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The Great Translator

Meet the man who brings American talent to China’s rising professional basketball league

Matt Beyer sat watching TV as his hometown Milwaukee Bucks drafted 7-foot Yi Jianlian no. 6 overall. It was the 2007 NBA draft, and he can still remember the moment his path to China came into focus. Beyer had been anticipating Yi’s arrival to the NBA. It’s easy to look back and chuckle at Yi’s puzzling pre-draft decision to stage show-and-prove workouts against an inanimate object. But there was speculation at the time that the quick, athletic forward could develop into an even better pro than Yao Ming. What’s more, Celtics GM Danny Ainge remarked that the chair had actually played good defense. But Beyer’s fondness for the Bucks was only part of his excitement. “I was like, ‘Well, if he needs a translator, I’m going to be the guy.’”

The only problem was that Beyer had little sense of how one went about landing such a job. He was a 22-year-old senior at the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a heavy, China-centric course load and no real connections to the Bucks’ front office. “I thought, If there’s someone who has the time and availability to do this job, it’s going to be me,” he said. “So I started pestering the team all the time.” He cold-called the Bucks offering his services, eventually tracking down the right front-office digits thanks to a well-connected former boss. But the Bucks wouldn’t return his calls until October, four months after the draft; the team had been under the impression that Yi’s English was just great. It wasn’t. Within minutes of a rushed, emergency interview, Beyer was pressed into service: “There’s Yi. He needs to do an interview in 10 minutes. Can you translate for him?” Twenty-four hours after the Bucks finally reached out, Beyer was a full-time student — at this point, the deadline for dropping classes had passed — with an unusual part-time job.

Beyer just barely survived that year — “I just never slept,” he laughs, recalling all those hours spent driving between Madison and Milwaukee in his 1994 Saturn. His official duties were to translate and help Yi with team affairs. But he also wanted to help Yi adjust to day-to-day life in this strange new place: offering restaurant recommendations, running errands, making sure his Range Rover was running smoothly. Beyer assembled packets of news clippings to help Yi understand the American media landscape. “I regularly made Yi mix CDs with good hip-hop classics, as well as what was new at the time in late 2007 and early 2008,” Beyer recalls, as a kind of crash course in American culture. “I remember buying him the soundtrack to American Gangster as a Christmas present.”

Beyer is in New York for a few days after a family vacation — the first time he’s been back in Manhattan since his stint with Yi. Tall, blond, and boyishly charming, he comes across like just another recent college graduate out on a Saturday night. But he has parlayed that experience into an unusual distinction: He is China’s first and only officially licensed foreign sports agent.

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Beyer first became fascinated with China at the age of 10, when his parents adopted his brother and sister from a Chinese orphanage. When the family visited China again a few years later, Beyer knew he wanted to pursue a life far beyond the suburbs of Milwaukee. After graduating from high school, he moved to China for two years and mastered Mandarin. When he returned to Wisconsin for college, his only real career goal was to get back to China. The job with his beloved Bucks had been a stroke of luck. After Yi was traded to the Nets, Beyer contemplated following him to New Jersey, but didn’t feel like it was the right fit. Instead, he finally returned to China and began working in public relations and policy analysis for Edelman and then Weber Shandwick.

Whenever he had free time, Beyer would link up with the friends he had made in the sports world from his year with Yi. He wanted back in, though it was unclear what paths were available. In 2010, he learned about the rigorous, six-week sports agency course offered by the country’s General Administration of Sports. “They never anticipated that a foreigner would take the course,” he explains, “so one of my friends had to ask the General Administration if it was open to everyone.” Beyer got the go-ahead, enrolling in the course and learning the rules, regulations, and theories that governed the Chinese sports landscape. At the end of the course was a daylong exam composed of multiple-choice questions about the minutiae of Chinese law and a series of essay questions. Nearly 400 people took the exam — only half of them passed. Beyer failed the essay portion the first time, but finally earned his license at the beginning of 2012.

That year, Beyer founded Altius Culture, a small firm specializing in management, marketing, and representation. The Chinese Basketball Association allows two foreign players per team; the five worst teams are allowed an additional import. Altius — essentially Beyer and his two Chinese staffers — currently represents about 20 percent of the league’s foreign players, including one of this season’s breakout stars, Jonathan Gibson. Beyer describes a dizzying array of projects that orbits the core business of getting players signed to CBA teams: mobile apps, American ballers–abroad movie consultations, reality TV pilots, sneaker deals, herbal supplements, a plan to reverse the pipeline and start bringing Chinese prep ballers to America.

In person and in Altius’s exhaustively researched press releases, Beyer appears calm and even-keeled, unfazed by his strange career path or the eclectic nature of his present-day pursuits. Beyer loves basketball and admires China. But he seems motivated primarily by the challenge of problem-solving, particularly given the unprecedented, transpacific crisscrosses involved in his work. He’s slightly guarded and cautious about his words, the product of his constant negotiation of both Chinese and American modes of formality.

