It became clear to me about 30 seconds after the conclusion of the now-legendary Lin-Kobe duel that I would have to do a Jeremy Lin English Corner as soon as possible. I, like every Knicks fan who has ever spent any time in China, have long chafed under China’s oppressive Kobe-worship. Any attempt to discuss basketball with a Chinese person would begin, and end, like this:
Chinese guy: Do you like NBA?
Chinese guy: Do you like Kobe?
Me: Hell no!
Chinese guy: Then who do you like?
Me: The Knicks
Chinese guy: … -blank stare, awkward silence-
To the Chinese, the very concept of a Knicks fan was utter nonsense. The Chinese watch the NBA to see winning basketball, star players, and/or Chinese players; and until recently, the Knicks had none of those things. The Garden is famous all over the world – not as the home of the Knicks, but as the setting of memorable performances at the Knicks’ expense. The players Chinese people love – Jordan, Kobe, Lebron – had built their legends by sauntering into the Garden and torching the Knicks.
Now, suddenly the tables had turned. A Knick had beaten Kobe at his own game. And this Knick was an easy sell for the Chinese.
I started my English corner by showing a picture of Lin matched up with Kobe: “Who is this man?”
“Lin Shuhao” they called out in unison.
I wrote “Jeremy Lin” and the board: “If you look at his passport, this is the name you will see.”
A few people in the crowd were shocked. Lin Shuhao, as he is called here, is Chinese…as far as the Chinese are concerned. They have a different concept of nationality than we do. Just as a white baby born in Beijing could spend his entire life in China without being considered Chinese, Jeremy Lin stokes Chinese pride despite being born in California.
I asked them the students if they would cheer for a Korean-American or a Japanese-American NBA player. They answered with a collective “Hell no.” When a Chinese athlete succeeds in an international sport, the Chinese like to claim it as a victory for all of Asia; but their “Asian pride” only runs in one direction. The idea of a Chinese fan rooting for a Korean player is as crazy as the idea of a French NBA fan rooting for Dirk Nowitzki
Other than his heritage, it’s hard for the Chinese fan to relate to Jeremy Lin on a personal level. His Christianity will never get much play in China. And his humble interview style isn’t something the Chinese really appreciate. They like their superstars to swagger - hog the ball, take the last shot, the first shot, and every shot in between. It was no surprise to anyone over here that the Chinese warmed so quickly to Stephon Marbury – his style of play was made for China.
One of the more interesting parts of the Lin saga - his surprising leap from Harvard to the NBA - simply does not register with the Chinese. They all know Harvard, they all know the NBA, but they don’t understand why it would be improbable for a Harvard grad to end up playing in the NBA. The NCAA is a non-entity in China; they only know schools based on their academic reputation. If Jeremy Lin had played at the University of Kentucky, he would have been known to more American basketball fans, but his rise to fame would have been more shocking to the Chinese – after all, the Chinese only know Kentucky as the birthplace of KFC.