Mayday for 'Mai Di' as McGrady toils in China

by Robert Saiget, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Dec 12 2012 06:11 PM | Updated as of Dec 13 2012 02:22 AM

BEIJING - Ex-NBA star Tracy McGrady arrived in China to a hero's welcome but after seven straight defeats and the sacking of his coach and a high-profile team-mate, media are wondering how soon he'll leave.

The two-time NBA scoring champ is still attracting away fans in droves but with his team, the Qingdao Eagles, now bottom of the 17-team Chinese league, home crowds are beginning to dwindle.

McGrady, 33, is the Chinese Basketball Association's (CBA) biggest recruit to date, but now finds himself with the league's only winless team. However, he insists he did not come to China to win games at a canter.

"I didn't expect to come here and win a championship in the first year," he told reporters, after scoring 37 points in a 116-102 loss to the reigning champion Beijing Ducks on Sunday.

"I am not trying to do what I once did in NBA and that's not what I am here for. I am actually here to help these guys to become better basketball players," he said of his young team-mates.

Despite a frenzied welcome by away fans, teams have come out inspired against McGrady, smothering him with defensive schemes and forcing his inexperienced team-mates to shoot -- a formula that has worked again and again.

The losing streak has taken a toll on attendance with swathes of empty seats visible at Qingdao's home court at their last game there on Friday.

Meanwhile the club has fired its Korean head coach Kang Jung-Soo and McGrady's teammate, ex-NBA centre D.J. Mbenga, who won two NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009 and 2010.

Local media are now openly questioning whether McGrady, known as "Mai Di", will stick it out in China, despite game averages of 24.3 points and 5.6 rebounds.

"Winning games is not easy, will he lose confidence?" said a headline in Shandong's Peninsula Metropolitan Daily.

"Eight years ago McGrady scored 13 points in 35 seconds, eight years later he has seven straight losses," the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily, said. "How can he stand it?"

McGrady is not the only ex-NBA All Star having difficulties. Gilbert Arenas, formerly of the Washington Wizards, has played only six minutes for the Yao-owned Shanghai Sharks before being sidelined with injury.

But Beijing's Stephon Marbury, who played a starring role in their run to the 2012 title and was the league's biggest ex-NBA player until McGrady's arrival, urged the newcomers to be patient.

"For myself, I was motivated by not winning," said Marbury, who played for unsuccessful teams in his first two years in China.

"I wanted to win here because I knew if I could win here it would lead to changes, but it's hard when you are playing on a team that is not winning," he added.

"I just stayed patient and kept working on it. I wanted to be there, I wanted to play basketball here in China."

Nearly 30 former NBA players are now playing in the CBA, raising standards and making basketball, already one of China's favourite sports, even more popular with over 700 million Chinese reported to have tuned in last season.

At Sunday's sell-out match, Beijing fans, some wearing jerseys of the Houston Rockets -- where McGrady played alongside Chinese superstar Yao Ming -- cheered the seven-time NBA All Star every time he touched the ball.

He did not disappoint, hitting three-pointers, playing stellar defense and driving to the hoop for slam-dunks. McGrady also played villain when he decked an opponent with an elbow to the chest, earning boos from the crowd.

"It is good to see him here in the CBA. The CBA will grow with more players like Tracy McGrady and this will lead to more players coming to China," Marbury said. "I love the fact that the CBA is continuing to grow."

The CBA's popularity has prompted Swiss sports marketing company InFront to sign a reported $270 million, five-year deal to continue to manage the league.

The investment is already beginning to pay off with Chinese sportswear giant Li Ning also inking a five-year sponsorship deal with the CBA for a reported $321 million.

Marbury has also signed a lucrative shoe deal with apparel-maker 361 Degrees to co-brand his Starbury basketball sneakers, which he first marketed in the United States.


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