It wasn’t too long ago that outsiders considered the Chinese Basketball Association one of the great unknowns in professional sports.
But in recent years, especially since the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the CBA has emerged as a viable option for borderline NBA players or veterans looking to extend their careers.
Case in point: Former New York Knicks star Stephon Marbury, who earned more than $150 million in 13 NBA seasons. He jumped to the CBA in 2010, won three championships and became beloved in China. The erstwhile lottery pick now has a small museum and a statue dedicated to him in Beijing, and a postage stamp in his honor. He also appeared in a theatrical production that portrayed his life story, and a movie is in production.
Word of Marbury’s larger-than-life success abroad quickly spread among American players, and dozens of them have followed him to China. Former NBA players Carlos Boozer, Jimmer Fredette and J.J. Hickson are playing in the CBA this season.
CBA teams haven’t been shy about luring foreign players with fat paychecks. While accurate salary figures are difficult to obtain, anecdotal evidence suggests Americans often can earn more in China than in any other league, aside from the NBA. The average salary of foreigners is reportedly climbing upward of $500,000, and $1 million deals are now common. Former Washington Wizards big man Andray Blatche reportedly earns $2.5 million per season on his current deal with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers.
It’s not NBA money for the most part, but it’s definitely an attractive payday for a league that plays a 38-game regular season over the course of five months.
With all that in mind, we tapped five Americans to share some of their experiences of what it’s really like to play pro basketball in China.
Randolph Morris: ‘A tremendous experience’
Morris, a former standout at the University of Kentucky who played in the NBA with the Knicks and Atlanta Hawks, has enjoyed one of the finest CBA careers of any American. He’s playing in his seventh season with the Beijing Ducks, having joined the franchise in 2010.
“It’s been a tremendous experience — not just basketball, but culturally, very enriching and giving me a new perspective on the world that we live in,” Morris said. “So overall, [it was] a pretty good decision to take that leap.”
Morris averaged 29.9 points and 12.2 rebounds in his first season with Beijing and has hovered right around 25 points and 10 rebounds over the course of his CBA career. Morris said the quality of CBA play is already good and continuing to improve, which surprises some Americans who come over expecting to produce eye-popping numbers.
“They come here, and they think it’s just going to be easy and they’re going to average 30 or 40 points,” Morris said. “It’s very difficult. It’s not that easy to just come over here and dominate. You can’t cheat the game and think you’re not going to put the work in and you’re going to dominate just by being American.”
As one of the longest-tenured Americans in the CBA, Morris is able to reflect on the recent evolution of basketball in China. He has seen a notable rise in attendance, a great increase in financial resources and considerable upgrades in arenas and facilities. Morris said he’s proud to have played a role in that advancement and appreciates the opportunities he has received in China.
“That’s one of the cool things I’ve gotten to see is the steady growth and being a part of that growth, knowing that we had a profound impact on the basketball scene,” Morris said. “We can look back and say, ‘We were here before it got huge. We were [part of] the grassroots process.’ ”
Jordan Crawford: ‘They really rely on you’
Remember when a young college player dunked on LeBron James during a summer basketball camp in 2009 and Nike confiscated videotapes of the incident, purportedly to keep embarrassing footage of its star pitchman under wraps? That player was Crawford, a sophomore at Xavier University who would go on to be an NBA first-round draft pick a year later. The Detroit native then played four seasons in the NBA, suiting up for the Hawks, Wizards, Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors.
In 2014, his career path led to China, where he signed with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers for a reported $2 million.
“I was intrigued by, of course, the money, and the span of the season,” Crawford said. “But from a basketball standpoint, I was intrigued because they really rely on you. I wanted to see how good I really was. They want the Americans to be the best players on the floor.”
Crawford played in only five games with Xinjiang, scoring 49 points in his last game before returning to the United States with a severe eye infection. Still, the veteran shooting guard made enough of an impression for Tianjin to bring him in last season, and he rewarded the Gold Lions by leading the league in scoring at 43.1 points per game.
Crawford said American stars are treated “like royalty” in China and that some teams offer perks unlikely to granted in the NBA. For example, he asked if younger brother Jalen, a rapper who performs under the name Willie Mac Jr., could perform at halftime of a Tianjin game. The team obliged.
“That was dope,” Crawford said. “It was cool. They liked it.”
Food, however, was another matter entirely.
“They just kind of throw you into the fire and expect you to eat live fish and go play!” Crawford said with a laugh. “You’re in the hotel, and basically they have like five or six plates of octopus — stuff you’re not going to eat. You can go a day or two without eating, and they expect you to play the game?”
So what’s the most unusual thing Crawford ate in China?
“The stuff you think is chicken that’s not chicken!” he said. “Everything else, the time, the money, you can’t complain.”
Crawford is playing for the Grand Rapids Drive of the NBA Development League this season.
Shavlik Randolph: ‘Offers were just staggering’
Like a number of Americans, Randolph was first lured to the CBA during the 2011 NBA lockout. With the possibility of losing most or all of the season, many players looked abroad, with Europe and China providing the most lucrative options.
