The Lost Generals: Fear, Loathing and Chucking in the Middle Kingdom

In which Gilbert Arenas and Tracy McGrady get injured, grow unhappy, score points and fail to change Chinese basketball in different ways. Part two of two.
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For part one of The Lost Generals, on what brought McGrady and Arenas to China, click here.

For both Tracy McGrady and Gilbert Arenas, the great Chinese Basketball Association experiment would unravel quickly. For Arenas, it took roughly six minutes minutes of game time in Shanghai’s first game of the season, against defending CBA champs Beijing.

Arenas, in as a starter, started his career in China with a crisp triple from the right hand side of the arc as Stephon Marbury, the NBA exile whose success in China was a model for both McGrady and Arenas, watched. It was only one shot, but it was dispatched with such cool self-assurance that the home crowd fell silent for a few seconds. Here, it seemed, was something different and very exciting. That lasted just a few moments more: Beijing’s anxiety and Shanghai’s swagger both vanished around the midway point of the first quarter, when Arenas suddenly pulled up, clutching his thigh. He would not return; Shanghai were routed 94-78. Later diagnosed with a groin injury, Arenas missed the next two games, and the undermanned Sharks fell to 0-3.

Over in Shandong province, McGrady’s Qingdao team lost their opener on the road to the Fujian Sturgeons on a Sundieta Gaines buzzer beater; Eagles coach Kang Jung-soo was canned just one game later. It was glaringly and instantly obvious that the Eagles didn't have anything approaching a CBA-caliber team after the loss of their two best Chinese players in the offseason. They did have McGrady, but with every team knowing exactly where the ball was going, a perpetually double-teamed T-Mac looked overwhelmed and decidedly human.

Despite the teams going into round four with a combined 0-6 record, most of China still came to a standstill when McGrady’s Eagles came to play the Sharks in Shanghai. Fans began arriving two hours in advance to watch the Eagles warm up; journalists flew in from across the country to cover the event. Yao watched the game from his owners box, a hobbled Arenas took it in with the many camera crews under one of the baskets and T-Mac, the most prominent person at the game not in street clothes, arrived to a deafening reception from the Shanghai crowd. When the Shanghai P.A. shouted 'Let's go Shanghai!', most of the Shanghainese crowd roared back 'Let's go Qingdao!'. This might be a good time to remind you that Tracy McGrady is hugely popular in China.

McGrady delivered for his fans, going 23/9/3 on the day, but the Eagles were still resoundingly overmatched; even without Arenas, the Sharks hounded and harried Qingdao throughout a blowout 93-77 win. The most notable part of the game was midway through the fourth quarter when McGrady appeared to gesture towards Yao high up in the stands. The Chinese icon nodded back like an emperor receiving tribute. Then he allowed his team to get back to crushing the visitors from the North.

***

It never really got better for either McGrady or Arenas. Qingdao would lose their first twelve games in increasingly embarrassing fashion; blowouts became routine, fellow brand-name import DJ Mbenga was cut and many wondered if the Eagles might go 0-32. McGrady was not so much the solution to this slide as an embodiment of its origins.

It was clear he wasn't prepared for the quirks of Chinese basketball. The away travel in the CBA is backbreaking, often involving long-haul flights on substandard local airlines. Most venues lack proper heating and are arduous places to be for two hours in shorts and jerseys; this is especially true in the north, which takes the full brunt of China's unrelenting winter, and where Qingdao would, supposedly, have had a home-court advantage. Refereeing is also extremely poor and officiating teams are routinely and widely condemned for their incompetence. McGrady was, geographically and in every other possible sense, as far from the NBA as he could be.

Qingdao, too, is also not an easy place to survive as an American living overseas for the first time in his life. Though it could be worse—the city is a relatively pleasant city by the coast—Western food and people who speak English are few and far between.

All of this meant T-Mac quickly transformed into a glum, prickly loner. He refused to deal with the media, demanding sums of $5000 for a group interview and $10,000 for a one-on-one. He was also tired of the young Chinese players who tried to make names by showing him up on the floor. In round nine, Qingdao were playing away at Beijing when the Ducks’ up-and-coming small forward Ji Zhe gave McGrady a Mutumbo-esqe finger wag after an impressive score. A furious T-Mac fired an elbow into Ji’s head; the cheap-shot was beamed around the world, but McGrady didn't seem to care. A few weeks later, he reacted furiously to several refereeing calls in around nineteen game with Bayi and walked off the court alongside his teammates in protest. Later that night, Qingdao’s star player took to Weibo and called the refereeing crew 'blind mice.’ A startled CBA head office quickly fined him 10,000 yuan ($1,600) and banned him for a game.

