July 8, 2002

Yao Ming's move to the NBA aided by GSB prof

When Yao Ming, a part of the Chinese National Team's "Great Wall", went to Santa Barbara to work as a counselor for Michael Jordan's basketball camp, he turned several heads, including Jordan's. Every night, Michael would get together with his counselors for a brief scrimmage. One night, Jordan was coming down the court, taunting Yao, after sinking a three-pointer. "Can you do that?" Jordan said. In the next play, Yao picked his spot, received the ball, and connected on a three-pointer. "Wow. The big guy can shoot," Jordan said.

The problem with Yao is not that he's talented, dominant, or does not have the range to play in the NBA. It has been the need to clear China's red tape and get the permission to let Yao play. This past week, on June 28th, Yao Ming was finally selected by the Houston Rockets as the first overall pick in the NBA draft. He became the first international player, born outside the United States, to be selected as the first overall pick in the NBA draft.

What happened? Why did all of the sudden Yao, who has been trying for many years to play in the NBA, get the permission to finally play in the US?

The answer is in part, John Huizinga. Huizinga, a deputy dean and professor at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, had an instrumental part in helping Yao become the first overall pick of the NBA draft.

Huizinga, a certified agent for the NBA player's union, was first asked by Yao's cousin, Erik Zhang, a graduate student in the GSB, to help in the negotiations between the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), Chinese government, and potential NBA teams that wanted to draft Yao. When Huizinga was first approached by Yao and Erik, he was attending the Loyola University tryout, a showcase for prospects to be observed by NBA general managers, scouts, and local media. Afterwards, he had dinner with Yao and they connected; they talked about basketball, NBA, and all sorts of issues Yao was concerned with. Eventually, Mr. Huizinga was asked by Erik and Yao to join their team and help in all the things that needed to be done prior to the NBA draft.

When I asked about whether Erik and Mr. Huizinga were de facto Yao's agents, Mr. Huizinga explained, "No, well technically yes, two people are agents. I'm registered with the player's union, the NBA players union. Liu Hiao is an officially licensed Chinese agent. So, there are only two of us that [are] officially agents. Erik is a part of our team, but he isn't a licensed agent, anywhere."

He then talked about the lengthy, "soul-searching" process it took for Houston to decide whether they were willing to draft Yao with their first pick, when they could not get a definite confirmation that they could sign Yao to a contract. He corrected several misconceptions many had that Yao needed clearance by the CBA to enter the draft. "Anyone who is his age, that is 21, to be 22 this year, is eligible to be drafted. Underclassmen have certain procedures to go through to become eligible. But given Yao's age, nobody needed to do anything to make him eligible for the draft."

It was instead a case of whether Yao could get the permission to play in the NBA next season. Mr. Huizinga explained that Houston needed clearance from the FIBA, the international ruling body on all matters related to basketball, to sign Yao to a contract in time to get him to play for them next season. In order for that to happen, FIBA needed a letter from CBA stating that Yao was no longer playing in the Chinese basketball league. Unfortunately, days prior to the NBA draft, it became clear that that letter would not materialize.

He explained that on the night before the draft, at one or so in the morning, Houston received a letter from Shin Lin Chang, who is the head of the CBA. "[He] gave the Rockets the level of assurance they needed [that Yao would be able to play for them]. That letter was sent in Chinese," he said. In fact, he explained that they needed to find Erik, Yao's cousin to translate the letter.

"Not surprisingly, the Rockets wanted an independent translation, and when all translations were done and everyone agreed to what the letter said, it was at that point, the Rockets felt they had the assurance they needed. They told us that they would be selecting Yao. That was pretty close to draft time," he said.

When I asked about why exactly was getting Yao out of China so difficult, he explained, "Anytime you're going through the first time, you're encountering difficulties because you're not only trying to do something for this specific instance, but you're also setting precedence for what's coming. You try to think of the precedence you're setting and you're dealing with people who are trying to figure something out. So I think, first and foremost, the challenges and impediments we faced, it's always harder to do something for the first time."

"[We're dealing with people] wanting to be very careful with what precedence they were setting. And I think that was part of it… Doing something for the first time and also doing something that you anticipate would have a lasting impact, a legacy, [there is] a feeling that there is a lot of pressure to do it right."

Huizinga responded to comments made by Charles Barkley regarding Houston's wisdom in choosing a player with such a complicated political and financial situation. During TNT's coverage of the NBA draft, Barkley, a former NBA all-star, suggested that he would take another player over Yao.

"I think until everything is finalized that I don't say the details of the arrangements that are going on. But I will say this, while I'm not worried that people will take advantage of Yao, I'm cognizant of people who will try to take advantage of Yao. I view it as one of the things that I feel best about what I have accomplished so far. Is to fight off these attempts. So people need to be careful when they say something will happen. I think they are probably a little ahead of what 'may' occur. They are correct that one needs to be aware of such pressure. And certain people, I would put myself in this, would have to work very hard to ensure that doesn't happen. In this stage, I will say that I am optimistic that he will not be taken advantage of. And I certainly plan to speak to Mr. Barkley at the appropriate time. I think it's unfair and it will be inaccurate to say that he has been taken advantage of," he replied.

Huizinga was not disappointed that the Rockets won the lottery and, with it, the opportunity to pick Yao. "There were a lot of positives with Houston. It was clear they needed a center. It was clear they had a pretty stable coach, general manager, [and] they have won NBA championships. They have some very talented players on their team."

Now that the draft is over, Huizinga is unsure whether he will continue to aid the development of Yao's career.

"Exactly, what role I will play, now that the draft is behind us, is something we'll have to see… [But] it's been an unique experience, you could certainly say. Never anticipated having something like this," he said.