The frenetic diversity of Altius’s pursuits reflects the volatility of China’s growing sports industry. It’s easy for the casual visitor to China’s wealthy, first-tier cities to forget the country is still nominally communist — that a lot of ideas Americans or Europeans take for granted about marketing or branding are still finding their way into the Chinese mainstream. Professional sports during the Cold War were bankrolled and controlled by the government — it wasn’t until 1994 that China’s professional soccer league was reimagined as a profit-generating endeavor. The Beijing Olympics symbolized China’s desire to establish itself as a sporting superpower. This has meant greater government investment in China’s sporting infrastructure. The aim is to create a generation of star athletes and engaged fans. But it’s also about surrounding them with a hyper-professional structure. In fact, the course to train new agents had been a response to this need for more accountable business practices. All of this means more opportunities for people, like Beyer, who possess a good sense of what has worked elsewhere — how superstars have been created and handled, the science behind branding, how to diversify a player’s or club’s revenues. But this juxtaposition of style and culture is also part of what makes his job so complicated.

In China, top-level agents rarely have exclusive rights to foreign players. Instead, they partner with agents abroad whose clients are open to playing in China. Given the limited number of roster spots for these players, it behooves agents to think carefully about issues of fit and team culture. Beyer points to the recent, high-profile failures of Delonte West and Ivan Johnson — who allegedly placed his coach’s hand on his genitals and then told him, “You can suck my cock, motherfucker” during a game — as examples of teams not being careful enough about chemistry. Instead of dangling players before the highest bidder, Beyer explains, the Chinese agent has to be more of a holistic presence, equal parts matchmaker, life coach, and career manager.

“You have to be a true middleman,” Beyer says. “Before the transaction is done, you’re more concerned with servicing the team and getting them the right match. Once the deal is over, you become very much involved in the player’s life, and you’re really looking out for his interests.”

This past season, two-time NBA champion Josh Powell starred alongside Yi with the Guangdong Southern Tigers. Powell’s career has taken him to Greece, Italy, Russia, and more than a half-dozen NBA teams. Beyer helped broker the deal to bring him to China. “Normally, the agent that your American agent works with is from that country,” Powell explains. “I’ve never seen or experienced a guy like Matt, especially from a communication standpoint. They relay exactly what you want to be said and tell you exactly what’s being said.”

The CBA recently loosened its agent accreditation policies, essentially opening up the field of player representation. But as the league continues to grow, go-betweens like Beyer who are capable of understanding the entire plane of relations will become increasingly important. In recent years, there’s been a perception that the CBA was a good place for a quick money-grab — the league’s season is shorter than the European leagues and ends in time for the NBA playoff run. Most important, the CBA offers slightly higher paychecks, which are certain to arrive on time each month. The base salary for all non-Chinese import players averages around $500,000 before individual and team bonuses. While the pay scale for Chinese players is lower than that of foreigners, natives have more job security. The Chinese players on a roster are fixed, which is why the import — the only piece that can be moved in-season — is usually the first casualty during a midseason swoon.

Despite its vast resources, the CBA is still a league finding its identity. One of its old-time powerhouses, the Bayi Rockets, represents the military and prohibits foreign players. On the other end of the spectrum is a team like the Xinjiang Flying Tigers, whose billionaire owner has been known to splash out for the teams’ benefit — the Tigers were the first team in China to travel by private jet. Attracting well-known names upped the league’s international profile. Well-known American imports have been rumored to make up to $3 million after taxes. In the wake of Stephon Marbury’s rebirth with the Beijing Ducks, the league lured names like Tracy McGrady, Gilbert Arenas, and J.R. Smith, often to middling results. Meanwhile, less heralded Americans like Gibson, Pooh Jeter, and Bobby Brown have become stars. “The last few seasons,” Beyer explains, “the Chinese have realized they were throwing money away. They’ve gotten smarter about it. They don’t want to get into another situation like J.R. Smith. They want people who are practical.”

TO GO WITH Basket-CHN-CBA,PREVIEW by Rob

As a matter of policy, Beyer steers clear of “party animal”–type players. “I do my due diligence about a player and his psychology and lifestyle habits as much as I can prior to their arrival, and I know what teams expect in terms of personal conduct and attitude.” It’s ultimately about managing expectations on both sides. Since CBA teams are usually preoccupied with developing local talent, they rely on agents like him to bring them foreign prospects. Each offseason, Beyer talks to clubs about their needs and offers them extensive reports on the skill sets and personalities of five or six foreign players who seem like good fits. He focuses largely on the European leagues and prefers to work with players who are in their mid-twenties who have a little pro experience and the right “mental toughness” to hack it in China.

