Matt Beyer was just 22 years old when he started traveling with world-class athletes, flying on the Milwaukee Bucks’ private plane, gaining VIP all-access to various establishments and visiting every NBA city.
No, he wasn’t a player. He was merely a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison – one who also happened to be an interpreter and, at times, a “buddy” for Chinese basketball star Yi Jianlian in 2007.
“The first experience passes and it becomes a routine,” says Beyer, who now runs an international sports agency in Beijing. “You can’t be in that ‘wow’ mode all of the time – you have to sit down, buckle down and do your job.”
A Passion for China
Beyer’s passion for China and Chinese culture stemmed from his family. His parents adopted his brother and sister from a Chinese orphanage in 1996, when he was 10 years old.
“I didn’t really care for China at the time,” he says during an interview via Skype. “I was too young to really figure things out.”
The family took a trip back to China in 2002 to show his siblings their native roots. Unknowingly, they were introducing Beyer to his future, too. He began to view the country through a completely different lens.
“I was like, ‘Wow, China is sort of a 180 from the U.S. – this place is awesome,’ ” he says. “I really wanted to learn more about it, and the only way to learn about it is by learning Chinese.”
A year later, fresh out of high school, Beyer packed his bags and moved to China. He studied in Xi’an and Shanghai for two years, gaining fluency in Chinese along the way, before returning stateside to attend the UW in 2005.
With hopes of a career relating to China, Beyer pursued a triple major in Chinese, Asian studies and journalism. But in 2007 – his final year of school – China came to him in the form of a seven-foot basketball sensation.
The Bucks draft Yi
Yi was something of a mystery man when he declared for the 2007 NBA Draft. Neither the Bucks nor any NBA team had nearly enough evaluation materials to make a complete draft portfolio for the young Chinese prospect. Front offices relied on scouting and game tape of Yi’s performances in FIBA competitions and the Chinese Basketball Association, or CBA, in which he starred for five seasons prior to entering the NBA. But access to Yi himself, particularly for Milwaukee, was even scarcer.
Larry Harris, Bucks general manager at the time, was familiar with Yi dating back to when his father, Del Harris, coached the China men’s national basketball team in the 2004 Summer Olympics. Dave Babcock, Milwaukee’s director of player personnel, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he, Harris and scouts combined to watch Yi play live roughly 20 times in the years leading up to the draft.
Yi’s camp made a conscious effort to protect him from head-to-head workouts. One infamous private workout featured Yi posting up against a chair in Los Angeles, which prompted Yi’s “chairman” nickname. His camp barred the Bucks from both attending that workout and scheduling their own.
“Basically they said they can’t work it in the schedule,” Babcock told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We’re not a high priority for them. We’ll see what happens.”
Yi’s NBA agent, Dan Fegan, reportedly went as far as explicitly warning the Bucks not to draft his client. The speculation was Yi and his handlers wanted to avoid Milwaukee due to its small market, small Chinese population and cold weather.
The question marks on Yi extended beyond the lack of tangible scouting information. Controversy long persisted on whether Yi was actually born Oct. 27, 1987 – his playing age – or Oct. 27, 1984. The former date would have made him 19 at the time of the draft, while the latter would have made him 22, similar to many four-year college players.
“I just know that I’ve seen Yi’s passport,” Beyer says, “and I’ve seen his birthday – it’s the same one that’s listed on his official EuroBasket or NBA profile. I haven’t seen anything that would tell me he changed his age.”
Age is a significant factor in talent evaluation – a more physically mature body will give any young athlete an edge on his or her opponent. As evidence of its importance, one has to look no further than Timberwolves forward Shabazz Muhammad, whose one-year age discrepancy aided in his slide down the 2013 NBA Draft.
Yi’s talent was unquestionable, however. He was a sure-fire lottery pick leading up to draft night, holding the 10th spot in Chad Ford’s list of top 100 prospects. DraftExpress predicted he would go to Boston at the number five selection, one slot above the Bucks.
“Yi is the best international prospect in the draft this year,” Ford wrote. “He has the potential to be better than Yao Ming.”
