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Thursday, June 14, 2007
Yi Jianlian's Age, NBA Employment, and Immigration Law

In the upcoming NBA Draft, Yi Jianlian, a 7'0 forward from China, will likely be among the first six or seven players selected. The Boston Celtics, which pick 5th, are said to be highly interested in him, as are the Chicago Bulls. As detailed on Rookiepedia, Yi offers an intriguing mix of size, shooting ability, and sound fundamentals. He has been compared to Pau Gasol, Toni Kukoc, and even Kevin Garnett. With such acclaim for Yi, it is not surprising to read ESPN's Chad Ford comment that "a number of NBA general managers and scouts who have followed Yi closely have said he's the third-best prospect in the draft."

But notice that we have not mentioned Yi's age as an asset. It's because there is uncertainty as to how old he actually is. His passport states that he was born on October 27, 1987, meaning that he should be 19. And the NBA believes him. So too does ESPN. But DraftExpress and list him as 22. The Houston Chronicle goes further, intimating that he may be 25. Even Chinese basketball fans are not immune from confusion. All told, Yi may be as young as 19 and as old as 25. How is that possible?

Here's how:
Questions surround Yi's correct birthdate, his official passport in China has him listed as being born on October 27, 1987, but it has been rumored that his date of birth may have been intentionally falsified so to be eligible in junior competitions. The estimates of his birthday are between 1984 to 1987.

In 2004, he was listed as being born in 1984 in China's Four Nation Tournament, although authorities said it was only a "typo".

A Houston Chronicle article reported that Yi told Shane Battier he was 24 in an exhibition game before the 2006 FIBA World Championship [which occurred in August, before his October birthday]. However, Yi later denied the allegations.
As noted by Tom Ziller on AOL Fanhouse, the difference between being 19 and 25 is profound when projecting a player's upside and ability to ameliorate weaknesses. For instance, if Yi lacks strong rebounding skills at 19, teams can expect that he'll improve as he fills out and works with NBA coaches; if he lacks those skills at 25, he may never develop them, or at least not to the same extent. The age discrepancy likewise changes how we gauge his past success: dominating other the competition at 19 is a lot more impressive than doing so at 25. In short, Yi is a completely different NBA prospect if he's 19 than if he is 25, or perhaps even 22.

Determining Yi's actual age may prove to be a difficult task. Indeed, in China, the accuracy of birthdates has been called into question on numerous occasions. Such accusations are especially rife with regards to the Chinese basketball program. As recently as November 2006, Xinhua, China’s national news agency, noted that birth certificates and ID cards could be forged to register for a U-18 competition and that some players even went as far as to adopt a new name. A senior Chinese Basketball Association official, Zhang Xiong, admitted that age fraud was a problem and that past youth squads had indeed included overage players.

The implications of Yi's uncertain age go beyond the basketball court. They affect whether Yi, a foreign national seeking to work in the United States on a temporary basis, can be employed by an NBA team. To work in the United States, Yi will likely pursue an "O-1 visa" which is a visa designed for a person of extraordinary ability in his field. At the very least, Yi is a lock to qualify for the lesser “P-1 visa” which is almost automatically accorded to NBA athletes under contract. Either way, a completed I-129 visa form, which is a petition for nonimigrant worker, will be required as part of the visa application process. It will be reviewed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency of the Department of Homeland Security and will explicitly ask for Yi's date of birth. If it is later determined that Yi lied about his age, he can lose his visa status and even, albeit unlikely, be deported, while his team and the NBA could face sanction if they knowingly facilitated in any deception of the U.S. government. So before Yi receives his first NBA pay check, Yi will have to reveal his actual age, or risk the consequences (as some Major League baseball players have likely done, without consequence).

It is interesting how the NBA fought so hard for a minimum age floor of 19, and yet seems oddly content with sanctioning the draft entry of a player whose age may be 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, or 25. We don't question the difficulty of obtaining Yi's age, but the NBA is well-financed business operation with business contacts throughout the world. Moreover, the league could deny Yi's eligibility until he and his representatives established greater certainty about his age. Instead, the NBA seems unmoved by the issue, which is puzzling given the ramifications that such a high draft pick could have on one of its member franchises and the credibility of the league itself. In the interest of sporting and legal integrity, we believe that it is imperative that the NBA be as vigilant with ensuring the accuracy of a player's birth date as it is with ensuring that the player meets the age floor.

