Meet the Americans Who are Shaping Basketball in Asia

Waking up in the wee hours of night to catch some NBA action is a typical affair for the estimated 480 million basketball fans in Asia, where the domestic leagues offer a distinct product from what the NBA has to offer. Yet, in recent years, local hoops have been on the rise in Asia. More and more recognizable names like Lance Stephenson, who teamed with LeBron James on the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2018-19 season, are making their way across the Pacific Ocean in search of expanded playing time and sizable paydays.

“Asian basketball is growing real fast year by year," Lance, who suited up for the Liaoning Flying Leopards in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) last season, tells CloseUp360. “I envision other players coming over to play to either rejuvenate their career or experience what the CBA has to offer."

Brian Goorjian, a Los Angeles native and longtime coach, also ended up in the CBA. In fact, he was the longest-serving foreign coach in CBA history, most recently with the Zhejiang Guangsha Lions in 2019-20, before leaving to lead the Illawarra Hawks in Australia's National Basketball League.

“The support for the teams, the coaching, the TV package, the amount of kids playing, the development programs have all gone through the roof in the last ten years,” Brian says. “The young kids coming into the CBA, as compared to what it was when I came here 10 years ago, is night and day.

“I saw the opportunity in China. So much of what were issues in Australia, weren't issues in China. They had money, they had TV, they had marketing—everything that Australia didn't. On the basketball side, though, it was work in progress, but [the Chinese] were putting in a lot of resources into it and a lot of money into it, especially after the Olympics in China in 2008."

Lance Stephenson

Lance Stephenson is among a growing group of NBA veterans who have taken their talents to China. (Courtesy of Matt Beyer)

Basketball in Asia has been on the rise, thanks in part to an ever-growing stream of resources coming mainly from sponsorships as well as government support. While the recent coronavirus outbreak momentarily slowed that growth, Mark Fischer, formerly managing director of the NBA's China operations, sees this crisis as an opportunity for invention.

“This unique period sort of forces us to think of innovative ways to reach our ultimate consumers,” Mark says. “It leads us to new ways to create content."

Mark has spent the last 30 years in China and the region. What started as a trip after college to visit a high school friend ended up being a lifelong pursuit.

“A close friend of mine from BB&N in Cambridge, [Massachusetts], moved to Taiwan, and when he came back to Boston, where I was living, he invited me to visit. I was fascinated by the cultural experience, the hospitable culture, the career opportunities, and was challenged to stay. As they say, one thing led to another, I got married and Asia became my home."

For more than two decades, Mark has held some of the highest executives roles in the Asian sports industry. In the late 1990s, he was among the pioneers of the NBA's efforts to engage China’s basketball boom, led by the late commissioner, David Stern.

During his 12-year tenure with the NBA, Mark oversaw the expansion of the league office in China from a two-person crew to a bustling operation of more than 80 employees, with an estimated valuation of more than $2 billion. Recently, Mark decided to lend his expertise to a new venture: establishing a regional basketball league in East Asia modeled on the FIBA Basketball Champions League and the UEFA Champions League.

“As managing director of NBA China and subsequently of UFC Asia, I realized over the years that there was a gap, a demand that could be filled, between the international leagues like the NBA on the one hand and domestic leagues on the other,” he says. “The local leagues are popular, but offer a competition which is not quite at the highest level that may tend towards repetition, with not as much player movement. Yet the top international leagues are far away, in different time zones and with stars that are effectively out of reach.

“It struck me that it would be fascinating to create basketball rivalries between the different countries in the region, and develop stars more relevant to the area with a premium, pan-regional league."

What Mark wasn't aware of at that time was that the same idea had already hatched in the minds of Matt Beyer and Henry Kerins, who founded a venture called the East Asia Super League (EASL).

“I was connected to Matt Beyer and Henry Kerins through a mutual friend in Shanghai who insisted that we must meet,” Mark says. “I was really captivated by the meeting as I realized we share the same vision, and they were already doing a lot of the hard foundational work to make it happen. To make a long story short, I hopped on board."

Mark is now the chief commercial officer of the EASL and his goal is as simple as it is ambitious.

“Business-wise,” he says, “we want to be the best of the best, a one-stop shop for our partners to reach all the region's key markets."

Mark Fischer George Gervin Dave Cowens NBA China

Mark Fischer (middle) was the managing director of NBA China before joining the East Asia Super League (EASL). (Courtesy of Mark Fischer)

Matt, the CEO of the EASL, is yet another American who ended up living in China. The Milwaukee native got into basketball with his hometown team, the Bucks, as an interpreter for Yi Jianlian, the No. 6 pick out of China in the 2007 NBA draft.

Yi initially declined to sign with Milwaukee. His agent, the late Dan Fegan, wanted him in a city with a large Asian-American community. Meanwhile, Chinese officials insisted that he play significant minutes ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Only after Bucks owner Herb Kohl—one of the founders of Kohl’s department stores and, at the time, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin— personally flew to Hong Kong and met with Yi and Chinese officials did the 19-year-old come to Milwaukee.

With Yi on board, the Bucks wanted to please China’s next hopeful NBA star. So they hired Matt, who was then in his senior year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to be Yi's full-time interpreter and life assistant. Matt was also responsible for helping the Bucks deal with Chinese sponsorships and media.