Prior to declaring for the draft, Yi progressed every season in the CBA for the Guangdong Southern Tigers. He upped his scoring by four to six points per game each season, peaking at an average 24.9 points in his final season before entering the draft. He also displayed some impressive versatility, grabbing over 10 rebounds per game in two of his five seasons. Even at seven-feet tall, Yi seemingly ran, shot and dribbled like a guard. He appeared to be the prototype stretch power forward at a time when court spacing became a growing emphasis. DraftExpress pegged Yi’s “best case” NBA comparison as Pau Gasol. Yao, the Houston Rockets’ Chinese superstar, predicted Yi would exceed even the center’s greatest achievements.
For the Bucks – a struggling franchise that was in desperate need of a shot in the arm, either on the court or off – the rewards seemed to outweigh the risks. When Yi fell to the sixth overall pick, Milwaukee called his name – and his camp’s bluff.
After some hardball – which included a two-month negotiation process, Yi’s camp preparing to demand a trade, Bucks owner Herb Kohl guaranteeing Yi at least 20 minutes per game, and a front office flight to China to seal the deal – Yi signed a contract with the Bucks on Aug. 29, 2007.
And he needed an interpreter.
“His agent at the time was very adamant that he was a full English speaker and didn’t need any assistance,” Beyer says, “which the team found out was not true basically on the day he arrived to the team.”
Luckily, Beyer had his sights set on Yi’s interpreting position for some time.
“I remember when I was studying in China my first year,” he says, “and I saw interviews with Yao and Colin Pine – Yao’s interpreter, who currently lives in Shanghai, works with NBA China and is a good friend. I thought, ‘Man, his job is so cool.’ ”
When the Bucks selected Yi, Beyer was interning at a Milwaukee PR firm, Zeppos and Associates. The firm’s president, Evan Zeppos, happened to have ties with the Bucks organization and helped Beyer initially reach out to the team.
“I was like, ‘Well, in terms of native English speakers who speak Mandarin who are located in the Midwestern region, I’m pretty sure I’m number one,’ ” Beyer says.
Beyer, who won a Mandarin-speaking competition in Chicago earlier that summer, began sending the team translated updates on Yi’s holdout transgressions in China. Despite hearing little feedback from the organization, he continued to “bother the team” with information daily. When the Bucks eventually signed Yi, they reached out and brought Beyer in for a formal interview with a few members of the front office. He started work that same day.
“It was just kind of trial by fire,” he says. “I think that same morning, I helped Yi do an interview with ESPN. We just went from there.”
It was the ideal situation for Beyer, who grew up as a Bucks fan in nearby Elm Grove. (“One of my best memories was in high school going to the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals,” he says.) If a different team were to have drafted Yi, Beyer says he still would have pursued the job and been willing to move, though he would have had less of an advantage in a larger, more diverse market.
Regardless, Yi landed in Milwaukee, and Beyer found himself in the right place at the right time.
A full-time student with a full-time job
Although his dream job was in place, Beyer was still enrolled as a full-time student at the UW.
He attended practices and nearly all of Milwaukee’s games during the season, including a five-game road trip in December. Beyer stood by Yi’s side for media availability before games – between 90 and 45 minutes to tipoff – and after. If the Bucks were heading out to a road trip following home game, so too was Beyer. If not, he’d trek back to Madison.
“It was just a lot of driving in my little car,” he says.
Beyer also traveled to the 2008 NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans, where Yi participated in the Rookie Challenge. (Yi scored eight points and grabbed two rebounds in 24 minutes of action, as his team fell to the Sophomores, 136-109.)
Beyer’s responsibilities extended to anything China-related. He served as a liaison to visiting Chinese media and Peak, a Chinese sports apparel manufacturer that signed a deal with the Bucks in Yi’s rookie season. Beyer also helped build and maintain the Bucks’ Chinese website, NBA.com/Bucks/China, which the team created to serve its international audience.
And he was doing all of this while maintaining a full-time class load.
Fortunately, professors were accommodating, and Beyer, who was taking a couple PhD-level classes, stayed afloat by writing and reading on the road.
“I did burn out a little bit after that first semester, and I remember that final exam period was like murder,” Beyer says. “I didn’t want to do that two semesters in a row.”
In the spring, he enrolled in a couple of online courses and cut down his credits, easing his workload but deferring his graduation to the summer.
Tapping an international market
The Bucks’ Chinese website and a slew of other team promotions gave credence to the speculation that Milwaukee drafted Yi, in part, to tap an international market.
“There’s no doubt if anyone drafts a Chinese player, one of the top things in their mind is, ‘How does that turn into marketing value for the team?’ ” Beyer says. “The Rockets and Yao has been such a great success story for the NBA – taking basketball and making it the most popular sport in China over soccer, and for the Rockets, becoming the most popular team in China.”
