- The Washington Times - Friday, May 10, 2002

Since 1999, each spring has brought hopes that Chinese basketball star Yao Ming will be allowed to play in the NBA. In recent weeks, media reports have indicated Yao has been cleared to enter the draft, but the truth is less clear.

Yao didn't need clearance to enter the draft; it happens automatically under NBA rules. In the year of their 22nd birthday, international players are entered into the draft. If unselected, they become free agents.

Even if Yao is drafted, several obstacles must be overcome before he can suit up for the NBA. Proof is the experience of two other Chinese players, Dallas Mavericks forward Wang Zhizhi and Denver Nuggets forward Menkge Bateer. Both these average players had to wait years to play in the NBA, and neither is as valuable as Yao.

Wang was allowed to play in April 2001, almost two years after he was drafted by the Mavericks. Then there were rumors that the Chinese Red Army would not allow Wang to return to the Mavericks this season.

In Yao's case, recent reports in the U.S. media indicate he will have to give 50 percent of his earnings to the Chinese government. In fact, it likely will be more than that, according to Li Yao Min, assistant to the general manager of the Shanghai Sharks.

"The Shanghai Sharks have always supported Yao's dream to play in the NBA," Li said. "The negotiations are not easy. Our general management of the central sports agency has formalities that need to be looked after. Yes, it is true that 50 percent of Yao's earnings will go to the Chinese government, by way of the National Basketball Management, the National General Management and the Shanghai City Sports Management. But from the remaining 50 percent of Yao's salary, he may also have to pay a fee to the Shanghai Sharks."

This is a fee, not a Chinese government tax, as has been reported. Yao will still have to pay taxes.

The "Yao Rule," as it has been called in China, also will apply to other Chinese athletes, such as Wang and Menkge, who were not hit with such fees. As far as the Chinese are concerned, the demands are quite reasonable.

The Sharks invested in Yao as a young man and fostered his development. This season, for the first time, the Sharks defeated their rival, the Bayi Red Army Rockets, to win the Chinese Basketball Association championship. Yao is now the best player in China, pivotal to the Sharks' success, and obviously, the team stands to lose greatly if he leaves.

The Sharks have asked to be compensated should they lose Yao. In addition to charging Yao a fee to leave the club, the Sharks have asked for compensation from the club that drafts him.

"We have general ideas for what the club would like to receive in compensation from the NBA club," Li said. "We are allowed to invite two foreign players to play for the Sharks. We would like to get two bench players from an NBA club or players that the NBA club has rights to but does not use. We must also develop a relationship as a sister club to Yao's club. They demonstrate goodwill by training our coaches and allowing our athletes to train with their coaches in the off-season."

Money aside, should Yao get drafted, his NBA contract will tough to put together.

"The negotiations are not easy," Li said. "There must be nine signatures on the NBA contract: Yao Ming, his parents, the Shanghai Sharks, the Chinese agent, the Shanghai City, the National General Management, the National Basketball Management, the U.S. agent, and the NBA club. These are our rules."

In China, where government bureaucracy was invented, getting all nine to sign off will take time and negotiation.

Suggestions of defection as a means for Yao to avoid paying the Chinese fees clearly are a misunderstanding of geopolitics and the jurisprudence surrounding immigration law and defection.

However difficult and challenging, immigration to the United States is an option for Chinese citizens. For the United States, a needless fight with China especially on an issue that would infringe upon China's sovereignty is not a viable option.

The International Basketball Federation (FIBA) also will not be a factor. When Yao is given his clearance by the Chinese authorities to play in the NBA, FIBA will no longer hold any relevance. Once a player is cleared to play in another league, his playing license is transferred and the deal is done. FIBA holds jurisdiction only over national basketball federations and their affiliated clubs. As a matter of law, any dispute Yao could have regarding fees would be a civil matter and thus beyond the scope of FIBA.

There remain many hurdles keeping Yao from playing in the NBA. According to a source familiar with the negotiations, there is doubt the situation will be resolved in time for the draft. At the earliest, sources in China indicate Chinese authorities will relinquish the rights to Yao to the NBA during the summer.

In short, the Yao Ming saga is far from over. No one has any idea how things will unfold. And the powers that be in China, who could make the decision quickly, most certainly have more important things to worry about than basketball.

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