MILWAUKEE - It was a modest request from one owner to another half a world away: Come to Hong Kong, meet Yi Jianlian and show that the Milwaukee Bucks had the young man's best interests at heart. Sen. Herb Kohl, the Bucks owner, wasted little time in honoring the request by Chen Haitao, owner of Yi's former pro team in China.
China's Yi Jianlian dunks the ball during the world basketball championships first round game against USA in Sapporo, northern Japan, in this Aug. 20, 2006 file photo. Yi Jianlian is going to play for the Milwaukee Bucks after all. Yi, the sixth overall selection in the NBA draft in June, signed a multiyear contract with the Bucks in Hong Kong on Wednesday Aug. 29, 2007. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
"He said, 'Would you do us the honor of traveling to Hong Kong so that we can continue and hopefully finalize our dialogue?'" Kohl said in a conference call. "We of course instantly said 'yes' and here we are."
The Bucks signed Yi, the No. 6 pick of the draft, on Wednesday in Hong Kong to a rookie scale contract. The club also gave his former team, the Guangdong Tigers, money in the deal, but declined to discuss details.
"He impressed us," Kohl said. "There's going to be no question about his character, about his work ethic, about his desire to do good for himself and his team and his country."
With that, one of the most shrouded sagas in Bucks history ended abruptly. Later, the group — including Yi's parents — went out to dinner.
"It sort of cemented the relationship in a human and social sort of way," Kohl said. "He has wonderful parents, which is not surprising because he's a wonderful guy. And we sit here very pleased and happy."
Yi, 19, said he was very happy, too, after months of saying nothing publicly.
"Today's agreement means I finally, formally enter the door of the NBA," Yi said in Chinese to the media contingent at the signing in Hong Kong. "This will be a great challenge for me. I know I will have a lot of opportunities, but also a lot of difficulties. But I'll do my best."
Yi's handlers in China were impressed with the Bucks decision to come overseas. That helped negotiations conclude quickly after nearly two months of discussion since the draft.
"They were very appreciative — all of them — in the effort that we made in coming here. That to them was an indication of our commitment to Yi," Kohl said.
While the Bucks don't know exactly when the 6-foot-11 power forward nicknamed "Alian" would travel to the United States, they expect him to be in Milwaukee by October for the start of training camp or shortly thereafter.
Yi, who hopes to wear No. 9, said he'd know more about when he might come after he speaks with Chinese national team officials. He said his parents are still deciding whether to move to the U.S. with him.
Yi's handlers had pushed for him to go to a city with a larger Asian population than Milwaukee — or just a bigger city in general.
"When it came down to it, it was not a question of our city or of the composition of our city in terms of its diversity, but rather a question almost entirely of is he going to have a full chance and full opportunity to play and develop and grow in Milwaukee," Kohl said. "When they became confident that that was the case, they then thawed in terms of their reluctance, put aside their doubts and said, 'OK, we're prepared to sign on.'"
Part of the concern also stemmed from the Olympics being in Beijing next year.
China wants to medal on its home floor against stiff international competition. The team has a developing roster that includes Yi, former No. 1 pick Yao Ming, Lakers second-round pick Sun Yue and former NBA player Wang Zhizhi.
"From a countryman standpoint, he certainly wants to accelerate the process and really become the best that he can be because this is a big thing next year in Beijing," general manager Larry Harris said.
The Bucks said NBA commissioner David Stern was not involved in negotiations, but was elated when they told him the news.
"He's been encouraging to us and naturally we've kept him fully abreast of what we're doing," Kohl said. "He had a strong interest in this particular draft pick, a draft pick from China. Aside from keeping him abreast of what we were doing, he didn't provide assistance beyond that."
Chinese Americans living in Milwaukee were also excited about the possibilities after not being sure that the Bucks would sign Yi Jianlian (EE jee-AHN-lee-AHN), who will be in the mix to compete for a starting job with Charlie Villanueva.
"A lot of fans probably calmed down, waiting for the results of negotiation," said Gaosheng Liu, a 42-year-old engineer who has lived in Milwaukee the last seven years and is an avid NBA fan. "Now, I'm just waiting for the new season to start and watch the games."
The team's starting lineup also will include Michael Redd, former No. 1 pick Andrew Bogut and a healthy Bobby Simmons. The three were the core of a team that made the playoffs in 2005.
Milwaukee traded that squad's point guard, T.J. Ford, to Toronto for Villanueva and gave Ford's spot to Mo Williams, who signed a six-year contract for $51.5 million this offseason.
Last season, Yi averaged 24.9 points, 11.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 30.7 minutes for the Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association.