The international interest was certainly there. The hyped Yi-Yao matchup in November drew an estimated 100 to 200 million TV viewers in China (and keep in mind, the time differential meant the game took place at midmorning in China). For reference, an estimated 108.4 million people watched last year’s Super Bowl.
“It was a big deal,” says Beyer, who conducted a press conference with both players. “The two biggest, best Chinese stars were there. That was the season before Yao had a serious, career-ending injury and the season leading up to the Olympics, so it was exciting.”
Yi and Yao met again during February, and despite the Bucks’ 18-30 record at the time, fans filled the Bradley Center to capacity. Three Chinese TV stations were live broadcasting the game, which former Bucks coach Larry Krystkowiak referred to as the “Chinese Super Bowl” due to its timing and buildup. Per the AP and ESPN, the organization branded the event even further: “The Bucks decided to make Saturday’s game into an early Chinese New Year party, featuring Chinese musical performers in the stadium’s atrium area before the game and adding Chinese fare to the concession stands.”
But one will never know how far the marketing relationship between the Bucks and their Chinese counterparts could have gone. Doubts about Yi’s potential quickly crept into conversations. In his guaranteed 25 minutes per game, Yi largely underwhelmed. He averaged 8.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, shot 42.1 percent from the field and posted an 11.3 PER. He failed to show signs of progression as the season wore on and, at times, appeared visibly lost on both ends of the floors.
The team, which was undergoing a management change, rendered him expendable after just one season. John Hammond, the new general manager, shipped out Yi and teammate Bobby Simmons to the New Jersey Nets for Richard Jefferson, a high-volume scorer to pair with Michael Redd.
“[Yi] was only with the team for one season – granted, he got huge exposure – but I think the team was expecting him to be there for three to four seasons based on his rookie contract,” Beyer says. “They really wanted to plant the seeds for generating a big Chinese fan base and leveraging that into marketing for the team, as well as grabbing onto the huge Chinese market.”
An inside look at Yi
In New Jersey, Yi finally got the large market he and his handlers so desperately sought the previous summer. But when Beyer spoke with Yi following news of the trade, he didn’t sense any particularly strong emotion.
“Yi is a pretty easy-going person – and so are a lot of Chinese players; they’re used to being sort of corralled around and told what to do – so [to him] it’s just playing basketball,” Beyer says. “Different place, different story. He was pretty nonchalant about it.”
In fact, contrary to speculation, Beyer says Yi was simply happy playing in the NBA – regardless of whether that was in Milwaukee, New Jersey, New York or Miami.
“Yi talked a lot about growing up and dreaming about playing in the NBA and playing professional basketball,” Beyer says. “That was sort of the extent of it – his favorite player being Michael Jordan, his favorite coach being Phil Jackson.
“He was happy to be in Milwaukee. He was excited to be able to play in the NBA. I don’t think when you’re a guy who’s coming from a foreign country, you’re thinking about, ‘Oh, am I happy or not with the city?’ It’s more, ‘I have a chance to prove myself in the NBA and that’s really all that matters.’ It’s pretty simple.”
Beyer’s relationship with Yi remained mostly professional throughout his time in Milwaukee, but the two naturally developed a bond after being around each other so often. Beyer served as Yi’s sounding board for American culture (even mixing CDs for Yi’s car) and the English language.
“Yi is not the most outgoing person in the world,” Beyer says. “We weren’t talking about everything all the time or anything, but we were two guys basically the same age, and we had a lot of things – by just being the same age – in common. [We] talked about life, sports, life in China versus life in the U.S., family, girls and stuff like that.”
Beyer says Yi was able to acclimate to life in the U.S. and the NBA fairly well. They would go grab coffee or a bite to eat on occasion, but Yi liked to spend most of his downtime with his family and girlfriend, whom he brought to Milwaukee. His experience with international competition prepared him on the court – “He was no stranger to the American style of basketball,” Beyer says – and the presence of his family helped serve as a comfort zone. The NBA’s extensive player development initiatives also aided in his off-court adjustment.
“The NBA takes care of its players very well compared to other leagues in the world,” Beyer says. “Is it China-focused or Yi-focused? No. But the NBA does a lot in terms of getting its players ready for the challenges they face as a young guy making a lot of money on a busy schedule with a lot of people who want to be hangers-on, and Yi was no exception from those trainings.”
