHBL to increase the number of teams to 372 high school basketball teams while restructuring and organizing the high school basketball league in China. To go with this women’s teams and leagues were included along with a newly expanded playoff system. They are making basketball more popular than ever now starting in schools.
Talent in the CBA
We must note that although the CBA is a very good league for basketball talent it is not the NBA or the Euroleague. This is why many former NBA players will enter the league and dominate the stat sheets, One such player was Erick McCullom scoring 82 points, a record in the CBA. Jimmy Fredette is another player who has had multiple 50, 60 and 70 points games playing in the CBA.
Many of us see this and think why are these players not playing in the NBA. It just isn’t the same, infact the CBA wouldn’t even compare to the G-league. There has yet to be a guard from the CBA that has made his mark into the NBA.
The question would remain if the league actually prepares the player for such a league, this is why more and more exposure to the game of basketball is making their presence into China at a development level. NBA certified coaches and trainers are now working in China funded by the NBA in order to help the game of basketball grow and hopefully one day find the next Yao Ming.
Is the NBA popular in China?
The NBA is very popular with over 500 million viewers from China alone watching NBA programming. China’s market is responsible for 10% of NBA’s revenue, and when a popular player from China makes it to the league you can bet they have millions of fans supporting them watching from home their every move.
This is why NBA popularity exploded in China. Yao Ming was the first-ever Chinese person to make the NBA and bridged the gap between the people of China and the NBA. When Yao was drafted from the Houston Rockets, the games were broadcasted in China as early as 3 or 4 am in the morning, with many fans watching their fellow citizen play. This was the start of a major market that the NBA knew they had to tap into. This was followed by NBA Exhibition games played in China with regular-season games and playoffs broadcasted on their networks.
If the NBA could they would have a team from China in their league, but that would be too difficult to do due to travel. A flight from the US to China is around 15 hours. Also, the political views of Americans and the Chinese can be considered vastly different, as the Sports in China are governed by their leaders.
Notable NBA players that went to China to play Pro?
The rules of the CBA only allow for 4 foreign players on a team at a given time, this is to prevent a team from creating a superteam of basketball greats. Some notable names who have played in China that have also played in the NBA are:
- Stephon Marbury
- Gilbert Arenas
- Tracy McGrady
- Metta World Peace
- Steve Francis
- Michael Beasley
- Aaron Brooks
- Jimmer Fredette
- Al Harrington
- Kenyon Martin
- Jeremy Lin
- J.R. Smith
Players who have played in CBA that made the NBA
Of the list below, no player had a career as successful as Yao Ming did, infact it’s not even close. Many of these Chinese-born players failed miserably barely finishing out one season. But the fact remains that they still made the NBA the toughest league some will say there is to make. If you haven’t noticed all of these players are almost 7 feet tall or bigger.
The most notable player on the list is Yao Ming, Yao played 3 seasons in the CBA won one championship and numerous awards in the league even averaging almost 40 points and 20 rebounds a game in playoffs. That sounds about right for a 7 foot 6 center playing against players who on average 6 feet 5 in the league.
Yao’s success in the NBA was nothing short of amazing. Yao’s capabilities of being 7’6 and agile with great footwork really helped be the player that he was for the 7 years he played in the league. Unfortunately, he had to retire at the age of 30 his foot couldn’t handle his body anymore. Although he didn’t win any championships he did manage to average 19 points and 9 rebounds a game. Yao was inducted into the Hall Of Fame in 2016.