Milwaukee banking on basketball player

By Rikki N. Massand (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-02-14 07:21


 Houston Rockets' Yao Ming (L) and Milwaukee Bucks' Yi Jianlian (R) of China pose before their NBA basketball game November 9, 2007.  [Agencies]

MILWAUKEE: More than 200 million fans in China tuned in to watch Yao Ming's Rockets face off against Yi Jianlian's Bucks on Saturday night, but the US city that hosted the basketball game is hoping at least some viewers get to know Milwaukee as more than just the home of the Bucks.

With a recession in the US looming, the Midwestern city in Wisconsin state is looking to its newfound attention in China to help catapult its economy and businesses in general.

Yi's arrival in town had meant more than just a welcome addition to the National Basketball Association (NBA) team for many - it gave the city a chance to augment its association with the world's fastest-growing economy and to embrace global trade and diversity.

Prior to Yi's appearance, China-Milwaukee ties were already on the rise, with the city's exports to China growing by 337 percent since 2002.

Timothy Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, said China is now the city's third-largest, and fastest-growing, trading partner.

But it is Yi's presence that totally changes the dynamics of the relationship, he said.

"Yi has had a tremendous impact on the marketability of Milwaukee in China ... And I think you'll see through Yi Jianlian that the Milwaukee Bucks are probably Milwaukee's best-known exports to China," Sheehy said.

Milwaukee has a population of more than 2 million. It sits 144 km north of Chicago and is home to eight Fortune 500 companies, including Northwestern Mutual, Johnson Controls and Harley-Davidson.

The day of the Yi-Yao game saw an abundance of Chinese New Year festivities. More than 400 people attended a morning celebration at the city's Mitchell Park Domes and a lunch reception was held downtown at the Milwaukee Club, where Huang Ping, China's consul general in Chicago, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett and US senator Herb Kohl, who owns the Bucks as well as the Kohl's department store chain, spoke.

The senator raved about Yi as a person and how he facilitates Wisconsin's interest in maintaining a strong relationship with China.

"We have many companies from Wisconsin that are now actively involved in China, growing their businesses in China, which makes them employ more people here in Wisconsin," Kohl said.

The city is looking to capitalize on this investment in Yi and aims to reinvent and refurbish its industrial image.

The hope is for Chinese companies that want to venture into the US market to consider Milwaukee over other Midwest cities, officials said.

Sheehy gave the example of the marketing deal between the Bucks and Chinese apparel company Peak, which features prominent advertisements on both baskets on the court at the Bradley Center.

Yi has been identified as the cornerstone of this effort and if he makes his mark with the Bucks over the next 10 to 15 years, China-Milwaukee ties can only strengthen, those in the industry have said.

The sportsman became an instant symbol for close to 10,000 Chinese-Americans residing in the area after the Bucks drafted him No 6 overall in the 2007 NBA Draft. Since then, Yi has inspired the same zealous reaction from fans as enjoyed by fellow sports star Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets.

The launch party for The Milwaukee Chinese Times, the area's first Chinese-language newspaper which published its inaugural issue on Dec 29, was also held mid-afternoon before the Rockets and Bucks tipped off at 7:30 pm Central time.

Houston won 91-83. The Bucks capitalized on marketing the Yao-Yi match as it was their second sell-out game of the year. All fans who attended the game received posters of Yi.

The Chinese-American turnout to the game was enormous, as many people in the crowd said this was their first NBA game.

Kohl thinks the world of Yi, and said the team hopes Yi will become "an important piece on a very good team".

Aside from his talent of the sport, it is Yi's personality that impresses Kohl the most.

"Yi is a magnificent representative for Chinese culture - he is extremely well-mannered, he's intelligent, works hard, he's humble, he's respectful, he leads by example," Kohl said.

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