The Lost Generals: T-Mac and Agent Zero in China

American stars had gone to China before Tracy McGrady and Gilbert Arenas did so this year. It was supposed to be different, but it wound up being drearily familiar. Part one of two.
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For most of last November, the news that Gilbert Arenas had signed for the Chinese Basketball Association's Shanghai Sharks and Tracy McGrady had done the same with the Qingdao Eagles monopolized the Chinese sports media’s coverage. It was a happy occupation: the tone was jubilant and nakedly optimistic, and not a little triumphal. At the time, the country’s military was threatening to fill the East China Sea with warships as tensions grew with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, and yet the biggest story to most of China was still the arrival of two thirtysomethings with bad backs, busted knees, and chronically strained reputations. It was a little strange to watch it happen. But, in context, all that hype over these two fading stars made a certain sense.

It’s tough to think of any historical process culminating in the arrival of a pair of end-of-the-line former All-Stars, but there was a sense in which the arrival of the duo was a payoff of sorts. Or, if not quite that, at least a milestone in the increasing trend of good-to-once-very-good American players bringing their talents to the Middle Kingdom, a process that started nearly a decade and a half ago with another unlikely historical figure: the undrafted and then-untatted Chris Andersen. A four-month stint with the Jiangsu Dragons in 1999 earned the Birdman $40,000, which will buy a lot of throat tattoos. But, more importantly, Andersen—who finished in China with 17 points per game, 13.5 rebounds per game and 2.7 blocks per game—was probably the first Western athlete to encounter Yao Ming, who was then a unstoppable teenage center playing for the Shanghai Sharks. That the Birdman made it back to the States and became a productive player didn’t hurt the league’s reputation any, either.

Progress was slow and steady over the next decade, with a few big names taking their talents to the Far East, most prominently Stephon Marbury in 2010. Last year’s lockout changed everything, sending various out-of-contract players, most notably Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith and Wilson Chandler, to China for employment. For a month or so, the CBA was looking decidedly upscale; it was not quite Showtime, but the league did feature a decent percentage of the Denver Nuggets rotation. Then it got weird.

Smith went crazy in Yiwu, an historic but isolated city in Zhejiang province, rarely turning up to training and accruing nearly $1million dollars of finesduring his four month stay. K-Mart bought his way off the Xinjiang Tigers with only half the season played, and Chandler was released by the Guangsha Lions days before the CBA playoffs began once it became clear he had no interest in playing hard during the Chinese postseason. This wide array of not-a-good-looks combined for a cumulative and predictably negative effect: the Chinese public were largely unimpressed at how their hospitality had been exploited, and displeased at how quickly their star-studded league disintegrated.

At this point in their careers, McGrady and Arenas may not be nearly as effective on the court as any of China’s sullen ex-Nuggets, but they represented a new beginning all the same—players who appeared happy rather than resigned to being in China. From the league’s perspective, it was ideal: here were some familiar and easily marketed stars, each unfamiliarly happy to be there, and each in a position to score points and fill seats. That was back in November, before both players, thanks to injuries and frustration, destroyed their respective teams.

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It’s strange to think that the arrival of Tracy McGrady was probably the highpoint of his time with the Qingdao Eagles. An afterthought for the last couple of years in his NBA career, T-Mac was transported back to the big time in Shandong province. An honor guard of fellow Qingdao players escorted him through a packed airport amid camera crews and screaming fans. It would’ve been difficult for any player, even the Tracy McGrady of a decade ago, to live up to an entrance like that.

For Arenas though, things were a little different. Initially, the plan was for Agent Zero to sign with the Guangdong Tigers, one of China's best basketball teams and perennial favorites for the CBA title. Already boosted by the return of former player and local hero Yi Jianlian—this is the CBA, and that does count as a boost—bringing in Arenas seemed like icing on the cake. The two-time All-Star obviously thought the same and opened up a Weibo account (the Chinese version of Twitter) to announce that his bags were packed and that he was headed to Guangzhou, the biggest city in Guangdong province and the Tigers' base of operations.

Things didn't go quite as smoothly once Arenas arrived in southern China. For starters, Guangdong were concerned about their trialist's injury record; over a season a short as the CBA’s 32 games, this can be an issue. Moreover, the Tigers' are famous in China for boasting the best local players in the league, many of whom play for the Chinese national team; where other CBA teams’ game plans revolve around standing back and watching the imports do their thing, foreign players in Guangzhou are expected to buy into the Tigers’ team-oriented philosophy. There were concerns that Arenas’ shoot-on-sight approach would be a hindrance to the team. Eventually the Tigers, who had been in every CBA finals since the 2002 season, lost interest and backed away, and Arenas was without a basketball job with the start of the CBA season less than three weeks from tip-off. Then Shanghai called.

