As the 2016 NBA draft nears, Zhou Qi, the first player born in China to declare for the NBA draft in nearly a decade, is again faced with a question that has plagued pretty much all players from China (and indeed , most players born in non American / Western European countries) .  Is his age real?

It goes without saying that age is an important element in determining draft prospects. as it would change the perception of both how much he has left to develop and also that what he’s done to date… is it against players older or same or younger? these all matter when talking about guys in their late teens early 20s.

China unfortunately, has a pretty long track record of manipulating age of athletes . after the USSR broke up it has become the bastion of state sponsored athletics . from the national level down to the local levels, government sponsor teams of all age groups, and they compete against each other for prestige and funding.  This gives a lot of incentives for messing around with age of athletes. as in the case of basketball having a 15 year old playing in a 13 year old age bracket game is obviously an advantage.  note that even in the USA this happens, the problem in China is that the state is often the main culprit behind this instead of overzealous parents.

I could go on a very long article about that in general, but keeping it in the realm of basketball, the last major NBA prospect from China, Yi Jianlian , was perhaps the most notable example of such problems, he was listed as born in 1987 when entering the draft, but as of now we are pretty sure he’s born in 1984 . after documents surfaced from his school days (see below) and multiple incidences reported within China  ( such as a local celebrity claiming to be his schoolmate is 3 years older than Yi’s listed age , or even in his most recent interview on the OFFICIAL CBA WEBSITE he perhaps accidentally let out that he participated in the college entrance exam in 2003  which if he was born in 1987 would mean that he was only 16 years old,  so he must be quite an academic genius and skipped 2  to 3 grades  …. or……….)

 

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(Yi’s school card from 1997, saying that he’s born 1984)

Zhou’s case is bit more complicated. as so far no such damning evidence have came out against him. and it could very well be that people who don’t like him (and there are plenty in China. will explain later.) that’s just letting rumors fly .

Below I’ll list out the general concern people have on Zhou’s age, and the possible counter points. I do not claim to know if he is or isn’t 20 years old . but I think we should let the evidence out there and people more rationally judge for themselves. perhaps the NBA scouts in question have more evidence than I do (I hope so.) but from the reasonably accessible information of the average Joe (who can read Chinese.) …

 

1. His growth pattern:  perhaps the most well grounded evidence that would question Zhou Qi’s age is his growth pattern. when he showed up on the international radar in 2011, he was already listed at around 7 foot 1, and in the recent NBA draft combine he was measured in at 7’1 .25  (barefoot) so in the last 5 years it seems he’s barely grown, this is certainly more in line with the growth pattern of a 17-19 year old than the 15 year old he was listed as in 2011.

COUNTER POINTS:

A.  as anyone past puberty should be well aware, growth pattern is a very inexact science to judge anyone’s age, people start and stop growing at different age all the time, while it is relatively less common for guys to stop growing taller much after 15, it is very very far from being uncommon either.

B. the uncertainty of the number listed in 2011. first of all, we have no idea if that measurement was in shoes or barefoot (or even accurate.), if it’s in shoes then it gets much more complicated for obvious reasons. Another major thing I can list is that as Americans are (the only people) dealing with foot and inches, the translation from centimeter to inches are often not as exact as you’d think, in Zhou’s case we even have very direct evidence of that.

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This is a report from a 2011’s local news. where obviously one can see Zhou Qi at the very top, even if you don’t know Chinese you can see the words *15*  *2* *15* which is saying he’s 15 years old and 215 cm tall.  that is actually more like 7.05 inches  and rounded up to 7’1.   He is currently listed at 218 cm tall.

If the 215 cm in 2011 was in shoes, then his growth pattern would look much more normal. even if was not in shoes, it does mean he’s grown 3 cm since then, which should at least makes the theory that he’s 24 or even 26 much less plausible.

C. This is perhaps something even scouts aren’t aware of, which is that there was actually an article written about him in 2009 by a local fan in the Liaoning region (Zhou was born in Henan province but moved to Liaoning as a kid because the basketball program there is more well known.) and also local reporters had a similar article at the time

In the article it directly cited Zhou as 13 years old (so consistent with his claim.) and also had multiple pictures of him as well.

zhou qi 13zhou qi close up

The facial features certainly looks more like 13 than 17 for sure. but that is also an inexact science obviously.

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(the coach in the picture says this is from 2006 , Zhou is the 5th kid from the right in the middle row )

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(and here Zhou went on a field trip with the coach and teammate, supposedly this is also 2006 when he’s 10.  again, the appearance checks out. and if this was from before 2006 then it shouldn’t be hard to really figure this out. )

(btw this is what he looks like now.  from about 2 weeks ago.)

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Now, it is very possible that the age fraud already happened in 2009, but certainly the further back you can push and the story remaining consistent, the more likely that it is in fact a true story. the article in 2009 also cited his height at the time as 205 cm (around 6’9)

2. Inconsistent report / former teammates that’s been caught: this article back in 2011 cited his birthday as June 1996, but the current registered birthday out there is January of 1996. so that’s obvious a pretty big red flag. Oh and his girl friend might be older than he is.

Counter Point:

Well obviously it could just be flawed reporting or the guy that said it didn’t remember the months correctly. and of course 5 months is far less egregious than two years or more.

The girl friend part is obviously silly for many reasons.

 

3. The general system in China:  As noted earlier, age fraud is a pretty systematic issue in China across all competitive sports. so plenty of this may just be people assuming by default that any Chinese athlete that stands out must be cheating his age just like any Taiwanese little leaguer that looks bigger must also be 15.  To pile on, the program he comes from . Liaoning, was among the more notorious provinces for age fraud (partially due to the fact that it’s more competitive.) even within China.