These are the things we know. Rumors about McGrady were also rampant, both because of how difficult he had proven to be off the court and his inability to live up to his billing on it. One story claimed that the American would shun his teammates and practice by himself on occasions. Another, quaintly gossip magazine-ish one, claimed that Yao had not called him once during T-Mac's time in China and that McGrady had taken this as a snub.

After a thirty-two game regular season, the Eagles eventually limped over the finishing line with an 8-24 record, the worst in the league. Despite being the main focus of every team’s defensive game plan, McGrady still finished the season averaging 24.9/7.2/5.1; he shot over 50 percent from the field and was voted in as a starter for the CBA All-Star team after picking up 2.2million votes- the most for any player that season. While his supporting cast was lacking in every conceivable way, McGrady’s skills were clearly still such that he could produce big numbers in China; he flirted with triple doubles on several occasions. On his individual production alone, McGrady had a pretty fine season in Qingdao. His body language and sour affect, though, spoke with sullen eloquence of how badly he was looking forward to the earliest possible flight home.

***

If things were better for Arenas in Shanghai, it was mostly by default. The American missed almost all of the Sharks first fifteen games as the team went 4-11. Before Arenas returned, Shanghai’s iconic Chinese star Liu Wei went down with an injury. He’d miss much of the second half of the season. The team was in freefall.

What usually follows, followed. The famously fickle Shanghai fans stopped showing up leaving the vocal hardcore fans who would gather behind both baskets during home games and had paid increased season ticket prices during the brief period of post-Arenas euphoria wanted blood. There was also talk of mutiny in the dressing room among some of Chinese players whilst elements of the local press also began to turn against the head coach, Daniel Panaggio. At one point, the largest Sharks supporters group began chanting at games for the American to be sacked and replaced with Bob Donewald, the former coach of the Chinese national team.

In round seventeen, Beijing flew in to play their hated rivals and destroyed Shanghai, 101-88 in front of a half-empty arena. Stephon Marbury gleefully ran up the score on his way to thirty-eight points; the dejected Sharks team couldn’t wait to get off the floor. Panaggio, despite being one of the key reasons his team had made the playoffs the previous season, was fired the following day. His final act as Sharks’ coach would be conceding that the signing of Arenas was a gamble that had gone disastrously wrong during the postgame press conference.

In handing the reins to a relatively inexperienced interim coach, Wang Qun, Shanghai basically waved the white flag on a terrible season with half the schedule to play. By the time Arenas returned in early January, expectations were minimal. With nothing to lose, Wang tasked Agent Zero with the sole mission of putting up thirty-plus points a game. It worked; Arenas reveled in his unflickering green light and Sharks’ fans, starved of any entertaining hoops to that point, lapped it up. In his most notable game, Arenas came off the bench to score 37 points in thirty-four minutes against the Xingjiang Tigers, one of best teams in China; the Sharks won 107-104. Shanghai, despite a record that placed it squarely in the league’s bottom five, was suddenly and bizarrely the place to be in Chinese hoops, just had Washington had been during Arenas’ giddy zenith.

Just as D.C. had, Shanghai fell hard for Arenas, who, for his part, seemed as outwardly happy as he had at any time since his gun- and idiocy-aided fall from grace in States. He was a popular sight at various Western drinking holes, and bought 800 tickets to a game against the Dongguan Leopards (close to a fifth of the arena’s total capacity) for his Weibo followers as a way of apologizing for his injury problems. Several of the Sharks’ Chinese recruits would attempt to beat Arenas on Call Of Dutyonly to have to go through with a forfeit of the American’s choosing when they inevitably lost. Many of the younger local roster plainly couldn’t believe they were suiting up with a player they’d grown up watching on TV.

Gilbert Arenas is still Gilbert Arenas, which is to say that he was volatile and reliably scattered brained, both of which made him an obvious delight for journalists. After one practice, he gleefully named and shamed the team’s worst NBA2K players to a press pack that were used to overseas players being withdrawn-unto-sullen and cautious. When asked if there were any Chinese players he liked, Arenas replied there was several, but that he couldn't remember any of their names. He also incorrectly misquoted his own medical treatment, telling journalists he'd recently gone to the US to get 'Genocline' shots; he meant Regenocline, the same thing Kobe got on his 2011 trip to Germany. There was a lengthy delay in reporting the full story until Chinese journalists realized the mistake. 

