"Chinese people have always wanted an imaginary home team," says Yu Jia, a popular basketball commentator on CCTV5. "Because the performance level in the local leagues is so low, both in basketball and soccer, Chinese fans would pick a team that has a connection with them -- or even randomly."
All the Chinese NBA stars before Lin have come from inside the system. They trained in Chinese sports schools, succeeded in the Chinese Basketball Association, and then were repackaged by both the NBA and individual teams in America. Lin is different: an outsider loved for his Chinese roots. Although he's a Taiwanese-American, Chinese media commonly refer to Lin as a meiji huayi, or "Chinese-American." Local TV programs proudly introduce his zuji, or "ancestral home" (a small town in Zhejiang province), and Internet users flock to comment on articles about his Chinese background. In Taiwan, meanwhile, the media have already anointed him as the new "glory of Taiwan," just like Wang Chien-ming, the Taiwanese pitcher for the Washington Nationals, who's a household name in Taiwan.
Lin's challenge in China, whether he's ready for it or not, is to balance his identity so he doesn't alienate Christians, Taiwanese, Chinese, or any of the other groups who claim him for their own.
"Jeremy needs to make sure he doesn't jump completely into the Taiwan thing," says Terry Rhoads, managing director of Shanghai-based Zou Marketing, a sports consultancy. "If he was to wrap himself in the Taiwan flag, that would eventually turn off some potential brands in China. And as long as he straddles the fence well, he's gotta be OK."
If he succeeds, he could become a major boost for the NBA's China business, which hasn't been going smoothly. "Without any 'Chinese element' and as Yao retired, the NBA's TV ratings on CCTV is going straight down," said Jiang Heping, president of the China Central Television sports channel in an interview late last year. The NBA had plans to build their own league in China, but the plan foundered.