[Note: Co-author Jason Chung is a graduate of McGill University and author of an article on race and the Wonderlic Exam. He is also a research assistant for Jon Hanson and Michael McCann at the Project for Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School]


Immigration and employment law is certainly an issue for this guy. However, the NBA minimum age rule appears to be an obsession for another guy.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/14/2007 12:22 PM  

Very intresting and intriguing article. The league should get into it, not every team intrested in Yi. They don't have the same tools/abilities that the league has in order to clarify the matter.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/14/2007 5:03 PM  

Yi is already living in Westwood. If he can't prove his age he should be deported.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/14/2007 10:43 PM  

Law should encourage people to come to the US.

Anonymous memi -- 6/15/2007 12:10 PM  

I love Yao, but I don't think this guy is Yao... however, I hope he proves me wrong... as a matter of fact, the Houston Rockets need to pick him up to help Yao and T-Mac...they sure need it.

Anonymous mike "bibby" -- 6/15/2007 12:25 PM  

The reason why the NBA isn't concerned with the issue, and other teams ie those you listed, celtics, bulls, warriors, is because of his inherent talent, regardless of his age. Players listed at his height with his athleticism are very rare, if you would have to compare him to an NBA player, a cross between KG and Andrea Bargnani would be most accurate at this point according to what Ive read and seen from film. Your talking about a player listed at 7 feet, with the vertical to do 360 style dunks and also shoot the 3 with consistency. If he came out last year, you could bet Toronto would have taken him first overall. No one in a management position would even care if he was actually 28, he would still be a lottery pick. The NBA will not waste its resources researching into this claim because there's no way Yi will be deported or anything else Chung claims. Teams all over the world carry players with unverified ages, ie just about every player on the mets, and if these players produce on the field, they always seem to remain on their teams. Not to mention Yi is going to be a star in a league where hes going to bring countless millions in revenue. The US and any team that drafts Yi will reap the benefits of his marketability regardless of his age or any other notions associated with "mysteriousness" that always seem to appear in media once an Asian superstar comes to the forefront. I applaud Chad Ford for writing that article about Yi which actually focused on his basketball skills, and how such skills could translate into NBA success. If you look up articles covering Yi on google news, at least half of them center around the mystery of his age, or the fact that he is not working out against real competition. However what people fail to realize is that most top- flight prospects do the exact same thing. On the bench press in the NBA combine, Kevin Durant couldn't put up 185 once(the only prospect who couldn't), but where are the articles about his work outs? At some point people need to question why articles are written about certain players, and how much validity or importance they actually hold.

Anonymous -- 6/15/2007 2:19 PM  

Interesting article, and as you say, it's not unlike some of the problems MLB has faced in the past in ascertaining the ages of some of the Latino players. Though it may be true that no major league players have had to "face the consequences", some minor league players have in fact had visas revoked for this exact reason.

Another interesting note is that it was usually left up to individual teams to, pardon the cliche, check all the bases before signing a "young" prospect. This was a major problem for MLB teams, and believe it or not, it was nothing that MLB did that improved the situation. It was the improved background checks for visa approvals in the post-9/11 era that led to improvements, and suddenly 19 year old top prospects were demoted to being 21 year old middle tier prospects.

I've written more at length in past blogs for the sporting news:

Hopefully the situation improves for the NBA as well.

Blogger Garrett -- 6/15/2007 2:26 PM  

The reason the issue is so important is that it deals with the projectability of a prospect. If a prospect is 19, he has a lot of room to grow and improve, thus a scout can project what he will be like as a 28 year old. If a prospect is 25, on the other hand, there is less room to project, and what you see is what you get. For instance, if Durant were 25 and couldn't bench press 185, it would hurt is draft status immensely, but since he is only 19, it is excusable. The same can be said for Yi's weaknesses. If he's 19, you can overlook them much easier than if he were 25. When you're dealing with millions of dollars, this is a huge deal, and deceit of this nature should not be tolerated; thus the attention granted to the topic.