“Compared to the leagues in Europe at the time, China was just offering so much more money,” Randolph said. “The offers were just staggering per month compared to what Europe was offering. … Plus, a lot of players that I had played with and against in the NBA had signed in China. That made me feel more comfortable that I was going to know players over there.”
Randolph, who played sparingly in his first five NBA seasons, remained in China after the lockout was resolved and routinely averaged more than 20 points and 10 rebounds in his first four CBA seasons. Because the CBA calendar spans only five months, players are able to finish seasons in the NBA — something the former Duke University product did in 2013 and 2014.
Officiating is a sensitive topic among Americans playing in China. Some have called it downright horrible. Former NBA star Tracy McGrady harshly criticized referees in 2013 and was suspended for a game after calling one crew “three blind mice.” When asked about the CBA officiating, Randolph was relatively diplomatic.
“The officiating over there makes me really appreciate the officials in the NBA and be able to confidently say they are the best officials in the world,” Randolph said with a laugh. “It makes me appreciate the skill set that they have much better. So to answer your question, the officiating isn’t really up to par.”
Last season, Randolph played in Liaoning, which lost to Sichuan in the CBA finals. The team put its players up in a hotel during the playoffs, even for home games. One night, he was bored and decided to get out for a change of scenery. Before long, hundreds of fans surrounded him, and he had to be escorted back to the hotel by police, who then asked him not to leave because of the commotion it created.
“It’s absolutely crazy,” said Randolph, who returned to play in Liaoning this season. “I’m not going to lie — it kind of felt good. It felt cool, but I don’t think I’d want that to happen every time I went out in public.”
Shelden Williams: Difficult to be away
Williams has a different perspective on playing abroad than most players.
The former Duke standout, who played in the NBA for six seasons, competed in the CBA during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. At that time, his wife, WNBA star Candace Parker, was playing for a Russian pro team, and they could see each other only a couple of times during the season. Parker would visit Williams in Tianjin for Christmas, and he would visit her in Russia during the Chinese New Year holiday. Although their daughter, Lailaa, who is now 7, was in good hands with Parker’s mother back in the States while her parents were overseas, the absence was understandably difficult for all involved.
“It’s always hard to leave my little girl,” said Williams, who is now a scout for the Brooklyn Nets. “[Until] last year, I had been away from her eight months every year of her life. At that point, we’re trying to do what’s best for our little girl and make sure that she’s financially stable when she gets older.”
That’s why the CBA presented a better opportunity for Williams than returning to the Euroleague, where he had played for French club Chalon-Sur-Saone in 2012-13.
“The money was good, and it was half the time,” Williams said. “So I was able to get back to my daughter a lot faster than if I was playing in the NBA or Europe. That was my main thing, to be able to make money and still have time to be with her.”
Williams played alongside longtime NBA point guard Sebastian Telfair with the Tianjin Gold Lions in 2013-14 and helped them reach the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
CBA teams are allowed to employ only two American players at a time, and league rules also place restrictions on playing time for international players. Williams said this meant the Lions would typically play Telfair in the first quarter, him in the second quarter and both of them in the third and fourth quarters.
Although the level of play in China is on the rise, Williams said the CBA will remain a notch below European basketball as long as those regulations remain in place.
“You can’t have that if you’re trying to be a top-tier league,” Williams said. “As far as Euroleague, you might have four or five guys who aren’t native to that country playing for a team, and they can play as much as they want.”
Josh Akognon: ‘How LeBron and Kobe feel’
There are few, if any, American athletes more qualified to speak about playing in China than Akognon.
The Cal State Fullerton alum, who played briefly in the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks, has played for five CBA franchises in six seasons while averaging 29.6 points per game.
Akognon makes no qualms about what convinced him to go China. It was purely a business decision when he signed with Dongguan after weighing offers from European clubs in 2010.
“I’d never heard of the CBA, but when they told me the money, then you start looking at everything else,” Akognon said. “I realized that Marbury was playing there, so I started looking at it more. … As long as they said that money was where it was at, I was sold, and I was ready to go.”
Akognon has also played professionally in Estonia, Serbia and Italy and is with Lithuanian club Lietuvos Rytas this season. The California native competed in the 2016 Olympics for Nigeria, where his father was born. He said that while the fan behavior in China can be crazy, it’s still a far cry from the fervor exhibited by basketball die-hards in Europe. And that might be a good thing.
Akognon said that when he played for famed Serbian club Partizan, the team once had to take a circuitous 30-minute bus ride from the hotel to the arena across the street because the scene was too hectic to simply walk over to the venue.
“It’s night and day between Europe and China,” Akognon said. “China is like the NBA. People come to watch the game and get a little bit rowdy. But in Europe, it is really their lives.”
That’s not to say Akognon wasn’t treated as a celebrity in China. He remembers one moment in particular, when he and his wife were walking around looking at Christmas lights in Dongguan. After a fan called out to him, Akognon waved back and then bent down to pick his young son up from his stroller. When Akognon looked up, hundreds of fans were gathering around him. Before long, police officers showed up to push Akognon and his family through the masses all the way back to his apartment.
“It lets you know how LeBron and Kobe feel all the time,” Akognon said. “You get a taste of the type of life they have, which is very stressful if that happens all the time.”