McGrady Goes To China

In China, Tracy McGrady never stopped being Tracy McGrady. Now, he might be on the fast-track to mogulhood.
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See if you can spot the NBA player in this photo.

Image via SDChina.com.

Even by the usual standard for airports, Chinese airports are no fun. Bland, uninspired, and franticly mass-produced concrete purgatories, China's hundred or so airports are almost without exception odes to what's possible with a lot of cheap labor and very little imagination. In what's already a competitive country when it comes to getting from A to B, these buildings inspire a particular kind of urgency. Everyone in an airport is there to leave, by definition. China's airports simply increase the incentive.

The nation's worst airports, unsurprisingly, serve second- or third-tier cities that most people in the West have never heard of and most Chinese people have never visited. Qingdao Liuting Airport is one such example. Nothing lines the unremarkable, underlit corridors save lonely vending machines that stand as marooned and out of place as Easter Island statues. Police walk around to break up the monotony rather than to enforce the law—move along, they don't even need to say, there is nothing to see here. Yet on the morning of October 24th, for at least for an hour, Qingdao Liuting Airport was both on the map and, implausibly, something like the place to be. This was because Maidi—Tracy McGrady, as he’s known in English—was coming through it.

There's the McGrady known outside of China: the prodigy who shone for a while as one of his generation's great scorers, reduced by injuries to a hobbling journeyman. That McGrady stayed in America. Here in China, McGrady is a full time icon, undiminished by age or reputation. There is no talk of him putting up 5.2 PPG last year as a backup with the Hawks. For Chinese fans, McGrady's final three—the one launched right in the face of Brent Barry—during thatgame against the Spursin 2004 may as well have happened yesterday.

Walking down the Qingdao Liuting jetway and towards the noise he had to know was waiting, McGrady may as well have been walking back in time: the player who spent the last few years coming off the bench had stumbled back into prime time. One fan had flown from across China to join hundreds of others, ranging from regular Joes to the great and the good of Chinese journalism, simply to watch their hero walk through a remarkably unremarkable airport lounge. Even McGrady's new teammates, many of whom had grown up watching the new captain-by-default on TV, were waiting for him in their Qingdao Eagles tracksuits. They formed an honor guard for the American and pushed a path through the mob and towards a waiting fleet of luxury cars. Obscured as he was by shades and a hoodie pulled over his head, McGrady’s emotions were tough to read. But his old stateside reality, and the days of being told he was an aging utility player, must have felt like a distant memory.

***

The NBA's regulation superstars, the LeBrons and Kobes, are well known and popular in China, but there remains a remarkable level of adulation reserved for anyone who played along with Yao Ming during the big man’s time with the Houston Rockets. China tuned in for their countryman, but the players that took the floor alongside Yao received some affection of their own. Chinese basketball fans remember Shane Battier's clutch threes and Rafer Alston's crossovers; they can tell you Cuttino Mobley scored 17.5 PPG in Yao’s first season in 2003 or that Dikembe Mutumbo averaged 5.3 RPG in 2005. I have met fans that have demonstrated passionate opinions about Kelvin Cato and Bob Sura, and who know and care more about Richie Frahm than Richie Frahm’s neighbors probably do.

Playing alongside Yao can do more than make a NBA player well known in China, though. It can also earn that player some money. Case in point being when a broken, unfit and clearly unprepared Steve Francis was offered a contract with the Beijing Ducks in 2010. That Francis had been out of basketball for two years didn’t phase the Ducks, then a floundering organization in a city that didn’t love them much. Their wager was that if they could get Francis, a popular former teammate of Yao’s, onto a court in the capital, the crowds would come—and the Ducks were right. In his first appearance in Beijing white-and-blue, a jet-lagged Francis had to be summoned from the bench for the final seventeen seconds of a game lest a vocal home crowd begin to riot. As soon as he stepped on the court, Francis received a thunderous standing ovation.

Ultimately, it didn’t work out. The former Franchise and Chinese basketball didn’t fit, and the guard left after six games. Still, CBA fans had their hearts set on McGrady, arguably the only American with greater Chinese goodwill than Francis. In the wake of the failed Francis experiment, the prospect of T-Mac playing Chinese hoops felt almost inevitable in the Middle Kingdom.

