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Sports Illustrated’s annual “Where Are They Now?” issue catches up with the stars and prominent figures from yesteryear—past features have included Sammy Sosa, Brett Favre, Dennis Rodman, Tony Hawk and Don King. The 2019 issue features an inside look into the new life of Alex Rodriguez, Yao Ming’s mission for Chinese basketball and more.

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To escape the troubled world they had first left men's society

They live as if become immortals, no reason now to return

"Peach Blossom Journey"

—Wang Wei, eighth century, Tang Dynasty

Many more famous players have followed his path, but one of the first Americans to join the Chinese Basketball Association was a 6'8" rebounding machine named John Spencer, who signed a $20,000-per-month contract before the league's second season, in August 1996, to play for a team owned by a steel company. "I have no idea why I did it," he says now. "I don't know if you want to call me a pioneer or an idiot."

Each day of training camp with the Jiangsu Dragons began with a two-mile run at 5 a.m., followed by weightlifting using cinder blocks affixed to bamboo poles. In winter Spencer, then 30, wore gloves and a parka for practice at the arena, which lacked heat. He once requested electrical-stimulation treatment for his sore knee. The trainer returned with an acupuncture needle, a car battery and jumper cables.

Today Spencer operates a North Carolina--based basketball agency that occasionally places clients in China. The country's top league has professionalized over the years, especially under the recent leadership of chairman Yao Ming, and American talent is taking notice: Players with a collective 11,000-plus games of NBA experience passed through the CBA last season, including 10 McDonald's All-Americans, five NCAA champions and 19 first-round picks.

That list of imports makes for good bartrivia fodder (Q: Which former NCAA Player of the Year wears the crimson-and-gold of the Zhejiang Golden Bulls? A: Tyler Hansbrough), but the CBA is far from trivial. Certain players head west to rehabilitate their skills, if not their reputations. Some hope to ride out their days cashing paychecks in the smoggy sunset. Still others come seeking a gateway to a stable career overseas. They are spread across 20 teams spanning a dozen provinces and three municipalities, from China's iridescent seaside cities to remote outposts like Ürümqi, 400 miles from the Kazakhstan border. But they are all bonded by a shared experience.

Spencer remembers his introduction: the dorm room with its thin mattress on a wooden platform; his only possessions a Bible, a chessboard and a CD player. "I'd been in that place for eight weeks, lying in a fetal position, calling home like, 'Mom. Dad. What am I doing?'" he says. "Then this 6'9" guy walks into my room."

The new arrival, Kennard Robinson, had played for John Calipari at UMass. When Spencer bounded from his bed and wrapped this fellow expat in a bear hug, Robinson was taken aback. "What's wrong with you?" he asked.

"Nothing," Spencer replied. "You've just got to be here to understand."

Fifteen stories up at the InterContinental Taiyuan, six hours southwest of Beijing, a hotel door opens to reveal 6'6" Shabazz Muhammad in a plain white T-shirt and polka-dot boxers. Freshly awake from a pregame nap, the 2013 NBA lottery pick plops down on a couch. Around him, clothes and sneakers spill out of suitcases; a table sits cluttered with survival essentials—pistachios, instant oatmeal, PB&J fixings, two bottles of red wine. A flatscreen is tuned to the Discovery Channel, where a stranded adventurer furiously tries to start a campfire.

The choice of programming is fitting given the description Muhammad, 26, offered earlier of Taiyuan: a place, basically, best survived in a hotel room, like some high-rise castaway. "There isn't really nothing to do in this city prob the worst in the CBA," he'd texted. "Not even any food places smh." Another message of lament was punctuated by three waterfall-tears emojis.

It's a bleak portrait compared to Muhammad's early impressions of the country. In 2017 he visited with the Timberwolves for a pair of exhibitions. He fondly recalls strolling Shanghai's silk markets alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, hunting for knockoff designer goods. Two years later Muhammad inked a one-year deal with the Shanxi Loongs, expecting a similar lifestyle for himself and girlfriend Khrystyna Olenchuk. "It's going to be really dope," he thought.