A guy that went to the same athletics school as Zhou Qi around the same time has been caught of faking his age . he originally claimed to be born 1995 but now list it as 1992.

Guo Ailun another young player from the Liaoning system is listed as being born 1993, but people noted that he has a younger cousin that apparently registered his birthday a little bit older.

Counter points:

A. in 2008 the Chinese Basketball Association cracked down on age frauds in general. after the Yi fiasco was starting to surface. at least 22 active CBA players at the time ended up changing their registered age (most commonly by 2 years.) up .

B. Obviously, your class mates cheating doesn’t automatically make you a cheat, we should also note that said player is of a significantly lower caliber than Zhou, as he’s playing in the NBL, as second tier division basketball league in China. so his ability has been relatively exposed over time. he also left said school pretty soon anyway.

C. We should just generally note that China as a whole is changing at an incredibly rapid rate that is probably lost on most Americans .  and if that is not something you would be convinced by,  there is something else that is obviously far more convincing…. MONEY.

The commercial incentives changes everything.  faking your age makes more sense when your goal is to get an Olympic medal or FIBA youth tournament championship title and be set for life because the state will take care of you or you can make money just on that reputation.  it is far less logical if your goal is to make money in professional sports over a longer career.

Yi’s age fraud cost him a TON of money, even if you ignore the NBA part, it means that he came into the CBA at least 3 years later than he could have . that’s 3 years of professional salary in a career that rarely last over 10 . this is even more true today where well paid CBA players are close to a average NBA salary income.  (Yi is making over 3 million USD a year right now, and needs to pay much less taxes on it, if he was playing for a NBA team he probably need to make at least 5M or so to break even.)

Thus, for a high end youth player in basketball nowadays, their commercial incentive should be to NOT fake their age.  This should be especially evident of youths that began to show up after 2008. however Zhou is right on the very edge of that so you could obviously still make an argument that he’s within the period where this is risky, as of course evident by that a former teammate of his who originally claimed to be just an year older than him is now 4.  (But that is much more of a the classic age faker case, aka as time went on his dominance greatly declined.)

D. Media and the information age : another aspect perhaps lost on people is that China nowadays have an extremely vibrant online community and a very commercialized media just like the US (and in some ways, maybe even more extreme.)  some political topics are still off limits that is true, but almost everything else is fair game.

This of course includes athlete’s age. indeed the school card I showed earlier in the article was dug up by investigative reporters.

What this means is of course, that unlike 20 or even 10+ years ago, it’s VERY HARD to fake your age for a long time and not get caught if your a successful athlete. EVERYONE has incentives to find out your real age. if I can dig up a similar school card on Zhou Qi, I can sell it for a huge sum to reporters or even NBA scouts.

And even from the source. there are incentive. age frauds are mostly perpetrated by local officials who wants to make their local team look good in regional competitions. AT THE SAME TIME THIS ALSO MEANS EXPOSING FELLOW COMPETING TEAMS FOR AGE FRAUD CAN ACHIEVE THE SAME RESULT WITHOUT GETTING YOUR SELF INTO FUTURE TROUBLE.  This has actually been a big thing in recent years in China, where it’s often been a blood bath in provincial competition as different region’s official exposing / calling out that the other region’s team / player cheated.

Thus, if Zhou Qi faked his age, it’s fairly likely that on his way up another region’s official calling him out on it already, after all getting him disqualified would mean that maybe one of their own players can take his spot.

There are hundreds and hundreds of pages in Chinese web sphere discussing Zhou Qi’s age , with plenty being thrown around from both sides of the argument. some claim conspiracy of course. but Chinese internet is no different than that of other places in that there are plenty of crazy people as well. Most Chinese them selves by default also don’t trust the age of athletes in general locally.

Many provinces, including Zhou’s Liaoning, also have been doing bone tests on youth athletes, now THAT is not an exact science either as plenty of outliers exist, and obviously one can’t rule out provincial officials protecting very high profiled athletes like Zhou.

Again, in this day and age. if Zhou Qi’s age fraud is real, we probably should have seen concrete evidence by now. He didn’t pop out of nowhere, he’s been on NBA radar since 2011, I’m sure someone has tried to investigate his elementary schools and everything. That some NBA scouts remained convinced he’s much older is worrisome as if I was one I would have hired people to investigate this long ago.  OTOH, it could also be that teams want him to drop and thus spreading the rumor. After all, if people today still believe Obama faked his birth certificate, then pretty much nothing Zhou can provide short of his birth being aired on live TV (which was literally What Yao Ming did, as his birth was reported on local news paper and his mother was actively participating in high end sports competition up till a year before his birth.) will convince everyone.


 

We should note as well that where as with Yi the hard evidence and even the rumors all pretty pointed to a single year in 1984 (if you can read Chinese, check out this post way back in 2004 which the poster said Yi was born in 1984 ) as his real birthday, so far Zhou’s rumor is all over the place , that should also be a point of consideration as this suggest that the odds of speculation rather than real evidence is much higher.

Overall,  I think we can reasonably rule out that he is significantly more than 2 years older than his claim. but certainly most of this would still be plausible for someone faking his age by less than 2 years.  The general note of course I would want to make is still that in terms of financial incentives, it no longer make sense for high end basketball prospect in China to fake his age.  as time goes on age fraud should be less and less common. especially among those that’s actually worthy of being considered NBA talents. And as a student of history and economics, the market force is the ultimate force usually. thus I lean towards the Zhou’s age is real or at least not significantly (more than a year.) altered.

 

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