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Jeremy 'Lin-demand' in China

By Jaime A. FlorCruz, CNN
updated 1:35 AM EST, Fri February 17, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In China, sports fans and commentators claiming Lin, an American born to Taiwan immigrants
  • With Yao Ming in retirement, millions of basketball fans in China seeking a new role model
  • For decades, Chinese basketball has been geared to finding super tall Chinese players
  • Many admire Lin, a Harvard graduate, for striking a balance between education and sports

Editor's note: "Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and was TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing (CNN) -- Jeremy Lin's improbable success in the NBA has prompted a spate of "gee-whiz" stories and added "Linsanity" into everyday lexicon.

The little known Asian American, who at 6'3" (1.91 meters) tall, has been leading the New York Knicks to successive wins, even without its recognized superstars.

"To pull off 20+8 (an average of 20 points and 8 assists) in six successive games shows Jeremy Lin is no fluke," says Ma Jian, a basketball commentator in Beijing. The Knicks made it seven on Wednesday after a 100-85 win over Sacramento in New York, with Lin managing a career-high 13 assists.

Watching the 23-year-old point guard spin a 360, or finish a clean slam dunk, or sink a buzzer-beating three pointer against the best teams in the NBA is "incredible," says Ma, himself a sharp-shooting former member of China's national basketball team.

My family has also been quite giddy over Lin's successes.

China and Taiwan vie for a piece of Jeremy Lin

I have been a basketball fanatic all my life. I played as a back up guard for the Peking University varsity team when I studied there in the late 1970s. I sometimes play pick up games on Sundays.

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Vicariously, I feel like a winner whenever Lin wins.

Michelle, my 20-something daughter has snapped up a Knicks jersey bearing "No. 17" and Jeremy Lin's name. She had just bought a ticket for Friday's Knicks game against the New Orleans Hornets.

Her elder brother Joseph, a Los Angeles resident, cannot stop talking about Lin's spectacular game last week against the vaunted LA Lakers. "It was intense," he says. "Sports commentators have been all over Jeremy Lin after that game."

In China, sports fans and commentators are quick to claim Lin, an American born to Taiwan immigrants with roots in mainland China.

NBA's 'Linsanity' offers marketing promise

"He is Chinese no matter what," says Wang Dong, a Shanghai-based sports commentator for Dragon TV. "He is associated with China and our culture, he knows the language -- though not fluent."

Wang says Lin visited China in the summer during the NBA lockout and had talked with Yao Ming, the hulking Houston Rockets center who retired from the NBA last year.

With their homegrown hero in retirement, millions of basketball fans in China are seeking a new role model.

"Lin gives hope to regular-sized players," says Wang. "He shows that regardless of size, height and weight he could make his presence felt in the NBA. He shows that we Chinese can boast of more than just giant players like Yao Ming."

Frank Hawke, who also played in the Peking University varsity team in the late 1970s, agrees. "Previous Asian players in the NBA have been physically imposing, but few regular players can relate to Yao Ming."

Lin, hoops analysts say, fills China's point-guard gap. "Like (Phoenix Suns' point guard) Steve Nash, he combines a high basketball IQ with athleticism. Like Nash he makes his teammates better," says Hawke.

For decades, Chinese basketball has been geared to finding super tall Chinese who could be trained early to compete with the world's best. In the minds of many Chinese coaches and team managers, Chinese and Asians in general cannot compete with African-Americans or Eurasians without height advantage. That is why China has failed to produce world-class point guards.

"Lin's success is really an indictment of the Chinese basketball system and its focus on developing big men," says Hawke.

"China has hundreds of millions of males, most of them regular size in stature and they cannot develop a single NBA-caliber guard?"

Brook Larmer, author of "Operation Yao Ming," a book on Chinese basketball and the rise of Yao, explains: "The system basically recruits on height and also inculcates great obedience, discipline and hard work, but it doesn't bring creativity, independence, and leadership, which are qualities that a great point guard needs."

Lin shows those qualities.

Lin's success is really an indictment of the Chinese basketball system and its focus on developing big men.
Frank Hawke, Peking University ex-player

"Lin was born in America," says Ma. "He has no language and cultural barriers and he is familiar with the NBA."

Lin also has a growing legion of fans.

On social media, he has more than one million followers on Weibo, compared to his almost 400,000 followers on Twitter.

Others admire Lin, a university graduate, for striking a balance between education and sports.

"In China, if you want to be a sports star, you go to sports schools to train and train and forget about attending a regular college," says Dragon TV's Wang. "Lin is an excellent basketball player who also went to Harvard, and that is why he is such an inspiring example for Chinese."

Lin also inspires Chinese Americans like Shawn Shieh, editor of the China Development Brief, an English-language journal who, like Lin, has ties with Taiwan and the mainland.

"As a group we tend to be seen as sports challenged," Shieh explains. "The stereotype is that we excel in math or the violin so having someone like him who excels in mainstream American sport is refreshing. It brings a new dimension to who we are and what we can be. He also represents the American dream because of his underdog status."

Lin was overlooked by most NBA teams until the New York Knicks, desperately looking for a point guard, picked him.

He also earns much less than many of his teammates.

But the question lingers: how long will Lin's magical run last?

"The NBA is a grind and he is not used to playing the minutes," notes Hawke, who watched Lin play for his high school team in Palo Alto, California. "Opponents will get physical with him. When (Knicks superstar) Carmelo Anthony comes back (from injury), his minutes may go down."

Still, former national team player Ma gives Lin a fair chance to score well. "He can use his high basketball IQ to make up for his physical handicaps," he says.

That demands high Lin-tensity.

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