Chinese Hoopster Yi Jianlian Allegedly 24, Not 21

Oh, China. You’re good at a lot of things, but accurately documenting the ages of your athletes is not one of them. After the gymnastics debacle back in August, it’s probably not surprising to learn that Nets hoopster Yi Jianlian isn’t really 21.

Yi was born in 1984, not 1987

Although, this time around it looks like the age was underreported, rather than the other way around. Yi has long been dogged by rumors that he’s actually older than he says, but now there’s some pretty solid evidence that he was actually born in 1984, and not 1987 (see above photo).

Details and possible ramifications after the jump.

INTERBASKET says the document on its site is a record showing that Yi’s birthdate is actually October 27, 1984, and not October 27, 1987, as is listed officially. They also say the revelation may have arisen as part of a crackdown by China to end what is known as “age-shaving”:

And Yi has always asserted his birth year to be 1987, or has denied to answer any questions concerning his age. “I have no comment on that,” Yi said through translator Roy Lu back when when the then supposed-19-year old was on his way to his first practice with the Milwaukee Bucks.

No word on whether this document was discovered during a recent crackdown that found at least 36 Chinese players “age-shaving” or lying about their ages in order to qualify for youth tournaments.  Chinese authorities have pledged to put an end to age fraud, which apparently is very common in China.

A member of the INTERBASKET forum found the document linked to another site, which reprinted a report from China’s version of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Here’s the poorly translated version.

Yi played for China’s team at the 2006 FIBA Under-19 Championships, where he made a huge mark, averaging 19 points and 12 rebounds. But, since he was likely nearly 22 at the time, it makes sense that he dominated. Yi used that performance as a springboard to the senior national team, and his buzz grew in NBA circles because of his advanced skills for a player who was so “young.”

Yi’s underwhelming performance in the Olympics this year and his struggle for NBA success might make a lot more sense now. If Yi could only dominate players 2 or 3 years his junior, and can’t hang with the guys his own age, it’s certainly looking like his legend was created illegitimately. It should be noted that Yi has shown flashes of brilliance in his first two seasons and looks like he certainly belongs in the NBA even if he isn’t likely to be a superstar. But he’s scored a grand total of 7 points over his last 3 games and is averaging 10 points per game on 41% shooting this season. The Nets traded Richard Jefferson for this.

So now what? If his age is proven to be false, is that grounds for the Nets to void his contract? The baseball world collectively shrugged when it was revealed earlier this year that Miguel Tejada was actually 33, and not 31. But Tejada is a well-established star who’s proven his MLB worth over the years. Yi’s appeal was largely his potential, and the difference between 24 and 21 in the NBA is huge.

Had this been known, Yi might not ever have emerged as a potential star and certainly wouldn’t have been a lottery pick. But if a Chinese SI reporter could figure this out, why didn’t the Bucks and Nets put the work into learning the truth (especially since there were rumors about his age)? For the Nets, the opportunity to market the team to China might have trumped everything else (even basketball talent). The Nets now have a Chinese language website, and are certainly benefitting from selling team merchandise to Chinese fans.

Regardless, you can’t help but think this could obstacle to NBA teams signing Chinese players in the future. David Stern has been committed to mining the talent of other countries for his league, but what NBA team is going to sink millions of dollars into someone who might not be anywhere near the age he says he is? Kudos, I suppose, to China for trying to correct these age discrepancies, but I think most believe the effort is coming a bit too late.