Mental toughness can mean basic, everyday things like the language barrier or food, loneliness, or even boredom. Where Shanghai offers all the luxury and comfort of a cosmopolitan metropolis, Jilin — home of the Northeast Tigers — is primarily known for its annual ice festival (and rooster-oriented tourism). Maybe it’s the strange burden of going from NBA bench mob to no. 1 option, but playing abroad also means adjusting to different styles of management, team culture, or unfamiliar expectations about authority.

Jamie Knox of North Carolina’s Strategic Sports Management has partnered with Beyer to place his clients in China. “It is extremely important to have a contact familiar with both cultures,” he explains. Oftentimes, players are helpless when dealing with management. “It helps when — if — there are issues, as some issues may arise simply out of miscommunication or not understanding the differences in the culture.” Beyer recalls one playoff game when a team’s sideline translator told an American player the coach had just told the team it was OK to lose. The player was baffled and asked Beyer about it. When Beyer contacted the team, he realized that what the coach had actually said was that there was no shame in losing so long as everyone in the huddle gave his all. Far from surrendering, he had been trying to inspire his players to another level.

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Mental toughness isn’t just about dealing with epic road trips and mediocre refs. It’s about understanding how hierarchy works in an entirely different context. For agents like Beyer, it’s about finding players who are self-aware about their career trajectories. Because contracts are usually renegotiated yearly, an agent’s driving goal is rarely to find players capable of scoring their way into the NBA. Beyer is interested in finding players with enough experience to recognize the long-term benefits of being a star in the CBA. “What we’re trying to do is create another Stephon,” he says. “Don’t want to get a guy who’s too old. But also can’t get a guy who’s too green and needs babysitting all the time.”

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One of Altius’s recent victories was bringing Gibson to the CBA. The 26-year-old Los Angeles native played college ball at New Mexico State and excelled in Italy and Turkey as both a leader and high-volume scorer. Beyer first encountered Gibson as part of a summer barnstorming team of out-of-work and between-gigs American players hired to play a couple weeks of exhibitions against CBA teams in China’s third- and fourth-tier cities. “Not anyone who’s had a cup of coffee in the NBA can make it in China,” Beyer contends, but Gibson’s personality seemed suited to a league where foreigners might have to both shoulder the offensive load and hold their tongues when dealing with coaches and refs. This season, Gibson made the All-Star team and led the league in scoring.

“He told me playing in China would be a little different,” Gibson explains over email, “especially the food. He’s been a more hands-on type of agent, handling everyday life kind of stuff” — shopping, travel tips, sightseeing.

Gibson’s Guangsha Lions were the highest-scoring team in the league. But their first-round opponents were Marbury and budding star Randolph Morris’s Beijing Ducks, hungry after losing in last year’s semifinals. The Ducks beat Guangsha in the first round and then exacted revenge against last year’s champs, Yi and Powell’s Guangdong Southern Tigers, in the semis. This past weekend, the Ducks won their second CBA title in three years, beating the Xinjiang Flying Tigers.1

Beyer’s clients like having someone around who understands how weird it can be to move somewhere new. He talks to his clients daily, taking care of their wives or girlfriends and helping out with basic adjustment stuff — sightseeing recommendations, suggestions for Chinese schools, directions to the hospital, negotiating with hotels so they can cook in their rooms. Occasionally, his role as liaison can be awkward: He once had to convey a message to a player’s significant other that the team thought she was a distraction and hoped she would return home. Beyer says he had to handle both sides with “kid gloves,” eventually reaching a compromise that allowed her to stay so long as she didn’t travel with the team.

Beyer shows me a packet of team profiles that is probably the most comprehensive account of the league, its assets, and personnel available. The FIBA website lists about 400 licensed agents around the world, most of whom, like Beyer, essentially work as matchmakers between players and nations. But they are also helping bring leagues up to speed on the need for, say, accurate stats databases or media availability.

Listening to Beyer describe the gradual ascent of players like Gibson, Brown, or Jeter is a reminder of how far-flung and mazy the non-NBA world of professional basketball has become. Scroll through the rosters of international squads and you’ll see names from bygone March Madnesses, 10-day-contracts, guys who tore up the Drew League before flying back to Poland. The summer barnstorming team that Gibson played on paid something like $500 for 10 days. But it connected him with Beyer, who has helped make him into a star in China.

“I could probably be less hands-on,” Beyer says, sighing. “But I know what it’s like to get off the boat in China. What it feels like year one. Sports teams in China are extremely Chinese organizations. You’re really on an island, and you can use a sounding board. I just want them to be happy.”

Illustration by John Tomac.

Filed Under: Basketball, Chinese Basketball Association, Jonathan Gibson, Matt Beyer, NBA, Stephon Marbury, J.R. Smith, Ivan Johnson, CBA, Hua Hsu

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Hua Hsu teaches at Vassar College. He is finishing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.

Archive @ huahsu

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