Jeremy Lin: China and Taiwan compete for claims to NBA star

Sure, Jeremy Lin was born in California and struggles to speak Mandarin, but China and Taiwan both see themselves in the Knicks basketball star.

Andrew Innerarity/Reuters
New York Knicks' Jeremy Lin (17) dribbles the ball as Miami Heat's Norris Cole defends during their NBA basketball game in Miami, Florida, Thursday.

Everyone wants a piece of the New York Knicks basketball player Jeremy Lin. He’s almost as hot a topic as an island in the South China Sea. And though there will be no Navy called on over this battle, China and Taiwan are staking their claims to Mr. Lin's success story.

As the Knicks’ only Asian player suddenly lifted his team to seven straight wins this month after years of struggle on the court, people throughout Taiwan found a sudden passion for the NBA and lauded Lin as one of their own.

Taiwanese enthusiastically point out that Lin’s parents lived on their island before moving to the US where he was born.

But just as Taiwan is claiming him based on his parent’s birthplace, China has also been swept up in the 'Linsanity' and found reason to claim him too: One of Mr. Lin’s grandmothers was born in the Chinese province of Zhejiang, trivia hardly overlooked in China’s official media. Like most in Taiwan, the Lin family ancestry traces back to China, just some 160 kilometers (100 miles) away.

In fact, waves of citizens from China are so excited about Lin, they’re urging the 23-year-old 6 foot 3 point guard to play for the Chinese Olympic team, because after all, he’s Chinese, they say.

No matter that he was born in California, that he reportedly struggles to speak Mandarin, or that he has made only a handful of visits back “home.”

At the end of the claim game, however, Asia is positioned to win over the player who has averaged more than 20 points per game this month, his first major effort for the Knicks. If the fans in Asia don’t woo Lin, the sports marketers sizing him up right now just might.

“If he carries on the way he is, he’s going to be a marketing sensation not only in the United States but pan-Asia,” says Mark Thomas, managing director of the S2M Group, a sports management firm in Shanghai. His “huge” value is still being calculated, Mr. Thomas says. But according to the China Daily, Forbes magazine placed his  worth around 100 million yuan ($15.9 million), and has already been registered as a trademark by a Chinese businesswoman.

Taiwanese, overshadowed for decades by China – the island’s giant political rival in sport as well as diplomacy – are notoriously quick to spot and claim Taiwan-influenced over-achievers.

“Even though he grew up overseas … he’s a Taiwanese, that’s right,” says Monica Wang, an interior decorator and basketball player from Taipei. “We think it’s a source of pride for us.”

Chinese officials meanwhile see ethnic Chinese abroad as part of a united race ultimately tethered to today’s China. The achievements of foreign nationals of Chinese heritage, such as US Ambassador Gary Locke, stir patriotism and confidence in the communist leadership.

Beijing, incidentally, also claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan, so by extension all Taiwanese and Lin along with them are Chinese, so their argument goes.

Still, amid the back and forth of sports media and fans across the Taiwan Strait, China's Communist government, mindful of its international image, has stayed out of the Jeremy Lin identity debate.

“Imposing China's NBA dream on him and even calling on Lin to give up his US citizenship to play for China in the coming Olympics, as some in the media have suggested, goes too far,” the Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper said. “There is no need to overly interpret Jeremy Lin's identity.”

Editor in chief at Esquire Taiwan magazine isn’t so sure. Basketball fans from Thailand and even the Philippines will celebrate Lin, says Chen Sheng-hong. They see themselves in him. Until now, the Asian sports stars ­– like Yao Ming – have been taller, stronger players that are hard to identify with.

As “Linsanity” draws Chinese and Taiwanese alike to the TV to root for the New York Knicks, advertising companies no doubt see Jeremy Lin as a man to identify with.

On Sina, the China’s version of Twitter, Lin went from 190,000 followers on Feb. 2 to more than 1 million followers as of Feb. 16.

As for Lin? Mr. Thomas of the sports management group says, “Jeremy Lin needs to surround himself with intelligent people who can tell him how to build his brand long term.”

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