The great yellow hope? How Lin might get the NBA back in China’s good graces.

It’s been awhile since I watched basketball avidly. I used to watch it with my father as a kid (along with a healthy dose of stereotype-ridden WWE). I remember watching every single USA game during the 1992 Olympics with the ultimate dream team of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and other legends.

I recently found the book Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing and it reminded me of how I used to love the sport. I’ve yet to finish it, but it’s a funny, dramatic and oftentimes frustrating tale of two cultures clashing on the basketball court. I would gleefully recommend it to anyone, whether or not you’re a basketball fan.

But this isn’t about that book. Instead, as I’ve been reading Jim Yardley’s book, I’ve been thinking about Jeremy Lin and all the sports news focused on him, specifically criticisms from media figures such as Floyd Mayweather Jr:

“Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.”

Now I haven’t seen Lin play, so I don’t dare go into the debate about whether or not he lives up to the hype, but given that he scored 38 points against Kobe and the Lakers, I’m inclined to agree with the hype. My goal is to examine the coverage and point out that there’s also other forces at play, not just the idealistic notion that the best people get recognized.

Admittedly some of the focus is a bit of novelty. There have been other Asian American basketball players before Lin — Wataru Misaka, Raymond Townsend, Corey Gaines, Rex Walters and Robert Swift — but they are shadowed by Lin. Why?

I think some of it is that other than Misaka, Lin is the only other Asian American player who (crassly put) looks Asian. Townsend, Gaines, Walters and Swift don’t have the “Asian” name and they also are “hapa” or mixed race. Think of Tiger Woods for a moment — even though he’s Asian, mainstream media still identifies him as black, based on the color of his skin. That’s probably what happened with Townsend, Gaines, Walters and Swift.

Even Walters remarked on it in an interview with ESPN:

“I don’t look Japanese,” Walters said, referring to his mother’s heritage. “When they see him, it’s an Asian-American.

“It’s great for Asian-Americans. And he’s not 7-foot-4. It’s great to see that they can make it.”  

But reading Brave Dragons reminded me of something — the NBA has been trying to break into China for awhile now. Three years after following the Xanxi Brave Dragons, Yardley revists the Chinese court:

(Comissioner David) Stern and the N.B.A. are confronting their own China trap, having misjudged what, for now, is possible there. Not too long ago, the N.B.A. had visions of empire: it formed a Chinese subsidiary, N.B.A. China, and made plans for an N.B.A. league in the country, complete with state-of-the-art arenas and retail N.B.A. stores selling licensed merchandise.

Those advantages are now fading. Unable to overcome injuries, Yao retired from the N.B.A. after last season and is a part of the C.B.A. as the owner and public face of its team in Shanghai. Television ratings for the Chinese league have jumped, partly because of the added star appeal of exiled N.B.A. players like Chandler, while ratings for the N.B.A. have declined since Yao’s peak years. The C.B.A. has also received a boost from its most surprising star, Stephon Marbury, who has proved unexpectedly adroit at public relations in China after his tumultuous time in the N.B.A. Perhaps the N.B.A.’s biggest challenge of all is that the C.B.A. is part of the Chinese government, under the control of the ruling Communist Party.

Cynically, I wonder if Lin is an attempt by the NBA to woo back its Chinese fans. Lin is of Taiwanese and Chinese descent and he’s easily identifiable as Asian, unlike Swift, who currently plays in Japan. Have enough people talk up a player — be it coaches, other players, agents or other folks — and a journalist is surely going to start investigating more. Once one news agency begins publishing stories, the others will probably follow. That’s how hype often snowballs.

That and also the fact that he scored 38 points on the Lakers in February and finished the season with a record 136 points doesn’t hurt. Performance also can help sustain the bright glare of the media’s attention.

Given the endorsement deals Lin has with Nike and Volvo it’s clear that many companies are seeing the player’s potential value in China. I don’t doubt without a doubt that the NBA also sees the same potential. Indeed, Chinese basketball fans are already reacting to the news about Lin moving to the Houston Rockets (Yao Ming’s old stomping grounds), and they also see the business end of the deal:

“The Rockets have tasted the sweetness of having a Chinese element and known the bitterness of losing it,” wrote a Weibo user posting under the name Canglan2010. “This is a business transaction.”

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