Semi-Pro: Yao Ming Buys His Former Chinese Team

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Xinhua / Zuma Press

Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets is the new owner of the Shanghai Sharks

The American dream unfolds as a familiar tale: a poor kid works hard and grows up to be a rich, successful businessman. The Chinese dream isn't so different, except in the case of basketball star Yao Ming, it goes something like this: a poor kid is pushed into a sport he has little interest in, he brings a lackluster team in Shanghai to victory in the national championships, and he gets drafted by the Houston Rockets, where his offensive prowess earns him seven NBA All-Star awards. Fast-forward to the present and the 7-ft. 6-in. center faces bench time because of a foot injury that some speculate could end his career. What to do but follow the Chinese dream and become a successful businessman? On July 16, Yao's agent told China's state-run media that the 28-year-old Shanghai native is buying his former Chinese basketball team, the Sharks.

Home-team affection notwithstanding, it's not clear whether the Sharks will be a good investment for China's richest sports star. After Yao departed for the U.S. in 2002, the Sharks went from national champions to perennial league basement dwellers. At the same time, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) has languished, in part because young Chinese players would prefer to watch the high-octane antics of the NBA rather than the second-rate efforts of their national league, where poor coaching and antiquated playbooks have stunted the game. It doesn't help, either, that China's best players, like Yao and the New Jersey Nets' Yi Jianlian, have fled the CBA for the klieg lights of the North American league. All in all, the CBA lost nearly $17 million last season, and the Shanghai club is among one of the most financially troubled teams in the league.

The Sharks are currently owned by an unlikely consortium that includes a Shanghai media group, a domestic airport operator and a state sports institute. According to China's official news agency, Xinhua, Yao is in the process of buying out shares from some major investors. No estimate has been released, however, of just how much Yao will spend on his former team, for which he started training as a young teenager.

The Sharks' precarious finances were thrown into further turmoil this year when a major sponsor, a fertilizer and fireproof-material conglomerate called Xiyang Group, pulled out of a contract two years early. If Yao's ownership deal does go through, as expected, it's not clear how much input Yao will have in shaping the team. Although he is a product of the state-run sports machine that still dictates much of the Sharks' athletic direction, Yao has, in the past, issued oblique criticisms of the creativity-stunting and motivation-sapping style of Chinese hoops. Even if he takes the helm as the Sharks' primary owner, spurring change within a state athletic system may be too much for this big man to handle.