Sports

The Improbable Chinese Resurrection of an NBA Draft Bust

Michael Beasley might well be too much of a goofball to make it in the NBA, but his first season abroad showed that he just might be perfect for China.

by Andrew Crawford
Feb 2 2015, 1:30pm

Photo by Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

On the other side of the world, in a basketball-mad country of over a billion people, an eccentric American is currently one of the biggest attractions around. He is averaging 29.4 points a night and just shattered the record for the most points scored in the Chinese Basketball Association's All-Star game.

The American in question is, somehow, Michael Beasley, the second player picked in the 2008 NBA Draft, who just seven months ago was being shouted at by LeBron James for eating ice cream while using waffle fries as a spoon. Beasley is not the first American player to arrive in China with a reputation, or to put up huge scoring numbers in the CBA, but Beasley has always been different. Example: one of the first articles to come out about Beasley in the Chinese press mentioned the time Beasley missed a game after claiming to have caught a cold from his dog.

It remains to be seen whether Beasley's one transcendent season for the Shanghai Sharks will be his last, but it was memorable all the same. Here's what you missed while watching the NBA, instead of Beas's successful conquest of China.

That Time He Played with Delonte West

The Sharks are owned by Yao Ming, who tends to run his team with a conservative outlook that befits his living-deity status. His team's foreign imports have typically been low-key individuals, but Yao will make exceptions; this is, after all, the team that signed Gilbert Arenas in 2012. In retrospect, that Agent Zero season—a campaign in which the former Washington Wizard immediately established lengthy "Call of Duty" tournaments and was frequently seen in expat bars across the city—was practice for something greater. This year, it all came to fruition. This year, Yao (and GM Eric Zhang) had Michael Beasley and Delonte West on the same roster.

Well, for two glorious games at the start of the season at least; West was even the team's co-captain. In the first game of the season, both Americans scored 29 points each and it briefly looked as if the most improbable two-man show in the history of Chinese sport was going to work out. Then, tragically, West got hurt, and much of the offense was shifted onto Beasley whilst West was eventually cut. For the sake of posterity, however, we'll always have this promotional photo, and the dream of what might have been.

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That Time He Almost Became the Victim of the Worst Flop In CBA History

Chinese basketball is at times terrifyingly physical, although this is more a result of incompetent refereeing rather than an expression of some gentlemen's agreement to let everyone quietly handle their business in the paint. At the same time, and for the same ref-related reason, the CBA is also home to spectacular levels of flopping. NBA fans think they know flopping. They do not know flopping.

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Kenyon Martin learned this in 2011.

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Play-acting isn't the word, this is full-blown, scenery-devouring, Busey-grade thespianism. It was inevitable that this sort of trouble would find Beas.

And so it did, in late November, during a fairly heated road game with the Shandong Bulls. By then, the Sharks were 2-7 and frantically trying to replace the injured West. With no other scoring talent on the team, Shanghai coach Ma Yunnan's team-talk essentially consisted of handing Beasley a piece of paper reading 'POINTZ!' and hoping for the best. The result was as enjoyable, and as ineffective, as you might expect.

An argument that started between Shanghai and Shandong's point guards eventually worked its way to the taller guys, meaning Beasley and former Milwaukee Bucks center Miroslav Riduljica. The two started talking, Shandong's Wu Ke barged in to well-actually some junk in Beasley's ear, and in response Beasley tried to push Wu away with his head. At which point this happened:

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Wu did not underplay this scene, and turned a gentle encounter with Beasley's hair into a headbutt of epic proportions. The Chinese media would later roast Wu for turning himself into a 6'10" fainting goat, but the trickery worked—Beasley was given a technical and an ejection and Shandong regained momentum despite a plucky effort by the outmanned Sharks. Beasley finished with 30 points, but the Bulls won 97-88.

That Time He Went Full-JR-Smith on National Television

Beasley was the victim in the Great Wu Non-Headbutt, but he quickly got up to speed in terms of gamesmanship. By early December, the Sharks had turned a terrible start around and were now 8-9, something that was largely down to Beasley's scoring heroics. A run of seven wins in nine games had taken them back to the cusp of the postseason, and Beasley was scoring in bushels on a nightly basis.

Beasley was feeling himself so much, in fact, that he attempted the ultimate basketball troll move: trying to untie another player's shoelaces at the free-throw line. He did this, critically, against the Bayi Rockets, one of the most successful (and widely despised) teams in China.

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What you are watching, here, is Beasley—playing well in a game his team is winning— leaning in to try and snag the shoelaces of rookie swingman Luo Kaiwen. Luo was able to fend Beasley off, but it proved one of the American's few misses on the evening; Beasley went on to score 31 points and shoot almost 70 percent from the floor in a Sharks win.

