Linsanity Strikes China, But Could Chinese Basketball Ever Produce a Jeremy Lin?

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Mike Cassese / Reuters

New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin (L) drives to the basket next to Toronto Raptors defenders Aaron Gray and Jose Calderon (R) during the first half of their NBA basketball game in Toronto, Feb. 14, 2012.

Just type the letters L and I on Baidu, and China’s top search engine sends out an automatic prompt: do you mean Lin Shuhao, the Taiwanese-American basketball breakout phenom whose English name is Jeremy Lin? (The California native prefers to render his given name as Shu-How.) On Wednesday morning Beijing time, after Lin led the New York Knicks to victory with a game-winning three-pointer and a total of 27 points and 11 assists, the 23-year-old was the hottest topic on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblog service.

Unlike in the U.S., where Lin seemed to come out of nowhere, Chinese fans had been tracking the NBA’s fourth Asian-American player since he was signed last season by the Golden State Warriors after graduating from Harvard. “He caught my attention for two things,” says Yang Yuanqing, a Beijing-based lawyer. “He is Asian and he graduated from Harvard. Those are the two things that run against stereotype.” (The fact that Lin is also a fervent evangelical Christian has resonated in the U.S., where sports fans are still digesting the legacy of the N.F.L.’s Tim Tebow, but it has been rarely discussed in China, where persecution of Christians who do not worship at officially run churches remains common.)

(PHOTOS: The rise of Jeremy Lin.)

Lin fever in mainland China raises an interesting question. Could China, an Olympic powerhouse and homeland of Yao Ming, produce such a gifted, confident point guard?

The answer for now is, most likely, no. In the U.S., Lin was underrated by pro and college scouts because he is Asian-American. Chinese fans are indignant about a stereotyping in the States that assumes Americans of Chinese descent can be good engineers or software designers, but not brash NBA stars. The criticism is absolutely fair. But in China, Lin may not have been picked for stardom either. Firstly, at a mere 6’3”—relatively short by basketball standards—Lin might not have registered with Chinese basketball scouts, who in their quest for suitable kids to funnel into the state sports system are obsessed with height over any individual passion for hoops. That’s why the Chinese basketball league has had a history of producing strong centers—big men like 7’6” Yao or 6’11” Mengke Bateer, the ethnic Mongolian who played briefly in the NBA—but does poorly when it comes to developing point guards like Lin. The problem is compounded by the Chinese sports system’s focus on endless drills and discipline over the kind of creative play needed for successful point guards.

(MORE: Jeremy Lin Fever Reaches China and Taiwan)

China dominates in formal sporting competitions like the Olympics. Even with Yao’s retirement, the NBA remains popular here, especially with Lin’s epic performances. But pick-up artists on Chinese courts have almost no chance of making it to the Chinese basketball league because they aren’t part of the official system. Top-flight athletic skill is considered something to be honed by the state, through government-run sports schools. Compare that to the public courts of the U.S., which nurture future NBA stars, even among broken backboards and cracked concrete. Or India, where any dusty stretch can serve as a cricket pitch for little boys dreaming of Tendulkar. Or Brazil, where kids in the favelas hone their football skills with nary a government grant in sight. Then they grow up to become a Pelé or a Ronaldinho.

(MORE: A Second-by-Second Look at Jeremy Lin Lighting Up Toronto)

To their credit, China’s sports planning czars understand the problem and have been pushing to extend sports beyond an elite stratum of international-class athletes. You do see a lot of people exercising outdoors in China, whether it’s a morning tai-chi session in a park or pensioners availing themselves of street-corner training equipment provided by municipal governments. But team sports for fun among normal Chinese kids? It’s just not a tradition yet. (Pick-up hoops games in the big Chinese cities tend to be among people in their 20s.) In the meantime, the systemic failures of China’s sports machine are symbolized by the country’s Olympic basketball team, which consistently fails to meet the expectations of Chinese fans. Only one starter on China’s national hoops squad, it should be noted, is below 6’7”. Jeremy Lin? Even if his parents weren’t from Taiwan, China’s cross-strait rival, he wouldn’t measure up.

with reporting by Jessie Jiang/Beijing

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