Blogger Garrett -- 6/15/2007 2:33 PM  

Today’s sports world is filled with controversy and a dark cloud like never before. Don’t take that statement the wrong way, as yes, the sports industry has always had questionable events happen such as “the black sox,” Pete Rose’s gambling, soccer ref’s taking bribes, the whole draft fiasco with Patrick Ewing and the NYK, and the list goes on and on. But in regards to the NBA and Yi I ask this question: Who needs who more? Yi Jillian will ultimately benefit the NBA in revenue, he will help broaden the ever expanding NBA, he may further provide a team with a great option for next year with his play, etc. But what will the NBA bring to Yi. Millions - YES! Will he further generate the dreams of many Chinese boys and girls to achieve greatness of becoming a professional basketball player in the United States? YES! Yes, Yi has his question marks in regards to his skills and this criticism shouldn’t be seen as an attack on him because he is Chinese but because we don’t know anything about him. In regards to Kevin Durant’s poor workout, yes, there aren’t as many articles attacking him but that is because there is no hiding what Kevin Durant did in college. Kevin Durant played at the University of Texas, a Big 12 school who was on T.V. for the American public to see. Yi Jillian is a GREAT prospect because we don’t know what he can do, but we can imagine what he may be able to do. Yi Jillian can‘t be seen as a sure thing. His size and skills are intriguing to say the least, but we must remember that he is still only a prospect. Yes, I rate him above prospects such as Al Horford, Acie Law, Noah, brewer, and Jeff green, etc. I say this because those players have proven what they will do, not what they may be able to do. A Player like Greg Oden has proven what he can do, but he’s still considered a GREAT PROSPECT because he has so much that he may be able to do. Same with the Ohio St and USC freshman in Cook and Young. They are great prospects because they are young and still somewhat unknown of their capabilities. Yi is a great prospect but his age is indeed a serious issue. If he is indeed 25, then he should be starting to be a team leader, but instead he’ll be a player trying to integrate with the NBA game along with the American culture. His potential for growth will also be negatively impacted, not as much as some people say, but yes it will be negatively impacted to an extent. In regards to Yi’s eligibility to come over to the US. I say that’s a bunch of BS. The US is filled with illegal’s who steal from this country where Yi will definitely bring some money back to China, but he will be bringing dollars to the US as well. Is it right that I’m saying Yi is better than those from Mexico who cross the border illegally, or others from Asia or Europe who come over illegally? No. But life isn’t fair. When it comes down to it here are a few points I have: 1. Let Yi come to the NBA 2. Yi the 19 yr old and Yi the 25 yr old are both great prospects 3. Yi will help the NBA by being a successful or by being a bust 4. Yi - he’s not Greg Oden and he’s not Kevin Garnett

Thank you and God bless the NBA

Anonymous 914 -- 6/15/2007 3:02 PM  

You mean to tell me that the United States of America is going to challenge the authenticity of his passport, which is an official document of the People's Republic of China?

His passport lists his birthdate as
October 27, 1987. It has been accepted at FIBA tournaments and quite obviously by the United State when he arrived in California.

Blogger bobbo -- 6/16/2007 5:58 PM  

Well, he's actually not the only NBA player with an age issue. In England I've heard mentioned in the basketball community several times that Luol Deng is older than what's publicly known. Of course no one will make anything out of it for fear of having England and Duke games forefeited...

It may also make a difference with the NBA with regards to resigning him once he gets to his late 20's...

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/17/2007 12:12 PM  

The first person to cast doubts on Yi's age is the American Brooke Larmer, a writer for TIME based in China. In his introduction of Yi back in 2003 (the first English article devoted to Yi), he wrote:

"So when might Yi Jianlian don an NBA uniform? That depends on the biggest mystery of all: his age. The national junior-team roster says Yi was born on Oct. 27, 1987, which would make him just 15 —and not eligible to enter the NBA draft independently as an international player until 2009. Several well-placed Chinese basketball experts say he is 17 or 18. Dates are manipulated, they claim, to give Yi more years of eligibility for junior competitions, which China counts on to increase its international prestige. (Age shaving is endemic in international junior competitions. It even affected the Clippers' Wang Zhizhi, who had NBA teams scrambling to verify his true age to make sure he was old enough for the draft.) Yi and his parents both say on the record that he was born in 1987. But when pressed on the issue, Yi turns away and fills the room with an uncomfortable silence, and his father smiles blankly without responding. "

17 or 18 years old, or 2, 3 years older than listed, would render birth dates of 1984 or 1985. Later, Larmer wrote the following in his book "Operation Yao Ming" (2005):

"Yi Jianlian's prospects were even murkier, for they hinged, in part, on the biggest mystery of all: his age. The national team roster listed Yi's birthdate as October 27, 1987, a date that Chinese basketball experts said was deliberately falsified to give him more years of eligibility for junior competitions. Insiders say Yi was actually born in 1984. The practice of "age-shaving" had haunted Wang Zhizhi, and now, nearly a decade later, it hovered over Yi, who, like Wang, presumably had no choice in the matter. If the 6'11'' forward turned eighteen in October 2005, as the roster claimed, he would be considered one of the more enticing young prospects in the world. If he turned twenty-one, then his development, while impressive, lagged behind Yao and Wang. Even so, he would be automatically eligible to enter the NBA draft in 2006.

