MILWAUKEE - Even after the NBA draft, the biggest international player remains a mystery.
Yi Jianlian did not travel to Milwaukee on Friday to be formally introduced. He has no plans to visit, either, with responsibilities playing for the Chinese national team starting this weekend in Dallas and then the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
Agent Dan Fegan pushed for the 19-year-old Yi to go to a city with a heavy Asian influence, and general manager Larry Harris said Fegan was shocked that the Bucks selected the 6-foot-11 Yi with the sixth pick in Thursday night’s draft.
Messages left for Fegan at his office and on his cell phone were not returned Friday.
According to Census data, Milwaukee has a little more than 1,200 Chinese residents, but those that are here are encouraging Yi to check out the city.
“I was happy to see we had drafted him,” said Steven Siy, a 41-year-old immigration attorney who attends a handful of Bucks games each year. “It’s good for the community, and it’s good for Wisconsin.”
Siy said that Yi will help people in China create a view of Wisconsin that either doesn’t exist or is negative in a place known more for beer and bratwurst than cultural diversity.
“People in China think Wisconsin and Milwaukee consists of just farmers and we don’t have any large cities or culture here,” Siy said. “If we have a player like Yi, we’ll have a large following in China.”
Milwaukee has a sister-city relationship with Ningbo, China, and two years ago, the city commerce association’s China Council, along with the Bucks, brought the Beijing Ducks in for a series of exhibition games in an effort to strength ties with China.
The association has been working recently with a developer to transform the vacant Pabst Brewery, five blocks from the Bucks’ home at the Bradley Center, into a cultural destination with about 40 to 80 Asian stores as part of an international trade center.
“This was definitely big news for us and for the Chinese businesses we’ve been talking to,” said Mike Mervis, representative for developer Zilber Ltd. “We’re assuming their knowledge of Milwaukee will go up significantly. I think it has a huge impact on Milwaukee and China.”
Mervis said they hope to have the trade center open by “the 2008-09 season.”
“We’re very prepared to market Milwaukee to Chinese businesses and Chinese tourists,” Mervis said. “There may be a lot more happening in this town that Yi or his representatives aren’t aware of.”
Paul Swangard, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, said there’s little doubt about the exposure Yi would create for one of the NBA’s smallest markets.
When Michael Jordan played for the Bulls, a large contingent of Chicagoans made the 80-mile trip to Milwaukee to sell out the Bradley Center. Cubs fans make up about half the crowd in Miller Park when they play the Brewers.
But Swangard said those examples aren’t close to the level of fanaticism in Asian communities.
Harris said he understands the preconceived notions about Milwaukee, but says players like the city because it provides a “safe haven” with the luxury of Chicago nearby.
“It’s a smaller market, but if we develop the mentality to win, then people will come,” Harris said. “San Antonio is small. Utah is small, too, and they’re in the playoffs. There’s a lot of different small markets. It really comes down to lifestyle, the weather, but at the end of the day, we play indoors and we play half the season here and we deal with it.”
Siy, for one, shunned moving his family to New York or San Francisco despite chances to join the larger Asian communities that Yi’s representatives seek.
“You never feel lost here,” he said. “We may not speak the same language, but we play the same sport.”
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