***

What's most significant about McGrady’s decision to sign with Qingdao is that it isn’t simply a make-do option for a player who couldn’t get an NBA gig. Nor is this a Francis-style stunt/curtain call. Instead, all the signs are pointing to McGrady as a player who is making a uniquely personal investment in China for the long run.

While McGrady’s $800,000 salary is relatively modest for a player of his reputation—by comparison, JR Smith was given a cool $3 million to play for the Zhejiang Golden Bulls last year—his contract will be structured to help him build and develop business opportunities in the lucrative and burgeoning Chinese market. This sort of contractual arrangement, in which an overseas player takes a smaller salary but is given support with business ventures, is not quite new in Chinese basketball. Francis effectively halved his salary demands to come to Beijing for the same kind of deal. If McGrady is smart, though, he’ll hew closely to the example set by another NBA old boy in China, Stephon Marbury.

Now coming into his fourth season in China and his second with the Ducks, Marbury has quietly fenced off a chunk of the Chinese sports market; Wells Tower wrote about Marbury’s triumphant Chinese afterlife in GQ, but Marbury has continued to build out and build up during his time in China. Being based in Beijing has helped him get additional assistance and investment from local businesses as he continues to mass-produce his low cost Starbury shoe line; in a basketball-crazy country where most fans can’t afford the more expensive American brands, business is still booming. This along with being one of the biggest names in the league has already earned him a considerable sum of money; it seems likely that he’ll earn a lot more in years to come.

McGrady has already put down some roots in his potentially huge business empire and is the face of Chinese beer brand, Xuijin. His advert, in which he gets his beverages stolen in ‘hilarious’ circumstances by four Chinese youths whilst trying to rescue a basketball, runs regularly on TV. "Drink with me, brothers," McGrady tells the would-be thieves in patchy but admirable Mandarin. Laurence Olivier he isn’t, although both the performance and concept are a million miles better than Shaq’s effort for rival brand, Harbin.

With that beer endorsement checked off, a lucrative shoe line is seemingly a couple of months away. It surely didn't escape McGrady’s attention that Qingdao, already a relatively scenic city by the sea, is home to one of China’s largest free trade zones. If McGrady himself is based in Qingdao, all of his future products will presumably be made within the QFTZ; this will entitle McGrady to huge tax breaks on those goods' production and export. Shandong Province itself is also a hugely wealthy part of China, meaning McGrady can expect to receive plenty of help building his brand in a region that had a GDP of $711billion in 2011.

McGrady's team is going to get something out of the arrangement as well, of course. A small team based on the east coast of China, the Eagles haven’t finished a season with a winning record since their introduction to the league four years ago. Their fortunes changed for the better almost instantly after adding McGrady. Within days of announcing the McGrady signing, Qingdao’s front office confirmed it would be moving to a bigger home arena due to colossal ticket demand. And thanks to their new export on the wing, a visit from the Eagles—once one of the CBA's finest working definitions of "afterthought"—will now ensure a sell-out for every host team.

For all concerned, then, McGrady in China is a game-changing development. Viewing figures and attendances within the league look certain to rise; Qingdao now have a marquee name to help transform a fledgling organization; and McGrady, who made over $160 million in salary during his 15 NBA seasons, may stand at the cusp of mogul-hood. All that, and he’ll also get as many shots as he wants. Last season, the Eagles ran their entire offense through Lester Hudson, who has warmed benches in Boston, Memphis and Washington over the years but was a proven operator in Chinese basketball. The plan worked to a degree—Hudson scored 33.6ppg and the Eagles came within two games of making the CBA playoffs—but the aftermath wasn’t so good. The team’s best Chinese player, Li Gen, was undoubtedly annoyed at being marginalized and left for Beijing in the offseason. Even if Qingdao had a choice in the matter, McGrady is now the first, second, third and fourth scoring option on his team; DJ Mbenga, who joined the team in early November, is a typically Mbenga-n fifth.

Having long watched him from afar, China is finally getting the chance to watch one of their genuine sporting heroes in the flesh, however depleted by injury and hard use that flesh may be. More than that, though, McGrady's arrival could be a catalyst for change off the court. Given the road to success that Marbury has helped define, McGrady's late-career transition to player/mogul may seem quite normal in a few years. The only thing that might seem strange about it, in retrospect, was that day one of this particular revolution began in one of the most boring airports in China.


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