ESPN: NBA training academies in China were physically abusing young players (and the NBA knew)

There are two stunning things in this ESPN report. The first is the behavior attributed to Chinese coaches at NBA facilities, which apparently included physically abusing players in their young teens. The second stunning thing is that the NBA knew about all of this before the dust up last year about Houston Rocket’s General Manager Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting human rights in Hong Kong.

ESPN reports that the League set up three NBA training facilities in China in 2016 including one Xinjiang, the province where China has sent around 1 million minorities to re-education camps in the past few years. The goal was to “Find another Yao” referring to Houston Rockets star Yao Ming. The NBA training camps were not built from scratch but were housed in athletic facilities run by the Chinese government. That meant that U.S. coaches were effectively working for the Chinese when they visited. But the behavior of Chinese coaches toward young athletes those coaches saw at the NBA training camps shocked them.

One American coach who worked for the NBA in China described the project as “a sweat camp for athletes.”

At least two coaches left their positions in response to what they believed was mistreatment of young players.

One requested and received a transfer after watching Chinese coaches strike teenage players, three sources told ESPN. Another American coach left before the end of his contract because he found the lack of education in the academies unconscionable: “I couldn’t continue to show up every day, looking at these kids and knowing they would end up being taxi drivers,” he said…

The NBA brought in elite coaches and athletic trainers with experience in the G League and Division I basketball to work at the academies. One former coach described watching a Chinese coach fire a ball into a young player’s face at point-blank range and then “kick him in the gut.”

“Imagine you have a kid who’s 13, 14 years old, and you’ve got a grown coach who is 40 years old hitting your kid,” the coach said. “We’re part of that. The NBA is part of that.”

It wasn’t just the physical abuse. Young players at the academies were supposed to receive an education when they weren’t playing basketball but it turned out none of them were. And conditions in the Xinjiang center seemed especially grim: “In Xinjiang, players lived in cramped dormitories; the rooms were meant for two people, but a former coach said bunk beds were used to put as many as eight to 10 athletes in a room.”

The NBA had been facing some criticism for having a training center in Xinjiang as far back as 2018 but it wasn’t until after GM Daryl Morey’s tweet about Hong Kong that the NBA, suddenly facing a lot of new scrutiny of its business in China, pulled down the website for the center.

The hypocrisy of this is almost as shocking as the the horrible behavior of Chinese coaches. The NBA knew about all of this because it had been reported multiple times before the Daryl Morey tweet became an issue. So the silence from normally outspoken coaches and players wasn’t just covering up an unwillingness to back human rights in Hong Kong it was covering the abuse of athletes in the NBA’s own training facilities. A former league employee (who isn’t named in the story) pointed out the NBA’s flagrant hypocrisy.

“You can’t have it both ways,” the former employee said. “… You can’t be over here in February promoting Black History Month and be over in China, where they’re in reeducation camps and all the people that you’re partnering with are hitting kids.”

Until last week, the NBA has never explained its decision to close the center in Xinjiang or why it did so. The League was similarly hush-hush when it came to ESPN’s story, asking both current and former employees not to speak about the centers. An NBA PR staffer even sent a former coach an email saying, “Please don’t mention that you have been advised by the NBA not to respond.” The NBA is still hoping that if they keep quiet this will all go away.