This offered Matt, then 22, immediate and high-level access to the inside workings of the NBA. Yi spent one season in Milwaukee before the Bucks traded him to the New Jersey Nets. But that year proved crucial for Matt's future, who came to understand the mentality and needs of Chinese players.

“I learned that Yi was an incredibly hard-working player who had a hunger to prove himself,” Matt says, “and that Chinese players could ball."

Matt had been uniquely exposed to Chinese culture for years. When he was 10, his parents adopted two Chinese children.

“For my biological sister and myself, they immediately became our brother and sister in every sense,” he says.

Matt Beyer

Matt Beyer grew up with a brother and sister who were adopted from China. (Courtesy of Matt Beyer)

Six years later, in spring 2002, the Beyers went on a family vacation to China. They visited Xi'an, the hometown of Matt’s adopted siblings, to meet their biological family and see historic sites. The trip also included a cruise along the Yangtze River, to see the famous Three Gorges, as well as excursions to Guilin, the Li River and Hong Kong.

“At the end of this eclectic and emotional trip, I had made up my mind to learn the language and immerse in the culture," Matt says.

After graduating from Brookfield Academy, Matt enrolled at the Xi'an International Studies University in 2003 and the Shanghai International Studies University the following year. He took intensive Chinese language courses while working a number of jobs and starting his own events promotion company. He continued his studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he completed his degree in Chinese Literature, East Asian Studies and Journalism in 2008. Upon graduation, he decided to relocate to Beijing and fully pursue his dream: immersing in the Chinese language and pursuing basketball management in Asia.

Matt started as a consultant for Edelman public relations, but after two years in the media relations and corporate communications sector, he decided it was time to return to what he really loved: basketball. In 2010, Matt started on a grueling mission to become the first (and still the only) foreigner to be certified as a CBA agent.

The first step was an eight-week course to prepare for an exam with the General Sports Administration of China. The exam itself is a four-hour marathon, including written essays in Chinese. This process only gave Matt a general license but not, yet, a China Basketball Association certification. For the latter, a much more thorough vetting process followed, which included multiple interviews and a training course with senior CBA leadership.

In 2012, Matt started his own agency, Altius, in Beijing, and became an important actor in the basketball player market in China, as well as in other countries in East Asia. By 2016, his company, which had since relocated to Hong Kong, represented more than a third of the foreign players in the CBA, as well as a sizable portion of the league’s international coaches.

Matt Beyer Lance Stephenson

Matt has been living and working in China since 2008. (Courtesy of Matt Beyer)

After several years of success as an agent, Matt felt a different pull.

“There is something transactional in nature in being an agent,” he says. “I wanted something with more growth potential."

So Matt, together with Henry—whose brother, Will, worked with Matt at Altius—started dreaming about an international league that would be the premier basketball competition and entertainment experience in East Asia, while elevating the sport in the region.

To get the ball rolling, and show that such a vision would be feasible, they started organizing events during the summer, modeled on the NBA's Las Vegas Summer League. Since 2017, they have organized four such events, three of which were held in Macau, the Las Vegas of Asia.

The fourth and most recent installment came in September 2019. Dubbed "The Terrific 12," the event featured four teams from Japan, two from South Korea, and three each from China and the Philippines. The 2019 event was broadcast over 37 platforms and racked up more than 117 million views—a more than 300-percent increase over the 2018 edition. Lance's team, the CBA’s Flying Leopards edged the Seoul SK Knights in the final game, 83-82, to win the championship.

“The Terrific 12 was an awesome experience,” Lance says. “I felt like it was good for the team and me to get to know each other more on how we can play together, and building our relationships off of the court more. We won it all and I won MVP, so I had a great time. The fans and players were amazing there in Macau.”

Lance Stephenson

Lance was named MVP of The Terrific 12 in September 2019. (Courtesy of Matt Beyer)

Over the past two years, Matt and Henry have jetted back to Geneva to meet with FIBA officials and around East Asia to coordinate with league officials from Greater China, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines on a schedule for the East Asia Super League. Up until the pandemic, their typical week was split between two or three continents. Mark, on the other hand, had been meeting potential media and business partners around East Asia on frequent trips.

“I have to say, that is one of the few positives the pandemic has resulted in,” Mark says. “We no longer live out of a suitcase and between hotel rooms.”

The model for the EASL, which was recently approved by FIBA, involves the top two teams from each member country. It’s small compared to European tournaments, such as the FIBA Basketball Champions League, but it’s a start.

If all goes as planned, the EASL will start in fall 2021 and, by fall 2023, increase to 16 teams from East Asia, possibly expanding to other countries beyond the initial four.

“I'm sure this will look a lot like the EuroLeague eventually," says Leo Austria, the head coach of the San Miguel Beermen of the Philippine Basketball Association. “And no doubt, it will elevate the level of players we can attract here to the Philippines."

With the EASL, Matt will have a unique opportunity to give back to the game he loves in a part of the world that has been so influential in his life.

“I wanted to create something organic to the region, part of the local ecosystem,” he says. “I was not interested in landing NBA teams here for exhibition games during the summer that would trample the local teams and give little to the region. I wanted something that could spark and sustain youth development and be, in two words, Asia focused."

 

Yanir A. Rubinstein is the Washington D.C. correspondent for Israeli NBA magazine Hoops.co.il and a staff writer for Bullets Forever.