The Sharks are one of the CBA’s founding teams, but remain stuck in the long shadow of their greatest player, Yao Ming. It was Yao who took the team to three CBA finals between 1999 and 2002 and helped beat the Bayi Rockets—then one the most dominant teams in Asian basketball—at the third attempt. When Yao left for the NBA via the 2002 Draft, the Sharks’ fortunes plummeted. They lost, and the famously harsh Shanghainese populace largely abandoned them. Bills mounted and the arena stayed empty; bankruptcy was a very real possibility until Yao bought the team in 2009 while still in Houston before returning to run the team full-time after he retired the following year.

The Sharks recovered in spectacular style under new ownership, making the 2009/10 playoffs (their first appearance since 2002) and subsequently bringing in Daniel Panaggio, a veteran coach within the NBA, college and independent basketball, to maintain the momentum in 2011. The soft-spoken but uncompromising American had learned the triangle offense from Tex Winter himself as the head coach of the Quad City Thunder in the now defunct Continental Basketball Association, while Winter was still in Chicago with Phil Jackson and the Bulls. A few years later, Panaggio followed Jackson and Winter to LA and coached the Lakers’ D-League team, thus cementing himself as one of the few coaches fluent in the arcane lore of the triangle—a fact of which Yao, who needed a difference maker, was well aware.

Despite some initial opposition in the local press, Panaggio's impact was immediate and undeniable. A team largely dismissed in the 2011/12 preseason as depleted and inexperienced finished with the best defensive record in the CBA and stormed to a playoff spot; Yao had been vindicated. Not quite completely, though: Panaggio’s use of the triangle had allowed Shanghai’s Chinese players to become key components, but the Sharks still needed a proven scorer to take them deep into the postseason. When Arenas was unexpectedly booted out of the Guangdong training camp, it seemed almost too good to be true.

The trouble was that Shanghai already had their two allotted overseas players on the books—former Charlotte and Oklahoma power forward D.J. White (now with Boston) and swingman Elijah Millsap. For all intents and purposes, Shanghai and Arenas just didn’t work. But curiosity got the better of the Sharks front office. They called Arenas in for a tryout and in doing so set off a chain of events that would derail their season.

Word quickly got out via the Weibo feed of Shanghai's team captain Liu Wei, who posted pictures of him training with Arenas at the Sharks' training facilityin the south part of the city. Within hours, the images were headline news in China and every basketball fan in the country was talking about what it would mean when Agent Zero finally pulled on a Shanghai jersey. The team, and Panaggio specifically, were keen to stress this was just a trial, especially given that Millsap, whose brother Paul plays for Utah, was an NBA D-League All-Star the previous season; the Sharks reiterated in public that they were confident in his abilities. All very nice, all the right way to play it, but all more or less hollow. There was no going back. Arenas was going to join the Shanghai Sharks, just as assuredly as McGrady was joining Qingdao.

Liu Wei, entering into his 15th year as a Sharks player, made it clear he wanted Arenas, noting that the team’s 2010 playoff run had been built around a backcourt of Liu and a shoot-first combo guard; in that instance, it was Toronto's miniscule, mercurial John Lucas III. A three-time Olympian, boyhood friend of Yao and the last active member of the Sharks team that won the title in 2002, Liu had huge sway with the organization. It became increasingly clear that Millsap, a vaunted free agent signing in his own right, was the odd man out.

It wasn't just Liu who wanted the switch. One only had to look at a newspaper or turn on the computer to see that Arenas' name was in every article on the Sharks for a week. It didn't matter that Tigers had turned him away; rival CBA teams had their big name. Stephon Marbury was in Beijing; Yi Jianlian was in Guangdong, Yao's great rival for a decade; Wang Zhizhi, was still with Bayi. Even lowly Qingdao had the (once) great McGrady. Shanghai wanted their superstar and it seemed all but impossible for the Sharks to say no.

Inevitably Millsap had his contract bought out and Agent Zero was in on a one-year deal. Even then, it seemed like a risky move. Arenas had to return to America to get fully cleared by doctors before signing; Ye Xiangyu, Guangsha's tough-minded GM, whose team had been burned the previous season by Wilson Chandler, publically questioned the move. With Millsap now gone, though, the path forward was clear, for better or worse. Two days before the Sharks' first game away to Beijing, Gilbert Arenas signed his contract and joined his new teammates in China's capital city. Chinese fans had gotten what they wanted in the arrival of McGrady and Arenas. Now they would see what that would mean.


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