Even after footage of the incident was widely circulated by Chinese media, the league decided not to pass comment, let alone issue a fine. Even the notoriously stuffy CBA front office hates Bayi.

That Time He Scored 59 Points In the CBA All-Star Game

Many have watched Beasley's record-breaking scoring performance on YouTube, although it's little-known that Beasley wasn't even in the starting lineup for the game, and was in fact a late addition to the roster. He still managed to destroy the scoring record despite coming off the bench.

By this point in the season, Shanghai's midseason fightback had been halted by a combination of injuries and teams increasingly daring the non-Beasley members of the Sharks' roster to make shots, which they mostly couldn't. Shanghai was out of the playoff picture. This left Beasley utterly in his element—balling out of control for a going-nowhere team.

By the All-Star Game, Beasley knew that he would be done with the current CBA season in less than 10 days. He could have simply played it safe—and protected his prospects for a possible midseason return to the NBA—by not risking injury in a meaningless game. Or he could have done the Beasley thing, which is what he did. He binged on three-pointers and dunks. Though he was initially told that he'd scored 61 points due to a scoreboard error—to be fair, he put a lot of stress on that scoreboard—Beasley's final haul of 59 still obliterated Quincy Douby's previous record of 44. To put into context just how much Beasley embraced the ethos of 'fuck it, I'm gonna let it fly,' the second highest scorer in the 2014 All-Star game, Andray Blatche, finished with 25 points. Beasley had 34 in the second half.

Now it's up to Beasley to figure out what to do for an encore. Scoring 29.4 points a game despite routinely getting double teamed is tough, but NBA front offices already know that Beasley can score. They knew it during the last offseason, too, and Beasley still wound up in China. Still, there are some NBA teams that Beasley could help, and he might get a chance to do so.

There is, however, a more fascinating possibility. Though the CBA has previously attracted Americans to the league with the promise of five-month contracts, some teams have begun to tweak the system and offer flexible, but still lucrative, multi-year deals with an NBA opt-out. Guards Bobby Brown and Pooh Jeter, the subject of Brandon Jennings' now infamous 'why the fuck is JR Smith's brother in the NBA' tweet, both signed similar agreements with their respective CBA teams. The practice is catching on, as teams look to lock up players who can be productive scorers and also handle the various species of culture shock that come with playing basketball in China.

And, the usual goofery and some minor blemishes aside, Beasley showed himself to be such a player. He became a fan favorite in Shanghai, and even won over the local media, which came at him swinging when he first arrived in China; one interviewer told Beasley point blank that marijuana is 'completely illegal' in China and asked the American if he was still addicted to the drug. This kind of car-crash confrontation can be common in the CBA press, and is often one of the things that most baffles foreign players. Beasley, to his credit, calmly defused the question and carried on talking about how much he liked Shanghai.

In the CBA, Beasley might finally have found a league where he can not just fit in, but thrive. NBA fans like gunners, but the CBA adores them; the league's playing is staid and grunty, and players that introduce some notes of anarchy into that equation are appreciated all the more. Beasley can certainly provide instant offense, but, more than that, he provides his usual ineffable Beasley-ness to a league eager to embrace it.

For a fairly conservative sports culture, China has been exceptionally welcoming to a certain kind of oddball. Characters like Bonzi Wells, JR Smith, Stephon Marbury, and Gilbert Arenas have all made their way to China; nearly all of them flourished, and Marbury became a sort of superstar. (Wells, who flew home to America during the Chinese New Year break and simply never came back, was the exception.) Personalities like Marbury and Arenas want to be loved and their rapport with local CBA fans has tended to be a lot more personable than the majority of foreign players, whose uncertainty can make them appear aloof. The expressive, easygoing Beasley clearly treated his time in Shanghai as an adventure, and fans appreciated it.

It certainly helped these headstrong American players that they receive relative autonomy (and an unblinking green light) in China. It helps, too, that in an already dysfunctional and badly organized league like the CBA, an American import's goofs tend to draw shrugs, not hot-take takedowns; unless some criminal offense has been committed, there is probably something far more scandalous happening in the league. Whatever the case, it can work. There is a certain type of American player who tends to succeed in China, and Beasley is that type of player.

Beasley's career has perpetually seemed at one crossroads or another, but this latest one may be the most intriguing. He could make it back to the NBA, bouncing around the league as a bench scorer and walking metaphor for unfulfilled potential. Or he could stay in China and try to be Marbury 2.0, a beloved figure in a basketball mad country far from his home. The original Marbury has become the subject of statues and operas. Michael Beasley should be thinking about what might await the next Marbury.