Reality quickly set in. On the ride from the airport in Taiyuan, a mainstay on any list of the world's most polluted cities, Muhammad could barely see the road through the soot-caked windows. "I'm ready to go home," he told Olenchuk.

The Loongs did little to change that attitude. Before his debut Muhammad noticed a strange visitor in the locker room, smoke billowing from his cigarette. "Who is this guy?" Muhammad asked. Turns out it was the team president, irate over a string of L's. "He was like, 'If we lose, everybody has to cut their hair,'" Muhammad says. "I thought it was a joke." At the next practice, though, all of the team's Chinese players and coaches showed up with freshly shaved heads.

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It's easy to see a hard fall here for someone of Muhammad's pedigree. Named Mr. Basketball USA in 2012, he spent a season at UCLA before being drafted with the 14th pick. It's possible he'd still be in Minnesota had he not grown frustrated by a string of DNP-CDs and insisted on being released from his guaranteed contract in March '18. "I should've stuck it out," he laments. "Pouting, that's what got me out of the league."

And how he wound up at Taiyun's Riverside Sports Arena, a 5,331-seat building with airplane-hangar ceilings. It's early March and the Loongs are hosting their regular-season home finale, against the Shandong Golden Stars. Rap music thumps as Shanxi's mascot, a paunch-bellied blue dragon, wanders around without its costume head, schmoozing with sequined cheerleaders. A dozen security guards lord over a section of superfans, hoping to prevent a repeat of a recent brawl. The game starts, though, and a series of questionable calls has the throng yelling at the referee in Chinese: "S----y! S----y!"

These chants are translated by one of Shanxi's two interpret-ers, a young man who introduces himself as Brady, a nickname attributed to his worship of a quarterback who plays 11,000 miles away. "Six rings," Brady says, raising that many fingers.

Muhammad kisses a first-quarter floater off the backboard and Brady leans over, invoking another G.O.A.T.: "Left-hand Jordan." Despite the Loongs' place near the bottom of the standings, Muhammad has thrived in the CBA, improving his physical conditioning and three-point shooting while leading the North Conference with 28 points at the All-Star Game in January. Brady cues up a cellphone picture from this season, against the Liaoning Flying Leopards, when Muhammad posterized point guard Guo Ailun, a Chinese national team star and the only native player with an Air Jordan shoe deal. "Dunk on his face," Brady says. After that play, he notes, fans started referring to Muhammad as "God."

Seated beside Brady is Olenchuk, for whom life in Shanxi has its own challenges. Early in her stay she noticed clumps of her long, black hair were falling out, which the Loongs' doctor told her was a possible side effect of the air pollution. Even then, she sees the silver lining of China for Muhammad. "In the NBA he wasn't himself," she says. "Would you rather sit on the bench and have that little title, or do what you love?"

She brings up a recent visit to the Mengshan Giant Buddha, a breathtaking, 200-foot-tall statue that was chiseled into a mountainside 1,400 years ago. Along the winding walk to the summit she and Muhammad stopped inside a Buddhist temple, lit incense sticks, knelt on a zafu cushion and, heads bowed, prayed for good fortune throughout the season.

Yes, China has its share of headaches. And yet, says Olenchuk, "He's a lot happier here. A completely different person."

With 54 points from former Nuggets/Rockets/Pacers point guard Ty Lawson, the Golden Stars pull away as Muhammad watches from the bench, subbed out midway through the fourth. (To promote homegrown talent, each team is allowed just two non-Chinese players, only one of whom can stay on the floor in the last period.) Later, accompanied by Olenchuk and fellow American import Bobby Brown, he steps outside the players' entrance, where security guards have set up a perimeter around a minivan, obstructing an ever-replenishing horde of selfie-seeking fans. A path clears. The Americans climb aboard, and the door slides shut.

