HANGZHOU, China — Even during my Valentine's Day dinner with Stephon Marbury and Randolph Morris, two former National Basketball Association (NBA) players who now play for the Beijing Ducks, one topic was unavoidable: Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks guard who has emerged from nowhere to lead the team to a seven-game winning streak.
"I think if they continue to push him the way they push him, he could be way bigger than Yao Ming," said Marbury, who played for the Knicks for four seasons before coming to China. Marbury, described by some as a NBA outcast, has successfully built himself up in China; he plans to introduce his Starbury clothing brand to small-town Chinese consumers. But as well as Marbury thinks he might know China, topping Yao is a tall order. The 7-foot-6-inch Yao, who played 10 years with the NBA's Houston Rockets, almost single-handedly brought the premier American basketball league to hundreds of millions of Chinese viewers.
Lin and Yao may both have Chinese ancestry, but on the court they're two different beasts. While Yao dominated in the paint as a somewhat ungainly post-up center, Lin's a natural ballhandler -- dribbling, passing, and penetrating defenses with a quick first step that has shocked the NBA. And with Yao retired as of last July, China's now caught Lin fever.
In the span of barely a week, Lin looks on track to join Yao as a household name across China. He's currently on the front page of every major Chinese news portal, video-sharing site, and microblog. "Lin Shuhao," his Chinese name, topped China's Twitter clone Sina Weibo's trending topics with over 17 million tweets about him (and counting). Chinese fans who can't wait to get his official jerseys are ordering them on Taobao, China's most popular e-commerce site, to have sellers purchase them in the United States. Lin, who speaks decent but not fluent Mandarin, currently has more than 1.3 million followers on Weibo despite having only posted 58 times. "Though I don't really understand basketball, I really fall for you when you play," wrote a Weibo user named Daiqiluxxx, who called Lin "an ideal heroic Mr. Right" in another posting.
But whereas Yao was part basketball player, part creature created by the Chinese Basketball Association (who arrived in the United States with a marketing machine in full swing), Lin has popped up out of nowhere. And his meteoric rise has hooked even casual observers. Take my parents, for example: They're not sports fans, but they devoted their entire Saturday morning to watching Lin score 38 points against the Lakers. "He's so good," my mother told me as she watched, eyes glittering. "Much better than 'Kebi' [as Chinese people call Kobe Bryant, the all-time great Lakers forward and most popular NBA star in China]," she said.
"He graduated from Harvard," my dad added.
But there's a catch: He's not actually mainland Chinese. He's Taiwanese-American, and he grew up in Palo Alto, California. Still, ancestry's enough. Only five Chinese players have ever made it to the NBA; Yi Jianlian, the one remaining, sits mostly on the bench for the Dallas Mavericks' games. And China's desperately in need of a sports star. Not a single Chinese player can be found on the rosters of the top European soccer teams, and baseball and American football have few followers in China. Lin's rise came just when Chinese fans were waiting for their next hero.