Grace Ng – Straits Times Indonesia
When National Basketball Association’s (NBA) newest sensation Jeremy Lin called former Chinese star Yao Ming his friend and role model yesterday, he sparked a fresh frenzy online in China.
“I talk to Yao after every game,” said the league’s first American-born player of Chinese descent. The unassuming 23-year-old had just helped the New York Knicks to their fifth straight victory.
“He’s taken me out to eat every time we’re in the same city. He’s obviously a role model and a big brother to me, and we keep in touch all the time,” he told a press conference.
Paying homage to China’s national hero endeared Lin even more to the country’s basketball-playing fans, who are said to number well over 300 million — the largest in the world.
“Lin is my new idol after Yao!” gushed a netizen on popular portal sina.com.
“Lin calls Yao to discuss opponents’ weaknesses, Yao asks Lin for help on maths questions,” went another well-circulated post, paying respects to the Harvard graduate’s IQ on and off the court.
The wave of excitement is the latest to swamp Lin, who has become an online phenomenon in China ever since the Knicks point guard made the headlines with his meteoric rise as the most exciting Chinese player since Yao.
Followers of his China Tencent and Sina microblogs now number 1.57 million. More than three quarters of them were acquired just over the past few days, especially after Lin scored 38 points in a breathtaking game against Kobe Bryant — one of the most popular NBA players in China — and the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday.
By yesterday, the microblog hashtag ‘Lin Shuhao Craze Continues’ — using the star’s Chinese name — had generated 73,500 messages. Hashtags are used to group messages by topic. His name also topped a list of trending topics on China’s top search engine Baidu, drawing over 1.57 million searches.
The frenzy prompted state newspaper People’s Daily to run an article in its overseas edition yesterday, headlined, “Can Lin replace Yao Ming?”
Despite Lin’s massive popularity, however, few believe the answer is “yes.”
Lin’s path to stardom has been so different from that of the retired Houston Rockets center that it is hard for even Chinese fans in the grip of ‘Lin-sanity’ to see him as the next Yao Ming.
“Chinese people’s nationalistic feelings (for Yao) are too strong,” said Beijing entrepreneur Li Yongtao, an avid Lin supporter in his 20s.
“The differences between Yao and Lin are greater than similarities, not just because Lin was born and bred in the US.”
NBA commissioner David Stern also said Lin first has to play many more games and continue proving himself. “I don’t think another Chinese NBA star as influential as Yao Ming will appear,” he told Chinese media.
In its article, the People’s Daily too doubted that Lin could ever replace Yao in the eyes of Chinese fans. Yao’s success was special, it said, because he was from the Chinese system.
“Yao grew up in a sports system and basketball culture with Chinese characteristics, yet he was successfully immersed in the completely different culture and rules of the US sports circle,” it asserted.
The 2.29m-tall Yao, whose parents were both national basketball stars, was specially trained from childhood until he became a No. 1 NBA draft pick.
Lin cannot claim such pedigree. Roughly 20kg lighter and 38cm shorter, the California-raised son of Taiwanese immigrants — both just 1.67m — pursued his basketball passion against great odds.
“If you have a Harvard degree, the odds of becoming president of the United States are greater than becoming an NBA player,” noted Xu Gaozhi, 65, a chemical engineer in Beijing. Lin is the third NBA player from the Ivy League school.
Lin was not drafted out of college — unlike many other basketball stars — and his talent was doubted at every turn.
Even the Knicks “were leaning strongly towards releasing Lin before his breakout game last Saturday,” ESPN writer Marc Stein tweeted.
But it is precisely Lin’s arduous struggle and his eventual success that inspire many young Chinese — especially since he did it outside a state system and regimen.
“Lin has allowed me to see something that I’ve never seen in Yao Ming and (Chinese NBA player) Yi Jianlian,” said a blogger nicknamed ‘Qiao Shi’.
Sun Tonglin of Dongguan Leopards is one of the China Basketball Association players inspired by Lin’s breakthrough. “You’ve brought us hope and dreams. We will forever support you!” he was quoted by local portal Hoopchina.com as saying.
Chinese junior players training at the US Basketball Academy, which has helped to groom talent including Yao Ming, are also “dreaming even bigger dreams” after watching Lin play, said its president Bruce O’Neil.
“Yao has become a wonderful role model, but not everyone is (2.29m) tall. Jeremy Lin is living proof that hard work, modern training techniques and top coaching can transform many other gifted Chinese athletes into the stars of the future,” he told The Straits Times.
As for ordinary Chinese, what makes Lin — a devout Christian — accessible is the faith and fortitude with which he “eats bitterness” (chi ku) — a concept many would be familiar with.
One of Lin’s favorite Bible verses, posted on his Facebook and circulated by some Chinese netizens, is: “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us.”
Said Xu: “He typifies the American dream where any ordinary person who works hard can do great things — and more. He looks like us, he’s built like us; he sends the message: You can do it.”
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia. To subscribe to Straits Times Indonesia and/or the Jakarta Globe call 021 2553 5055.