After Yao the NBA Cheers Yi

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Clive Rose / Getty

Yi Jianlian

Five years ago today, the Houston Rockets used the first pick of the 2002 basketball draft to bring a soft spoken 7' 6" center to the NBA. As a player, Yao Ming may or may not have been as good as advertised in his first five years in the league — he has been frustrated by injuries throughout much of his career; but as a vehicle to bring the NBA and its sponsors to the most populous country on earth, he has lived up to expectations.

His impact was evident at Thursday's 2007 NBA draft in New York City. After much-hyped college stars Greg Oden and Kevin Durant were selected as the top two choices this year, the Milwaukee Bucks used the sixth overall pick in the draft to snap up Yi Jianlian, another seven footer from China — albeit a more athletic one who has been compared to NBA all-star (and German import) Dirk Nowitzki. And like Yao before him, he is already surrounded by a sense of intrigue and anticipation. Web sites from Hooplah... Nation—a blog dedicated to the New Jersey Nets—to ESPN and have already speculated endlessly on just how good Yi is, how old he is (Yi says 19, but some teammates from the Guangdong Tigers, the China Basketball Association team he plays for, say he’s 22),and most importantly, just how high he would go in the draft.

The answer: high enough to ensure that Yi is the next big thing to emerge from China. The son of a couple of postal workers from Shenzhen, he is part of what Yao has wrought. His trail from gawky teenager growing up in southern China — he was 6'3" by the time he was 12, when he played in his first basketball game — to the brink of stardom quietly delights the powers behind the global sports marketing machine that the NBA has become, because they helped get "The Big Yi" (pronounced "E", a la the nickname of hall of fame forward Elvin Hayes) where he is today.

Those powers are the sneaker companies — Nike and Adidas — who wage a ferocious battle to sell athletic footwear, gear and clothing to consumers in virtually every country in the world. None of those markets is more important than China. Nike brand President Charlie Denson said last week that China would surpass Japan by 2009 and become the company's second largest market worldwide.

Critical to that growth is what the companies call "grassroots" marketing, a key component of which is helping develop future stars, who can wear and promote the company's brands in a surging market. To the footwear companies, a player from China with the potential to play in the NBA is worth far more than his weight in gold, as Yao has shown.

That's why five years ago this month, as Yao prepared to become the NBA's number one pick, Yi Jianlian, then either 15 or 18, sweated through drills and games in a Shanghai gym, one of an elite group of players from all over east Asia. He was participating in an annual Adidas all star camp. He was a revelation, "the best player in the camp that year by far," says former NBA all star Detlef Schrempf, who now works for Adidas (which took over Reebok in 2005). These all star camps are "very important parts of our marketing and outreach programs," says Ichiro Shigeta, Asia Pacific Sports Marketing Manager for Adidas, and it's easy to see why. For the companies they serve as a global early warning system: look out, this kid is good, someday soon we may want to sign him. Yi was named the MVP of the Adidas camp in 2002, and the next month went on to the U.S. to play at the company's global all star camp, which brings together young players from the U.S., Asia, Latin America and Europe.

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