Two more games remain, both in Beijing (after which Muhammad will fly straight home to Las Vegas). "See ya, Shanxi," he says under his breath, as the van pulls away into the night, "wouldn't wanna be ya."

The four-hour bullet train from Taiyuan to Jinan, capital of the neighboring Shandong province, winds through mountain passes and dusty prairies, whips past terraced fields and deep ravines. Every so often, though, a thicket of high-rise apartments appears in the distance, shooting up from the horizon like the bristles of a laid-flat toothbrush. Together these thickets are a reminder of the roaring economic climate in a country that can build whatever and wherever it wants, as fast as it damn well pleases.

This boom has reached basketball too. Silk and porcelain may have enticed medieval explorers to the Middle Kingdom, but today's great ballers of China are mostly coming over for the paper. One CBA agent estimates the league's imports earn an average of $1 million per season, with some salaries climbing close to $3 million—and because clubs cover the income tax, that entire amount goes straight to the bank.

The potential for supplementing this cash stream is high. Contracts are typically laced with incentives, for anything from road victories to double-digit rebounds. And that's before considering the business opportunities that come with a country that has more casual basketball fans, according to NBA China, than the entire population of the U.S. Besides, it's not a bad life. Imports typically stay in five-star hotel suites or furnished apartments. They're assigned translators and car services, and they tend to fly first-class (while domestic teammates are relegated to coach). It isn't uncommon for a front office to cover family members' expenses on road trips.

"They get treated well," says Brian Goorjian, who played at Pepperdine and has spent the past decade coaching in the CBA. "The word's out: Hey, guys, get to China."

Getting there is one thing. A Euro- or G-League résumé is good; an NBA pedigree is better; a Chinese agent is mandatory. Thriving there is an entirely different proposition. From frequent travel disruptions to subpar team medical care to a dearth of Western food (beyond fast-food chains like KFC), players accustomed to cushy NBA amenities are tested daily.

"I could name four or five players who had that pedigree and came over, went through the motions—no relationships with teammates—and it's just a bust," says Goorjian. "Some imports survive. Others get spit out."

On that subject: Hop off at the train station outside Jinan, home of the Golden Stars. Find Lawson, back in town after the Shanxi game. Ask about the shrine.

Maybe shrine isn't the best word, but that's what he calls it. Really, it's just an ordinary changing stall in the Shandong locker room. As Lawson explains, the team had suffered a series of bad import experiences by the time he joined in August 2017, so players took matters into their own hands. No longer was anyone allowed to sit in the stall those misfits had rotated through; instead it was filled with oranges, apples, water bottles, candy bars and other offerings. "They were like, 'This player sucked so bad, we have to feed the spirit,'" Lawson says. "Like it's possessed."

It's nighttime in Jinan. As the 31-year-old strolls through an outdoor market, sipping lemon-green bubble tea, he seems to have avoided the wrath of the Chinese basketball gods thus far. An NCAA champion at North Carolina with 551 NBA games under his belt, Lawson played that first CBA season and then waited at home until early December, hoping that some NBA team would offer more than the veteran minimum. Only then did he rejoin Shandong. It wasn't a tough choice. "A lot of money to come out here," he says.

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Not only is Lawson earning $2 million for a season that runs less than five months, but he's also been making inroads for his sports-themed slippers company, SLKRS. Earlier he hosted two Chinese businessmen to discuss selling his product on websites like Amazon and its Chinese counterparts. On a recent road trip he broke off to visit the factory his company uses, in Guangdong Province. "China's treated me good," he says. "Life takes you in different ways. Just gotta roll with it."

Sure, there remain little annoyances. Like the fact that the CBA is exclusively sponsored by a native sportswear conglomerate, LiNing, so any other sneaker logo must be covered with tape during games. There was that time Lawson refused to practice because a road arena had no heat. Before the Shanxi game he did his morning shootaround in Sambas and Marvin the Martian socks because the team's luggage had been lost.