Not everything went smoothly, however. The on-court language barrier, though largely mitigated through practice and international competition, would occasionally rear its head.
“In the heat of the game, while he was probably 80 percent there, there were sometimes when the 20 percent in his deficiencies failed him, “Beyer says, “but that’s just reality.”
Speculation on the holdout saga and Yi’s contentment in Milwaukee lingered throughout his short tenure. Beyer says it’s unfair to pin those things on Yi, noting that his handlers were the ones clamoring for a big market in order to maximize marketing dollars.
“I don’t know if his handlers really cared about [surrounding him with a larger Chinese population],” Beyer says. “I think it comes down to marketing potential. I don’t think it had anything to do with Yi as an individual – I think he just wanted to come play.
“Would he rather be somewhere that’s warm and where he can have access to tons of Chinese food, being a Chinese person? Yeah. But how many Chinese guys get an opportunity to play in the NBA? You can count them all on one hand. It’s like, ‘Go to the NBA or live in a city that’s ideal for you?’ It’s kind of a no-brainer. That was all his handlers – that wasn’t Yi.”
Back to China
Beyer and the Bucks parted ways following Yi’s departure. The organization offered to keep him onboard within the PR department, Beyer says, but he opted to pursue a China-related career. Beyer considered tagging along with Yi to New Jersey in a similar interpreting role, but he couldn’t come to an agreement on terms with the Nets organization. Instead, he moved to China and hasn’t looked back.
During his first few years in China, Beyer bounced around three different PR firms and launched the Beijing chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association. But after his initial exposure to the NBA, Beyer was eager to work with athletes. He maintained connections in the sports world and jumped at an opportunity to help with the Chinese Champions Program, a collaboration between the Beijing Sport University and the UW that brings Chinese Olympic athletes to Madison.
“That’s when I really started to have some tangible focus on something related to sports in my daily life,” he says.
Beyer soon heard that, for the first time, there would be a government-recognized national accrediting certification for sports agents.
“They were very surprised at first [about] why a non-Chinese person would want to be involved in that system,” Beyer says, “because you have to take a six-week training course in Chinese and pass an all-day exam in Chinese to get that accreditation. But I’m completely fluent in Chinese – I had no doubt in my ability to do it, so I just wanted to try.”
He passed, and new doors blew open. Beyer began developing a sports business practice within one of the PR firms. He worked on a documentary featuring the ventures of the high-profile players who signed in China during the 2011 NBA lockout. The CBA only imported NBA free agents, and it was under the FIBA-recognized agreement that they would play out the entire CBA season – even if the lockout ended. Regardless, most of the players who hedged their bets in China tried endlessly to rejoin the NBA early. These players included Kenyon Martin, Wilson Chandler and J.R. Smith, all of whom were free agents and played for the Denver Nuggets the season prior. Yi, who re-signed with Guangdong during the lockout, was allowed to opt-out of his contract at any time under a “Yi Clause.”
However, Beyer’s documentary never came to fruition due to unforeseen circumstances. Chandler, who was coached by current Bucks assistant Jim Cleamons, left his team right before the CBA playoffs started. Martin and his team also parted ways before the season ended, prompting CBA officials to challenge FIBA’s decision to clear him for an early NBA return. Smith, never a stranger to controversy, was involved in a series of ugly affairs: He argued with his team over the handling of a minor knee injury, his sister and girlfriend scuffled with CBA crowds and his team fined him over $1 million for missing practices.
Despite the negative aura left behind by the lockout players and their CBA teams, Beyer doesn’t believe the 2011 drama turns off potential CBA imports.
“I think if anyone understands the dynamics of that situation and J.R. Smith, then I don’t think they’re scared off,” Beyer says. “I think, having worked in this industry for several years, China is an incredibly desirable market for import players.”
To that end, one can point to the Chinese renaissances of Stephon Marbury and Tracy McGrady. Marbury, who already has a statue in his honor, rejuvenated his career – and life – in China. And while McGrady’s popularity in China preceded his playing days there – “Basically anyone who was Yao’s teammate on the Rockets was able to sign a marketing deal with a Chinese apparel company,” Beyer says – he was able to extend his career through the CBA last year. McGrady then latched on with the Finals-bound San Antonio Spurs before retiring from the NBA.
“They both have had a lot of success,” Beyer says. “Stephon’s success is real. Tracy is more just coming in to make some money short-term. But Stephon has really made an effort to integrate himself into China.”
