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Seeing a budding star first, though, doesn't mean he's a lock to sign. The next year, in 2003, Nike invited Yi to its annual, one week "Big Man" camp, where again he impressed scouts who, as the NBA has gone ever more global, watch these camps with intense interest. Reebok had signed Yao a huge coup in the global marketing war but by the fall of 2003, Nike struck back and signed Yi to a six year promotional deal for an undisclosed sum.
Once the NBA draft is held in New York, that investment will start to pay the dividends. And that's why, back in Shanghai late last month, the search for the next star from China went on. At the Shanghai University of Sports, Adidas again held its annual camp. The University is a classic product of the Communist system, its campus full of students identified by the state who are there because of their skill and potential in a variety of sports, from gymnastics to Taekwando. But what was taking place on the fourth floor of a steaming hot gym on campus last month had nothing to do with Communism. Sixty one players, the vast majority from China, played spirited full court games and ran drills for three days, all under the watchful eye of current and former NBA players and coaches.
This was the same camp that Yi Jianlian had come through, exactly five years ago; it was, to be sure, about improving the young players' skills how to run the pick and roll properly, how to use a screen, how to play good defense. But more than anything, it was about a huge global company trying to mine a market that it believes, justifiably, has almost limitless potential. Asked during one of the work- outs whether there was anyone in the current crop as good as Yi had been, former NBA star Schrempf answered bluntly and honestly: "No." When he saw a public relations executive standing nearby cringe a bit, Schrempf smiled and added: "but there will be, don't worry about that. If not this year, maybe next, or maybe the year after that."
In that he's almost certainly correct. Yi is the second first round pick from China in NBA history, but he won't be the last. And for the sneaker companies and the NBA, the more the merrier. Consider that when Yi squares off next year for the first time in an NBA game against Yao and the Rockets, that will likely be the single most watched basketball game in human history as it is beamed back to their home country. It's not for nothing that Adidas and Nike believe their commercial futures lay in China. It is, you might say, a slam dunk.