The morning of Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012, was the evening of Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012, in the U.S. In New York’s Madison Square Garden, the Knicks were playing the Nets, and at my Shanghai gym, a larger than normal crowd of fit Shanghainese were gathered around a television to watch the live broadcast.
This was the first time I’d seen significant interest in a National Basketball Association game since the retirement of national hero Yao Ming a year earlier, and I found all the excitement curious. It wasn’t until I arrived home and logged onto the then-thriving Sina Weibo service that I found out what the hubbub was all about: a Taiwanese-American, ethnically Chinese reserve point guard by the name of Jeremy Lin had single-handedly sparked a Knicks win with 25 points on 10 for 19 shooting, seven assists and five rebounds.
The game wasn’t over more than two hours before ecstatic Chinese sports fans started driving Lin’s name up trending-topic lists, and Linsanity, the Chinese edition, was underway. Over the next few weeks, Lin put up record-setting numbers (since the 1976-77 season no player had scored more points in his first three starts -- not even Larry Bird or Michael Jordan) and catalyzed a Knicks win streak. He inspired tens of millions of tweets, hundreds if not thousands of news stories and blog posts, and the patriotic pride of millions of Chinese and several eager-to-take-credit public officials. If, in the U.S., Lin’s was a rags-to-riches story, in China it was something much more profound.
Why, Chinese microbloggers asked, couldn’t China produce a basketball player as talented as Lin? Was there something wrong with how China trained its athletes or did the problem go deeper? And why, they wondered, did it take so long for Lin’s talents to be noticed in the U.S.? Was race a factor?
Then, just 26 games and one season-ending surgery later, Linsanity was over. Rather than return to New York, Lin signed with Houston for the 2012-13 season, where he was expected to become a face -- if not the face -- of the franchise. But Lin quickly regressed from the torrid pace he'd set during Linsanity. In the last two years, he's established himself as a mostly average backup point guard overshadowed by two much bigger and more talented stars.
The drop-off has had an obvious impact in China, where Lin’s name rarely trends outside of sports discussions, which are now often concerned with whether he’s really so great, after all, or just in need of a new team. “Actually, his ability is indeed limited, and not nearly as excellent as some sports commentators say,” tweeted a representative Sina Weibo user back on Jan. 9. “Although I also hope he’ll be great, his ability and strength can’t compare with top players! Can’t we be more objective?”
Not everyone is ready to accept the decline of Lin into an average (overpaid) NBA point guard so easily. Indeed, a strong thread in the Chinese discussion of Lin’s fall from grandeur remains the role that race has played in his journey. This argument was expounded most recently by Pan Jinqin, a veteran Beijing sports reporter, in a Nov. 13 op-ed for Hong Kong-based Phoenix Sports, entitled: “Jeremy Lin will always be discriminated against in the NBA.”
It is, in many respects, an ugly and paranoid piece that impugns the motives of many in the NBA, including Rockets head coach and NBA Hall of Famer Kevin McHale: “McHale said several times last season that Linsanity wouldn’t last, and that Lin should stop pursuing the glory of it. Nonetheless, when an African-American such as [rookie of the year candidate] Michael Carter Williams has the same kinds of performances, why does he receive only praise and no doubts?”
The answer, as Pan sees it, is discrimination against Lin and other ethnically Chinese athletes, quieted only when they perform at a level that exceeds the norm.
For Lin, conveniently, that performance came on Saturday in Houston , days before the second anniversary of Linsanity, when he scored his first career triple-double in a win against Cleveland (a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that he did it coming off the bench). By mid-afternoon on Feb. 2 (the day the game was played in China), Lin was trending strongly on Sina Weibo (a service now much reduced in influence and interest). His performance was generating hundreds of tweets per hour from fans who had apparently been waiting for two years for something about which to cheer.
For those willing to accept the NBA as a league where talent determines playing time, Lin has become a welcome symbol of perseverance. “The first triple double in Lin’s professional career!” tweeted Tian Zhaohui, a popular Chinese basketball commentator, shortly after the game. “Congratulations! Behind his successes are hardships that few people know.”
As praise, this hardly matches the garlands of two years ago. But as a basis upon which to build a career and Chinese fanbase, it’s a far more comfortable place to be.
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is the author of "Junkyard Planet," a book on the global recycling industry. Follow him on Twitter.)
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