TORONTO (Reuters) - After a reluctant move to America’s Dairyland, Yi Jianlian is slowly starting to embrace life with the Milwaukee Bucks in wintry Wisconsin.
As culture shocks go, few stops on the National Basketball Association (NBA) circuit could present more challenges for a young Chinese player.
So it was understandable that Yi and his handlers balked at the idea of going to Milwaukee after the Bucks used the sixth overall selection in last year’s draft to claim the immensely talented 20-year-old.
Yi could have expected a frosty welcome from slighted Wisconsinites but he says the only cold reception he has had to deal with has been the winter weather.
“On the court and off the court there are a lot of things to get through,” Yi, speaking with the help of an interpreter, told Reuters before a recent game against the Toronto Raptors.
”On the court the games we’re playing are very hard and off the court it is hard to get used to living in a city where it snows all the time.
“But except for the fact that it is a little bit cold I think everything is okay.”
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.
The Bucks, however, ignored the warnings, selecting Yi then launching a vigorous campaign to convince the power forward that Milwaukee was not Mars.
An unhappy Yi looked ready to force a trade until basketball officials on both sides of the Pacific, including China Basketball Association (CBA) chief Li Yuanwei and, according to reports, NBA commissioner David Stern, became involved in the negotiations which ended in late August with the Bucks’ prize draft pick agreeing to a multi-year deal.
Yi and Milwaukee have slowly grown more comfortable with each other and Yi is steadily winning over converts with his efforts to fit in.
Perhaps the biggest hint that Yi is adapting to life in Milwaukee is the fact that he follows the local National Football League (NFL) team Green Bay Packers, even though the intricacies of American football remain a mystery.
“Until we haul him off to (the Packers’) Lambeau Field he probably won’t understand what’s going on,” said Bucks coach Larry Krystkowiak. “I don’t care what anybody says, you’re dealing with country, culture issues, league issues, you’re dealing with perceptions. It’s really hard.”
Having arrived in the NBA with nearly the same weighty expectations and fanfare that greeted compatriot Yao Ming when he landed with the Houston Rockets as the NBA’s top pick in 2002, Yi is working his way through a solid but unspectacular rookie campaign, averaging 10 points and 5.7 rebounds a game.
His play has sometimes impressed but has also exposed the huge learning curve he faces.
The seven-foot (2.13-metre) Yi’s progress is watched closely by millions of basketball fans in China and scrutinized by American and Chinese media.
His first NBA game broadcast back to China attracted 100 million viewers, according to one Chinese television station estimate, while the Bucks schedule a separate interview time for Yi whenever they play in a new city to accommodate the many media requests.
Just over three months into his NBA career, Yi has not made the impact some had predicted but Krystkowiak believes that, given time, his prize pupil will emerge as a league all-star.
“Do you know what Dirk Nowitzki averaged when he was a rookie?,” asked Krystkowiak. “It was eight points and three rebounds a game so right now he is ahead of that pace.”
German Nowitzki, a forward with the Dallas Mavericks, went on to become the first European to win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award last year.
”There’s a lot of talk, a lot of expectations but it’s not going to happen overnight,“ added Krystkowiak. ”It’s going to be a learning experience for him. I know he’s going to come out the other side of it being a lot stronger and a more capable player.
”He’s been very interested into jumping into what we’re doing. He had the possibility of bringing a translator with him from China and we had a local student and he chose to have the local person help him.
”He wants to be more and more part of our culture rather than make anybody feel we have to cater to him. You get on the bus and say hello to him in Chinese and he turns around and says: “Hey what’s up.”
Editing by Clare Fallon