While the NBA Pauses, China Is Ready to Play Again. For Better or Worse

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In Sports Illustrated today, Alex Prewitt writes about an American playing for a team in China that decided to stay there even though the season has been indefinitely suspended.  What catches my eye in this article is that each team in China is restricted in rostering only two non-Chinese players at a time in an effort to foster domestic talent.  If we did that in the States would the media have a field day?  Here’s the report:

When the CBA shut down because of COVID-19, just one American player stuck around to see it play out. Pay attention; you might learn something from his experience on the front line of an epidemic.

Each morning Allerik Freeman wakes up in his room at a five-star hotel, smack in the South China city of Dongguan where he and his Shenzhen Aviators teammates have been living and practicing ever since the Chinese Basketball Association indefinitely suspended games on Feb. 1 in response to the novel coronavirus. Forgoing breakfast, the 25-year-old guard, late of Baylor and N.C. State, stretches out his 6’ 3” frame and cranks out 100 push-ups and 200 sit-ups, diligent about maintaining his in-season exercise regimen, even though there are no games to play.

From there he grabs his gym bag and medical face mask, and he enters a world of precautionary measures. A hotel employee checks Freeman’s temperature as he exits the lobby, hovering an infrared gun over his forehead before greenlighting passage. The same thing happens at the security gate of the Aviators’ training facility in Dongguan. And again when Freeman steps on the court for practice, while team employees disinfect basketball racks and distribute hand sanitizer. And again before he can leave through the security gate. One last scan awaits upon his return to the hotel at night . . . assuming he doesn’t also order room service.

“They bring you the food,” Freeman says, “and they have the thermometer in their other hand.”

As COVID-19 proliferates around the globe, eclipsing 130,000 confirmed cases of infection and reaching official pandemic status this week, Freeman isn’t necessarily experiencing anything beyond what a billion-plus other people have throughout China, where the virus was identified by researchers more than two months ago. But his situation resonates for another reason.

Out of nearly 40 foreign “imports” in the CBA—each team is restricted to rostering two non-Chinese players at a time, a rule meant to foster domestic talent—only Freeman chose to remain in China during the outbreak. He continues to practice with the Aviators, often twice a day. He eats grilled salmon with fruit salad at the hotel restaurant every afternoon. He always wears a mask when he steps outside, which isn’t often.

“For sure going stir-crazy,” says Freeman. “Just been playing video games, watching a lot of YouTube, a lot of Netflix. I had to get one of my teammates to give me a better VPN. Even if we only have one practice, I go to the gym and get extra [work] in. A lot of stretching. You name it, I’ve been doing it to keep myself occupied.”

It’s not that 30-odd other CBA imports suddenly packed up and fled the country midseason. The league was already paused for its Lunar New Year break in late January when players learned that games would be cancelled, so most imports simply rerouted and flew home rather than return. In diverting to the U.S. from Bali, for instance, former NBA guard Ty Lawson, now under contract with the Fujian Sturgeons, says he left behind “all my stuff in China.”

By staying put, though, Freeman earned not only kudos from the Aviators, in the form of a good-soldier bonus worth nearly 25% of his total salary and a guaranteed contract of more than $100,000 per month for the rest of the season. (A 2018 All-ACC honorable mention with brief overseas stops in Hungary and Turkey, he was previously earning that amount on a month-to-month, non-guaranteed basis.) For the past seven weeks and counting, Freeman has also received a closeup look at the life of a dormant sports league, previewing the grim reality his peers in the NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS are now beginning to face.

“It’s definitely not ideal,” Freeman says. “But I think, in a few years, I’ll look back and reminisce. Like, dang, I can’t believe I was in the center of the storm when it was all happening.”

  • 03/13/20
  • Alex Prewitt