Sport, Talking Point

China feels the Lintensity

Why Zhejiang, Taiwan and the US all lay claim to basketball hero Lin

China feels the Lintensity

All the right moves: Jeremy Lin has rekindled interest in the NBA in China with his performances

The first time that she watched Jeremy Lin on television, Yu Minjie, a small business owner in Wuxi, thought she might be onto something. This was two years ago, but Yu told the Modern Express that she was already so impressed with what she saw from Lin that she applied for a trademark immediately. She was granted domestic rights to ‘Jeremy S.H.L’ (the initials stand for Shuhao Lin). More importantly, she secured the accompanying Chinese characters for the basketballer’s name.

That now looks like a bargain, costing Yu just Rmb4,460 ($708) for the trademark rights till 2021. Forbes magazine has suggested that the Jeremy Lin brand is already worth $14 million and expects it to be worth a whole lot more.

Mrs Yu’s investment looks like a pretty smart one…

So what’s with all the Lin hype?

“Linsanity” is the Western media’s preferred label, with the New York Knicks’ point guard exploding in popularity in less than two weeks. After February 4, when Lin made his debut, he led his team to seven straight wins, scoring more points in his first five games than any debutant since 1976.

That has stirred Chinese pride, especially in Taiwan (Lin is Los Angeles-born of Taiwanese immigrant parents). Pictures of the new NBA icon have made the front pages of all the Taiwanese newspapers. Local malls have also taken to broadcasting Knicks games to customers around the clock.

Not to be bested, the people of Zhejiang province have also been claiming affinity with Lin, as the ancestral home of his maternal grandmother. To back up the claim, a local newspaper has been posting photos from Lin’s visit to his mother’s hometown last May.

Lin is also proving to be wildly popular across China in general. He already has more than 2 million followers on his Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like equivalent. And on Taobao, the leading e-commerce site, Lin’s Knicks jersey (bearing his number “17”), as well as assorted T-shirts and sweatshirts were soon selling out – and that included the counterfeit versions too.

But the Chinese media is being careful with its Lin coverage?

Despite Lin’s popularity, there has been uncertainty about how best to report on the breakout star. Xinhua has lauded Lin’s educational background (he graduated from Harvard), citing his academic success as a possible advantage on court. The Global Times has also praised Lin’s hardworking and humble demeanour, saying that he embodies Confucian values.

But state media gets more uncomfortable mentioning Lin’s parental background and CCTV seems to be keeping the references to Taiwan to a minimum, dodging the question of Lin’s heritage by identifying him as “ethnically Chinese”.

For his part Lin has tried to steer clear of controversy by giving the nod to the full range of his Chinese heritage. “It’s humbling, a privilege and an honour. I’m really proud of being Chinese, I’m really proud of my parents being from Taiwan,” Lin told one interviewer, in a comment crafted as carefully as the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué.

Lin will do well to stay out of the political limelight, if Yani Tseng’s experience is anything to go by. In 2010 controversy broke out when Tseng, a Taiwanese golf prodigy and world number one female golfer, reportedly rejected an offer of $25 million from a Chinese company to change her citizenship to mainland Chinese. Along similar lines, Xinhua published an article last week suggesting that there were “increasing calls” for Lin to do something similar and give up his US citizenship. Why? To become a Chinese citizen in time to play for the national team at the Olympics this year in London.

Another issue for state media to ponder is how to handle Lin’s devout religious belief, especially his habit of praising his “Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ” in post-match interviews. As The Economist magazine also noted this week: “[In China] one doesn’t usually see athletes thanking God for their gifts; their coach and Communist Party leaders, yes, but Jesus Christ the Saviour? No.”

Lin is a “trickier fit” for Beijing’s propagandists, the Financial Times agrees. “His Christianity is perhaps more awkward for China’s atheist Communist rulers. While Beijing officially sanctions some churches, it frowns on the spontaneous professions of love for God that pepper Lin’s postgame comments.”

As the FT also reported, CCTV did air a news report on Lin last Monday featuring brief comments from a New Yorker applauding him for his religious faith. But the Chinese subtitles didn’t tally with the spoken word, translating the phrase as “I love him for praising his team” and omitting the religious reference.

Meanwhile, over in the US…

With Lin’s meteoric rise to stardom comes the inevitable backlash, if for no other reason than successful Asian players are a rare sight in the NBA. In fact, there have only been three other players of Chinese descent, Yao Ming being the best-known.

Of course, Yao was brought up in Shanghai. By contrast, Lin is the first American-born player of Chinese ethnicity in the 65-year history of the NBA, although it is still his Chinese descent that has been coming in for most comment.

Professional boxer and current welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather first stirred debate by suggesting that Lin was getting attention more because of his ethnicity than for his accomplishments.

Then last Saturday, the sports network ESPN provoked a storm after an ethnic slur appeared on its website following the Knicks defeat to the New Orleans Hornets. The headline – which alluded to a “chink in the armor” – was soon pulled down. ESPN issued a formal apology before firing the writer and suspending a television anchor who used the same phrase on the air.

But then Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock made an even crasser remark (this one anatomical, and managing to be both sexist and racist at the same time) on Twitter.

Neither episode did the US media much credit, especially following the controversy over the Debbiespendit election ad a few weeks ago (see WiC138). The ad for Republican Senate hopeful Pete Hoekstra – aired during the Superbowl – was immediately attacked for its racial angle. Even fellow Republicans conceded it was likely to alienate America’s own Chinese community. By demonising Chinese (on prime time TV) it was a setback for race relations in the very country that invented political correctness.

Who’s the biggest winner in Lin’s rise?

Probably the NBA. Following the retirement of Yao Ming, Lin’s sudden emergence couldn’t be better timed for the NBA’s commercial team, which now regards China as its biggest overseas market.

“What we’ve seen, the huge enthusiasm and the frenzy around Jeremy is just serving to act as a further catalyst to grow the sport of basketball and to grow the NBA in China in a very short period,” says David Shoemaker, chief executive of NBA China, adding that the league plans to bring Lin to China this summer.

Nike, too, will hope to cash in on the Linsanity. The company is reportedly designing a new sports shoe especially for Lin, says Sina Sports. Nattily named the Nike Hyperfuse 2012 Linsanity PE, the shoe will feature New York Knick’s iconic orange and blue with the player’s name embroidered on the side. Previously Nike has launched special edition shoes for star players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Michael Jordan.

Adidas plans to sell its own Linsanity jersey in 6,700 stores in China, thanks to a deal it has with the NBA. The Wall Street Journal says it shouldn’t infringe on Mrs Yu’s local trademark, as it will use his English name.

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