"Nobody involved in Chinese basketball wanted to talk about Yi's age controversy, least of Yi himself. His Guangdong coach declined to confirm or deny the age fraud, saying only that the 1987 birth date appeared on Yi's official hukou, or residency permit. His parents both said publicly that he was born in 1987, but when pressed on the issue, his father smiled blankly without responding. Asked the same question in a private dinner in August 2003, Yi himself turned away and gazed at the patterned carpeting on the floor, filling the room with an uncomfortable silence. He snapped back to attention, however, when his out-of-town visitor explained the biggest consequence of the age manipulation: "Did you know that, according to NBA rules, you won't be eligible to enter the NBA draft without official permission until 2009?"

Yi shook his head forlornly.

"That's a long time," he said. He couldn't afford to say any more.

Yi Jianlian may not be the next Yao so much as the next Wang Zhizhi. In early 2005, as the controversy over Yi's age bubbled on Internet chat rooms, China's official Olympic Web site shifted his birth year from 1987 to 1984. There was no explanation for the sudden bout of truthfulness, and many observers took it as a hopeful sign that the CBA's new leader, Li Yuanwei, was putting an end to the practice of age-shaving. Even so, few people believed that Beijing would let its newest basketball giant go to the NBA anytime soon."

The incident he refers to in the last paragraph happened in the Four Nation Invitational in Urumqi. Sun Baosheng, a reporter for the Beijing Evening News, noticed that the official roster issued by the National Team has Yi listed as being born in 1984 and not 1987. Soon, American websites such as and also reported such news. ( Yi never responded, although National Team manager Kuang LuBin expressed shock and said "it may be a typo".

Later, it was found from archives online that Yi Jianlian had been listed as being born in 1984 once previously by the Chinese basketball association, when they announced the national teams in 2003.
( link in Chinese)

Then this photo was discovered online.
It shouldn't be too hard to guess who Yi is in the picture. The Chinese characters below read: "Shenzhen City Xinxiu Elementary School Graduation Class of '97, Grade 6, Group 3, Teachers & Students Commemorative Photo".
By Chinese law, any child need to be at least 6 years old to enter 1st grade in September. If Yi indeed graduated in 1997 in 6th grade, then he had to enter school in 1991, less than 4 years old if he were born in October 27, 1987 as listed, something highly improbable in a populous city like Shenzhen City. Yi took part of the GaoKao (or China's National College Entrance Exam) in 2003. Most Chinese students take it after graduating from high school, usually around 18 years old.

Here is another interesting piece of evidence ( link in Chinese) In this interview, Yi's parents revealed that they moved from Heshan City, where the Guangdong handball teams were located (Both parents were former players) to Shenzhen City in 1983 (father) and 1985 (mother) respectively. Yi has always been listed as being born in Heshan ( growing up in Shenzhen.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/17/2007 1:39 PM  

At least half of the Chinese basketball players have false date of births on their passports. One shining example is former NBA player Wang Zhizhi.
In the NBA he's listed as being born in 1977.

In international competitions, which document players with their DOB listed on their passports, he has always been listed as being born in 1979.

Wang is by no means the worst, a four year difference is quite common:

(Name ZHANG Yunsong (ZHANG YUNSONG) Birth Date 1981/03/20)
(Zhang Yunsong
Birthday:March 20, 1977)

( - Li Qun - - 19/2/1976 Hebei - )
(4 G リ カン LI Qun 28 1972/2/19 180 85 )

At least they have not changed their birthdays (month and day).

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/17/2007 2:16 PM  

If Yi is 24, then milwaukee might not want him anymore, so if Yi doesn't want to be on the milwaukee team, then why don't he just tell the truth?

Anonymous Joe "John"son -- 8/14/2007 10:12 PM  

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