MANILA, Philippines – Six NBA veterans are playing in the 27th FIBA-Asia Championships here starting today with China topping the cast in enlisting Wang Zhizhi, Yi Jianlian and Sun Yue. The other ex-major leaguers are Iran’s Hamed Haddadi, Japan’s naturalized player J. R. Sakuragi (formerly Henderson) and Qatar’s Jarvis Hayes.
There are seven naturalized full-blooded American players in FIBA-Asia rosters, namely, Sakuragi, Hayes, Kazakhstan’s Jerry Johnson, the Philippines’ Marcus Douthit, Jordan’s Jimmy Baxter, Chinese-Taipei’s Quincy Davis and Bahrain’s C. J. Giles. Another naturalized player is South Korea’s Eric Sandrin who should be considered a dual citizen as his mother is Korean. Sandrin now uses the name Lee Seung Jun. He got his Korean passport in 2009 at the age of 31. FIBA requires dual citizens to show passports of their two countries by the age of 16.
China coach Panagiotis Giannakis, 54, was an NBA draft pick himself but never played in the league. He was the Boston Celtics’ ninth round pick in the 1982 draft out of Hellenic College in Massachusetts. Nicknamed the Dragon, he is a legend in Greek basketball as a player and coach. Giannakis was the Greek captain when the national team won the European title in 1987. He signed a four-year, non-guaranteed contract to call the shots for China until the 2016 Olympics but wasn’t the first choice for the job. David Blatt and Ilias Zouros were offered the position before Giannakis. Giannakis is China’s fourth foreign coach after Del Harris, Jonas Kazlauskas of Lithuania and Bob Donewald.
Wang Zhizhi, 36, was the first Chinese player ever to play in the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks in 2000-01. But he wasn’t the first Chinese to see action in a US pro league as that distinction belongs to 6-8 Zheng Haixia who played two seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks in the WNBA in 1997 and 1998. Wang was the Mavs’ second round pick in 1999 but wasn’t the first Chinese drafted as Song Tao was picked on the third round by the Atlanta Hawks in 1987.
The 7-foot Wang’s age was under question for years as initial documents showed he was born in 1979, probably to suit the requirements for youth competitions. But when he went to the NBA, his real age surfaced in official travel papers. For a while, Wang was blacklisted by Chinese basketball officials for refusing to return home during an impasse in his NBA career. He later appealed for reinstatement with the national team and was accepted back. Wang played in five NBA seasons with Dallas, the Los Angeles Clippers and Miami, averaging 4.4 points. He is playing in his fourth FIBA-Asia Championships and third in a row. Wang was on the China team that won gold medals at the Asian Games in 1998, 2006 and 2010.
Yi Jianlian, 25, was picked on the first round by Milwaukee in the 2007 draft ahead of Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Marco Belinelli and Tiago Splitter. The 6-11 forward played five years in the NBA with the Bucks, New Jersey, Washington and Dallas. In 2009-10, he averaged 12 points and 7.2 rebounds with the Nets.
Sun Yue, 27, is a 6-9 guard who was the Los Angeles Lakers second round choice in 2007. He played only 10 games for the Lakers, scoring a total of six points, in 2008-09. At the FIBA-Asia Championships in Wuhan two years ago, Yue averaged 9.1 points and 4.2 rebounds. He played for China in the last two Olympics.
Hamed Haddadi, 28, was never drafted by an NBA franchise but has played in five NBA seasons with Memphis and Phoenix, earning $7.4 million. He was cut by the Suns last June and it isn’t likely the Iranian will be picked up by another NBA team. The 7-2 Haddadi averaged only 2.2 points in 151 total NBA contests. Ironically, the first Iranian to be drafted in the NBA is not in Slovenian coach Memi Becirovic’s lineup. Arsalan Kazemi was selected on the second round by Washington in this year’s draft but isn’t in Iran’s roster for the Manila tournament.
JR Sakuragi, 36, became a Japanese naturalized citizen in 2007. The 6-8 former UCLA forward was Vancouver’s second round pick in the 1998 NBA draft and played 30 games for the Grizzlies, averaging 3.2 points on a salary of $287,000 in 1998-99. In 2000, he played in two forgettable games as an import with Mobiline in the PBA. Henderson reportedly changed his surname to Sakuragi to speed up his naturalization process. Sakura means cherry blossoms and Hanamichi Sakuragi is the main character of the popular Japanese manga “Slam Dunk.” In an expected second round match against the Philippines, Sakuragi will likely be defended by Gilas’ Marc Pingris whose nickname happens to be Sakuragi.
In NBA history, other drafted Asians were Japan’s 7-8 Yasutaka Okayama (eighth round, Golden State Warriors, 1981), China’s Yao Ming (first overall, Houston, 2002), China’s 6-11 Xue Yuyang (second round, Dallas, 2003), South Korea’s Ha Seung Jin (second round, Portland, 2004) and Qatar’s controversial Congo import Tanguy Ngombo (second round, Dallas, 2011). China’s Batere Mengke played with Denver, San Antonio and Toronto in three NBA seasons up to 2004 although he was never drafted. The 6-10 center, now 37, became an actor after retiring from basketball.