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.
"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.
"There's no decision made yet about any broadcasting adjustment at CCTV, but personally I would suggest the channel air more Knicks games," says Yu. "The fans just love to watch him."
For now, though, Lin's still a somewhat unknown quantity. There's a good chance -- as Marbury told me over dinner -- that he could end up a flash in the pan. Lin has only started six games for the Knicks and has yet to face real, sustained challenges from top guards like Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Chris Paul, and Steve Nash. "When they come against him, they come for blood," said Marbury. "But he's gonna come for the same thing if he's the same type of player."
"We're going to wait and see; you don't know what's gonna happen next month," added Morris.
Indeed, it's likely that Lin will come back to Earth. His rise has been sensational, but few scouts or talent evaluators will go on record saying that they see Lin maintaining his current level of excellence. For Chinese fans, though, perhaps the most likable thing about Lin is that he appears so physically average. He's neither particularly tall nor strong, and unlike the Chinese players who come out of Soviet-style sports schools, Lin -- with his Harvard degree -- shows that athletic and academic excellence don't have to be mutually exclusive.
"He may not be as successful as Yao in China because, at the end of the day, Lin doesn't wear the Chinese jersey," says Yu -- though it's rumored that he's already been approached by both Taiwan and China to play for their national teams. "But his story is inspirational not only to Chinese kids, but to also all the other Asian kids who play basketball."
To those kids, Jeremy Lin's value has less to do with the eventual limits of his talent than his do-it-yourself story, which for now, at least, has bestowed upon him a street cred that the government-raised Yao could never have.