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For China, Jeremy Lin is an inspiration — to a point

The NBA star is ethnic Chinese, a source of pride for China. But Chinese authorities see his Taiwanese heritage and Christian beliefs as awkward attributes.

February 23, 2012|By Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times
  • U.S. basketball player Jeremy Lin, in T-shirt, shakes hands after a match last year at a school in Pinghu, his family's ancestral home in China's Zhejiang province.
U.S. basketball player Jeremy Lin, in T-shirt, shakes hands after a match… (AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from Beijing — When Guo Sicheng looks at American basketball sensation Jeremy Lin, he can almost see himself.

Like Lin, Guo — a 21-year-old college student in Beijing — is athletic, intelligent and ethnically Chinese. He says he hopes that "in the future, Chinese basketball can produce someone like Lin."

But while the California-born Lin's ethnicity has triggered a fan frenzy in China, the 23-year-old New York Knicks point guard's inspirational story presents an awkward challenge for Chinese authorities.

There is the matter of his family's roots in Taiwan, the offshore democracy of 23 million that China considers a renegade province. Lin is also a devout Christian, while China is officially an atheist state where open discussion of religious belief is taboo.

And then there is the widespread recognition that a recent college graduate who at 6 feet, 3 inches is small by pro-basketball standards would probably not have emerged from China's tightly controlled sports development system, which relies heavily on weeding out all but the most likely top-performing athletes from a young age.

Wang Wei, a sportswriter in China, said that Lin's height is only one factor that sets him apart from Chinese basketball stars. "The most important thing is that he loves basketball," he said. "China's sports environment doesn't encourage people to persevere because they really love what they're doing."

The Chinese public seems to love him back. Lin is a hot topic on the nation's hyperactive microblogging sites and television sports talk shows. He has more than 2 million followers on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. And his Chinese name, Lin Shuhao, is among the most searched on Baidu, China's biggest search engine.

Lin's rise to stardom couldn't have come at a better time for Chinese basketball, and for the NBA, whose largest overseas market is China. The number of NBA games broadcast on Chinese television has dropped precipitously since last year when Chinese national Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6 center for the Houston Rockets, retired because of chronic foot problems.

Jiang Heping, director of the state broadcaster's sports channel, told state media in December that telecasts from America would not be shown on weekdays this season because there were no longer "Chinese elements" in the league.

Chinese television has yet to broadcast a full Knicks game this season, ostensibly because of scheduling conflicts. Although Lin has become a popular subject on sportscasts, the hosts tend to steer clear of his religion and Taiwanese heritage.

"Traditional media do not touch the issue of Christianity," said Zhao Jing, a closely followed political blogger in Beijing who goes by the pen name Michael Anti. He said Chinese authorities may also be wary of broadcasting full-length Knicks games because of Taiwanese flags, which are barred from display on Chinese television, waving in the stands.

Many analysts are confident, though, that if state-run TV did begin broadcasting the games, they would prove a hit. Because coverage runs on a time delay, the Taiwanese flags probably could be cut out of the broadcasts.

"I'm sure his agent is rubbing his hands right now," said Jeremy Walker, head of sports marketing for GolinHarris in Hong Kong. "If you're marketing something to a Chinese audience, you want a Chinese face to market your brand."

Despite the dichotomies, nobody seems more optimistic about Lin's potential in China than the NBA.

"The huge enthusiasm and the frenzy around Jeremy is just serving to act as a further catalyst … to grow the NBA in China in a very short period," David Shoemaker, chief executive of NBA China, told the Associated Press.

Much of the conversation about Lin in China these days revolves around whether he can truly replace the beloved Yao in the hearts and minds of the public.

Yao and Lin are "both very humble and very polite, very friendly to their fans. They work hard, and they both like academic study," said Xu Jicheng, a well-known sportswriter in China. Yet there are key differences between the pair. Like most professional Chinese basketball players, Yao was recruited by government bureaucrats in early childhood and attended athletic schools instead of traditional ones. His parents were basketball players well over 6 feet tall.

Brook Larmer, author of a book about Yao, said he embodies China's sports training system, a relic of the Mao era intended to "strengthen the nation" rather than inspire it.

If Lin had been born in China, his height alone would have almost certainly eliminated the possibility of his being trained to play at a professional level, commentators said.

"This is not a mass recreation system as it is in the U.S., where every kid is playing in some sort of sports league," Larmer said. "The system itself is incredibly good at creating discipline and hard work, but it doesn't in any way promote independence, creativity and leadership."

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