In February of 2012, Beyer left the firm and founded Altius Culture, an international sports agency based in Beijing. The government processed his general sports agent license around the same time, and he was officially licensed by the CBA in October. Beyer became the first non-Chinese sports agent to be licensed by the Chinese government and the CBA. He is able to sign Chinese players and import international players into the CBA and the National Basketball League, or NBL, a lower-tier Chinese league. His agency also develops sporting events, conducts various media projects and offers consulting in the areas of marketing and public relations.
Within the CBA last season, Beyer placed Chris Daniels, who played with the Bucks this past Summer League (and did this); Alexander Johnson, who had stints with the Miami Heat and Memphis Grizzlies; and Blake Ahearn, who played in the NBA as recently as 2012.
In preparation for this season, which starts in November, Beyer has already placed former Marquette star Jerel McNeal, whom the Utah Jazz recently released; Jonathan Gibson, the 2013 Drew League MVP; and Trey Johnson, who briefly suited up for four NBA teams.
Facilitating player placement is an important and unique dynamic of the CBA, in which teams can only import two international players each season.
“You have import players who are at an extremely high level,” Beyer says, “and you have Chinese players who are at a mid- to lower-European-league level. … Your import players make or break the quality of your team.”
Beyer also works with Marbury and Knicks forward Metta World Peace in marketing and media capacities. When Beyer discusses his work relationship with the previously maligned Marbury, one can’t help but notice his tone of excitement and admiration.
“He’s incredibly smart,” Beyer says. “I think he’s learned and grown up a lot from his experiences in the States. He’s very self-aware. He’s very aware of China and what Chinese people like and want to see.
“The guy gets China. He gets why he’s successful here. He knows how to mentor players. He makes his teammates better. He makes them believe in themselves.”
As for Yi – he’s back for his third go-around with the Guangdong Southern Tigers, back within his comfort zone and back to stardom.
After a few forgettable years of bouncing around with the Nets, Wizards and Mavericks – posting a career 47.4 true shooting percentage and never threatening to reach the league-average PER of 15.0 – Yi went home for the 2012-13 season.
And just like before, he dominated.
The Southern Tigers won the CBA Championship for the eighth time in 10 years, while he took home personal awards as the domestic MVP (Marbury took home the foreign MVP award) and the All-Star Game MVP. Similar to his 2006-07 campaign, Yi averaged 24.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. (Marcus Haislip, a former first-round selection of the Bucks, averaged 27 and 6.)
“He basically guarantees them a championship,” Beyer says, “because he’s just as valuable as having another import on the team.”
Yet, Yi can no longer be the next Yao Ming. His popularity may never again reach pre-draft heights.
“Yi is not a guy who is very endearing to many people,” Beyer says, “because he has an introverted personality, and that’s just who he is. He’s not this smiling, charismatic guy. I think he’s tense and anxious in a lot of social situations. … I think Yi is actually quite smart. I just don’t think, socially, he has all the graces that, say, Yao Ming has.
“He’s also not a guy that likes to ride on the fact that, you know, ‘I’m an icon for China overseas.’ He’d rather be a guy who is representing himself, whereas Yao was comfortable with that burden on his shoulders.”
Perhaps Yi can now thrive without such expectations – without constant comparisons that were lazily made out of convenience rather than logic.
“I think Yi is still popular, [but] I think Yi is not driven to be the global hero for China,” Beyer says. “He’s making more money than he would in the NBA right now back at his old club in China. He gets to be at home, where he’s comfortable, eating the food that he likes, being around his friends.
The element of unknown is no longer with Yi, and that will hinder him if he attempts an NBA comeback. Suitors may no longer exist. He just re-signed with Guangdong earlier this month, inking a two-year contract without an opt-out clause. Under such circumstances, he won’t be able to return to the NBA until the 2015 season (though given Yi’s extensive tenure with Guangdong, Beyer notes, “If there were an NBA team [that wanted him], I’m sure he could come.”)
But when the Bucks drafted Yi six years ago, a 19-year-old Chinese icon was simply hoping to fulfill a life-long dream of playing in the NBA, and a 22-year-old student was hoping to propel a unique opportunity into a dream career in China.
Directly and indirectly, Beyer and Yi helped each other with their respective goals. And although their career arcs are nearly opposite, they still share one thing in common.
They are home – one figuratively, one literally.