It was fun, but it wasn’t quite working. The team that had been extravagantly hyped four months earlier had stuttered to a 10-22 record, the worst finish for Shanghai since the CBA adapted a thirty-two game regular season. Arenas, for all his brief magic, only played fourteen games, and was really only fit for ten of them. His figures for the season- 20.4 points per game, 7.6 rebounds per game and 3.2 assists per game- are the signs of what might have been; he could and should have been good for thirty points a game during the regular season but fate had other ideas. Indeed, injured once again, he was there to applaud the home crowd during the final fixture of the season, an appropriately desultory 99-77 blowout to the Liaoning Jaquars. As Arenas stood in the center circle in street clothes, the mournful look of a man who wished he could have done more was impossible to hide.

***

Qingdao were within two games of the playoffs last year and twelve months and the addition of one multiple-time NBA All-Star later, they finished as the worst team in the league. Shanghai finished its season in the basement, too, and minus a successful head coach, who had to be canned to pacify the team’s fans during the extended injury suffered by the team’s own imported ex-All-Star.

What happens next is not quite clear, although China and T-Mac are almost certainly done. Some NBA players can make a lucrative and happy living in the CBA—Arenas may still be one of them—but it didn’t much help for McGrady to be the most popular and recognizable black athlete in China; he clearly didn’t enjoy having his only secure and private space be a hotel room stranded within a second-tier Chinese city.

It’s easy to imagine that the T-Mac experiment might have been successful in a bigger city with more western culture and better teammates. But those cities weren't available, and it’s hard to think of where McGrady might fit in China even if he wanted to go back. Beijing isn't big enough for both T-Mac and Marbury, Guangdong wouldn't take a chance with someone so combustible and Shanghai seems unlikely due to the ill-defined but palpable cracks in McGrady's relationship with Yao.

Arenas, on the other hand still has unfinished business and in his final interview before leaving Shanghai, he admitted that he wanted to come back to the CBA, ideally with the Sharks. In China, Arenas knows that he is still a big deal and a player that fans from other teams want to see; he relishes that as much in Shanghai as he ever did in Washington. There is, too, the erasure of his painful past: Javaris Crittenton’s name never comes up, for one thing, and Arenas bluntly stated in a recent interview with a Shanghai ex-pat magazinethat he doesn't want to return to the NBA. He likes the CBA's thirty-two game regular season, and given that he is still receiving the money from his amnestied Orlando Magic contract, Arenas can afford to be a star attraction in a smaller market. Whether a team would take him on next season after the chaos his arrival inadvertently wrought this year remains to be seen.

When they first arrived, one Chinese newspaper referred to Arenas and McGrady as 'great generals.' It’s a title that sounds more than a little over the top to western ears, but given the nuanced nature of Mandarin it spoke volumes about the level of respect accorded to both. To outsiders, the CBA might seem like an elephant graveyard, a place where chuckers and tweeners go to limp through a lucrative zombie period before returning home to get fat and take up golf.

But there was a sense that McGrady and Arenas, while certainly both in the go-abroad-for-playing-time stages of their respective careers, were working on something different. There was a great deal of hope among Chinese fans that McGrady and Arenas would open a new era in the game; to see it all end badly, and indeed as a reflection of the league’s longstanding shortcomings, has been a tough blow for Chinese basketball fans.

This isn't to say that CBA teams would hesitate to sign another ailing former great from the NBA. Were, say, Vince Carter to announce his interest in coming to China, a dozen teams would be open their checkbooks and pester his agent immediately. But with each passing season in which the CBA gets access to NBA talent, Chinese fans are coming to understand how radically different basketball is between countries, and how much off-court comfort matters. This, more than anything having to do with the games or teams, is why the CBA has so humbled many of the NBA supermen who came to China, only to struggle amid everyday injuries, homesickness and extreme cultural displacement. J.R. Smith, K-Mart et al came for the money and were unsuccessful; Arenas and McGrady were meant to be different and weren't.  

What started with the Birdman’s arrival in 1999 will almost certainly continue in 2013. More NBA players will inevitably look to China for employment, and teams will be eager to pay them. But, in one of the world’s most lucrative but unpredictable leagues, simply buying a premium imported talent doesn’t guarantee anything. Agent Zero will be back for another try if his legs will hold up; Tracy McGrady will ultimately leave as a fallen icon. These are bigger names than most, but in a sense they’re just names on a long list of American stars who have tried and failed to make a home in what remains one of the most impenetrable frontiers of world basketball.

Gilbert Arenas newspaper image swiped from the great Truth About It.


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