When Guo Sicheng looks at American basketball sensation Jeremy Lin, he can almost see himself.
Like Lin, Guo — a 21-year-old college student in Beijing — is athletic, intelligent and ethnically Chinese. He says he hopes that “in the future, Chinese basketball can produce someone like Lin.”
But while the California-born Lin’s ethnicity has triggered a fan frenzy in China, the 23-year-old New York Knicks point guard’s inspirational story presents an awkward challenge for Chinese authorities.
There is the matter of his family’s roots in Taiwan, the offshore democracy of 23 million that China considers a renegade province. Lin is also a devout Christian, while China is officially an atheist state where open discussion of religious belief is taboo.
And then there is the widespread recognition that a recent college graduate who at 6 feet, 3 inches is small by pro-basketball standards would probably not have emerged from China’s tightly controlled sports development system, which relies heavily on weeding out all but the most likely top-performing athletes from a young age.
Wang Wei, a sportswriter in China, said that Lin’s height is only one factor that sets him apart from Chinese basketball stars. “The most important thing is that he loves basketball,” he said. “China’s sports environment doesn’t encourage people to persevere because they really love what they’re doing.”
The Chinese public seems to love him back. Lin is a hot topic on the nation’s hyperactive microblogging sites and television sports talk shows. He has more than 2 million followers on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. And his Chinese name, Lin Shuhao, is among the most searched on Baidu, China’s biggest search engine.
Lin’s rise to stardom couldn’t have come at a better time for Chinese basketball, and for the NBA, whose largest overseas market is China. The number of NBA games broadcast on Chinese television has dropped precipitously since last year when Chinese national Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6 center for the Houston Rockets, retired because of chronic foot problems.
Jiang Heping, director of the state broadcaster’s sports channel, told state media in December that telecasts from America would not be shown on weekdays this season because there were no longer “Chinese elements” in the league.
Chinese television has yet to broadcast a full Knicks game this season, ostensibly because of scheduling conflicts. Although Lin has become a popular subject on sportscasts, the hosts tend to steer clear of his religion and Taiwanese heritage.
“Traditional media do not touch the issue of Christianity,” said Zhao Jing, a closely followed political blogger in Beijing who goes by the pen name Michael Anti. He said Chinese authorities may also be wary of broadcasting full-length Knicks games because of Taiwanese flags, which are barred from display on Chinese television, waving in the stands.
Many analysts are confident, though, that if state-run TV did begin broadcasting the games, they would prove a hit. Because coverage runs on a time delay, the Taiwanese flags probably could be cut out of the broadcasts.
“I’m sure his agent is rubbing his hands right now,” said Jeremy Walker, head of sports marketing for GolinHarris in Hong Kong. “If you’re marketing something to a Chinese audience, you want a Chinese face to market your brand.”
Despite the dichotomies, nobody seems more optimistic about Lin’s potential in China than the NBA.
“The huge enthusiasm and the frenzy around Jeremy is just serving to act as a further catalyst … to grow the NBA in China in a very short period,” David Shoemaker, chief executive of NBA China, told the Associated Press.
Much of the conversation about Lin in China these days revolves around whether he can truly replace the beloved Yao in the hearts and minds of the public.
Yao and Lin are “both very humble and very polite, very friendly to their fans. They work hard, and they both like academic study,” said Xu Jicheng, a well-known sportswriter in China. Yet there are key differences between the pair. Like most professional Chinese basketball players, Yao was recruited by government bureaucrats in early childhood and attended athletic schools instead of traditional ones. His parents were basketball players well over 6 feet tall.
Brook Larmer, author of a book about Yao, said he embodies China’s sports training system, a relic of the Mao era intended to “strengthen the nation” rather than inspire it.
If Lin had been born in China, his height alone would have almost certainly eliminated the possibility of his being trained to play at a professional level, commentators said.
“This is not a mass recreation system as it is in the U.S., where every kid is playing in some sort of sports league,” Larmer said. “The system itself is incredibly good at creating discipline and hard work, but it doesn’t in any way promote independence, creativity and leadership.”
Such qualities make Lin a successful point guard; they’re also a perennial sore spot for China, which has never won a men’s Olympic basketball medal despite its tireless efforts to rack up the gold. Taiwan has a team, but it has never qualified for the Olympics.
If Lin’s exceptional play continues, some believe, his unexceptional height, his Ivy League education and his passion for the game could make him more of a role model than Yao.
“The big phrase from Michael Jordan was ‘Be like Mike,’” said Larmer. “Very few Chinese people feel like they can be like Yao Ming.”
Apart from Yao, only four other Chinese nationals have played in the NBA. The only current one is 7-foot forward Yi Jianlian of the Dallas Mavericks; the shortest among them, Sun Yue, is 6 feet 9. Sun’s NBA career consisted of 10 games for the Lakers in the 2008-09 season; he scored a total of 6 points and committed 10 personal fouls.
Chinese basketball fans seem to be responding to Lin’s rise with a combination of ethnic pride and honest contemplation. One Internet user evoked Chinese Olympic speedskater Zhou Yang. After winning a gold medal in 2010, Zhou ignited a national controversy by thanking her parents first and her country second.
“I want to ask a question,” wrote the user, who expressed hope that Lin would someday join the Chinese Olympic basketball team despite such obstacles as his American citizenship and Taiwanese heritage. “If we win the championship and the first sentence he says afterward is, ‘Thank God for helping me make that shot,’ what would the consequences be?”
The surge in pride hints at a generation of Chinese who are attracted to something beyond what their own society can offer them. “Lin’s story is somewhat like a Hollywood story,” said sportswriter Xu. “He realized the American dream.”
Large billboards advertise Kobe Bryant’s line of Nike sneakers at a public basketball court in central Beijing. But these days, Lin is the talk of the town.
“Lin is an inspiration,” said Zou Jiachen, 20, a college freshman in Beijing, as he stood watching a game. Zou said that he had given more thought to Lin’s work ethic than his ethnicity. “I saw on a TV documentary that he works from morning to night,” he said.
Zou said that although he wouldn’t mind becoming a basketball superstar himself, Lin has motivated him to work toward another goal. Now, he said, he wants to attend graduate school in the United States.
Kaiman is a special correspondent.
Tommy Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.