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Scene stealers

Stunner for Yi, Oden's makeover and more draft tales

Posted: Friday June 29, 2007 12:13PM; Updated: Friday June 29, 2007 5:00PM
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NEW YORK -- Five behind-the-scenes tales from the 2007 NBA Draft:

1. The Yi Controversy

Yi Jianlian donned a Bucks hat at the draft, but will he wear their uniform next season?
Yi Jianlian donned a Bucks hat at the draft, but will he wear their uniform next season?

About 20 Chinese reporters were craning their necks to get a glimpse of a TV interview being conducted in the back hallways at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden. Some of them scrambled up on escalators for a better view, while an NBA security guard tried to clear the area and calm the frenzy, telling them, "This is all being broadcast on CCTV," a station in China.

The subject of the attention was the most intriguing and controversial pick in the entire 2007 draft, Chinese 7-footer Yi Jianlian, who had already conducted one press conference but had many more questions to answer. A half hour earlier he had been taken at No. 6 by Milwaukee, a market in which Yi's representatives had made it clear they did not want him to play due to its small Chinese population. The Bucks were intentionally not invited by Dan Fegan, Yi's agent, to watch Yi work out in Los Angeles, nor had they recently traveled to China to scout him (although the team said it had seen at least 20 of Yi's games since 2004).

And thus the Chinese contingent was stunned by the draft destination of its home country's next great basketball product after Yao Ming.

"He looked unhappy," one reporter from Guangdong said, referring to his lack of a smile as he met NBA commissioner David Stern on stage after the pick.

"We're all shocked. The Bucks were never in China," a reporter from Shanghai said.

"Yi said he didn't know anything about the team, the coach, the GM or the city," the reporter from Guangdong added.

Soon after the pick, rumors were flying about Yi's future in Milwaukee. A source in an opposing team's war room, who knew of Fegan's desire to avoid having his client land in the Minnesota or Milwaukee markets, speculated that "this could get messy." Would Yi -- who's been described as a Dirk Nowitzki-like big man and not a Yao clone -- demand a trade? Would he threaten to remain in China for another season? Or would he eventually come around to the Bucks, who disregarded Fegan's warnings because they had Yi ranked as the third-highest player on their draft board?

Yi can understand and speak basic English -- he had been taking language classes six days a week in L.A. -- and when I asked him before his press conference whether he liked Milwaukee, he gave a look that was less than glowing and then shrugged.

At his media session a few minutes later, Yi tempered some of the controversy by saying through an interpreter, "I'm not familiar with [Milwaukee], as well, but I'm happy to play with the team and I'm happy to play in the NBA."

A reporter pressed Yi further, wondering if he was "for sure" going to Milwaukee to play. "Yes, I think so," he replied.

It was positive, but it also wasn't a guarantee. Fegan was standing in a hallway nearby, and like Yi, did not appear overjoyed. He declined comment on whether Yi would accept the Milwaukee situation, saying only, "I need to talk to my client first."

Yi left MSG and boarded a chauffeured mini-bus slightly before 10:30 p.m.. His interpreter said he did not expect Yi to fly to Milwaukee for the traditional day-after-the-draft press conference, and indicated that at some point Yi would be traveling to meet the Chinese national team, which has a scrimmage scheduled against the United States on July 1 in Dallas.

Will things actually get messy for Milwaukee, or was this just a rocky start to a prosperous long-term frontcourt pairing of Yi and Andrew Bogut? The latter scenario is far more likely, but still, after making a bold move, the Bucks could not rest entirely easy on draft night.

2. New Orleans' Kingpin

Perhaps the most popular back-room topic of discussion among draftees is where they'll be spending the rest of their evening (but not until they've each spent approximately two hours being driven insane by a press conference, radio interviews, TV interviews, NBA.com interviews, photo sessions and then having to re-round up their Green Room entourage).

I overheard Joakim Noah joking with Nick Young by saying, "Word on the street is that you're a guy who likes to be in bed early," then informing him of some club location and adding, "We're going to do it all together tonight."

One player who would not be clubbing Thursday night was Hornets draftee Julian Wright, who, of all things, was going bowling. He had an entourage of seven high school friends (from Homewood-Floosmor, near Chicago) at the Garden, all wearing freshly printed, black Nike shirts that said "J. Wright" on the front and "The Legacy Continues" on the back. They were planning on hitting Bowlmor Lanes in the Village, because Wright -- as he talked about in an old blog Q&A -- became a bowling nut during his two years at Kansas. He even has his own ball, a red "Big Bully" model.

"My brother didn't bring my ball, although he said he wanted to bring it so I wouldn't have any excuses when I lose," Wright told me. "Now I'm just going to have to beat him without it, which is cool with me."

Reggie Brown, an old teammate of Wright's at Homewood-Flossmoor, and part of the T-shirt gang, said of Wright's bowling skills: "He can bowl left- and right-handed. He's better right-handed, but he can throw strikes consistently with his left."

All along we were touting Acie Law IV as the only ambidextrous hoopster in the Big 12 ... and now this is revealed.


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