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The Politicization of Jeremy Lin

Dec. 17, 2012
Dec. 17, 2012

Table of Contents
Dec. 17, 2012

LEADING OFF
THE MAIL
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
Section Table of Contents
PRO FOOTBALL
  • CALL HIM A HANGDOG HERO, A SAD-SACK SUPERMAN, KID BROTHER TO A LEGEND—BUT WOULD YOU BET AGAINST ELI MANNING WHEN IT'S ALL ON THE LINE IN FEBRUARY? THE MVP OF TWO SUPER BOWLS, A SCION OF FOOTBALL'S FIRST FAMILY AND THE ULTIMATE GAMER, THE GIANTS' QUARTERBACK HAS FORCED US TO RETHINK WHAT WE EXPECT IN A STAR

PRO BASKETBALL
DICKEY AND HARRISON
  • Imagine, a century from now, looking back on the plague of sexual abuse. Two bright spots in this dark history will be Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey and judo gold Kayla Harrison, who refused to be silent victims.

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The Politicization of Jeremy Lin

THERE'S SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE IN THE YEAR'S BEST UNDERDOG STORY, THE POINT GUARD WHO CAME OUT OF NOWHERE. THE PROBLEM IS, PEOPLE EVERYWHERE WANT TO CLAIM THE SUDDEN GLOBAL CELEBRITY AS THEIR OWN

On a sweltering August afternoon in Taipei, in a crowded room that felt like a sauna inside a glittery shopping plaza, Jeremy Lin sat down on a couch, wedged between two billboard-sized images of his face, for a press conference. He was wearing a gray Nike T-shirt, blue jeans and sparkling white sneakers. He appeared rested and relaxed.

This is an article from the Dec. 17, 2012 issue

This was surprising, because if there were an athlete who had every reason to look haggard, it would have been Lin. Over two weeks last winter he had gone from nobody Knicks bench warmer to global sensation—one of the most discussed, heavily scrutinized athletes on earth. Lin would later admit that his first off-season as a celebrity was at times exhausting. It began with draining contract negotiations that rekindled questions about his worthiness as an NBA point guard; after he signed a three-year, $25.1 million deal with the Rockets that the Knicks, in a move that stunned the legions of Lin fans in New York City, chose not to match, Carmelo Anthony called his former teammate's new contract "ridiculous."

The signing was followed by an Asian publicity tour that took him from the U.S. to Taipei to Beijing to Shanghai and, later in the summer, back to Taipei. As celebrated as the Lin phenomenon was in the U.S., it was always bigger in Asia; at every stop in Taiwan and China, he was greeted by adoring crowds, often in the thousands. In Taipei, camera trucks, parked outside his hotel during his entire stay, filled a city block. Says a Taiwanese reporter, "He's a cross between Bill Clinton and Justin Bieber here."

At this press conference in the wealthy Xinyi district, with Lin's parents and younger brother sitting in the front row, the mood was playful and loose. "Because your background is with economics," asked one of the 300 reporters, referring to Lin's Harvard degree, "and our economy is in a very bad situation—can you give us some solutions to save our economy?" (Lin: "Um ... I'm probably not the one you should ask.")

Previously, a reporter had asked if he had a girlfriend. "That's always my first question I get here in Taiwan," Lin said. "When I find a girlfriend, I'll e-mail all you guys and let you know." Everyone in the room laughed.

About 20 minutes into the session, a newspaper writer stood up. "There's now a huge debate about your nationality, and who you belong to—whether you belong to Americans or Taiwanese or Chinese," she said. "What's your view?"

The room grew tense. The question cut to the heart of the strange complexity of the Jeremy Lin Story: Here was a young American, Ivy League--educated, born and raised in the U.S. suburbs, being embraced in his parents' homeland as a national hero. At the same time he was being portrayed in China as a symbol of strength for an ascending global superpower that for decades has sought to crush Taiwan's independence. A basketball player from Palo Alto, two weeks shy of his 24th birthday, was caught in the middle of a decades-old conflict between two countries on the brink of war—and now he was being asked to pick a side.

"I think you guys know my family history," Lin said. "I have great-grandparents and grandparents who were born and raised in China. My parents were born and raised in Taiwan. And I was born and raised in America. There's a lot of history behind who I am."

As a translator repeated his answer in Mandarin, and cameras around him flashed, Lin picked up a tissue and wiped the perspiration on his face.

The Linsanity may be over, but the war over Jeremy Lin has just begun.

Deep in the heart of Texas, nine months after the height of the Lin phenomenon—when everyone from President Obama to Sarah Palin to Saturday Night Live had something to say about him—this is what awaits Lin after a game: two dozen deadline-fretting reporters and cameramen, jockeying for position at his locker, waiting for him to shower so they can hear what he has to say. Never mind that it is the middle of November, not exactly crunch time on the NBA calendar, and Lin has had an entirely forgettable night (four points, four assists). A handful of other Rockets who had far more impact on the 100--96 victory over the Hornets sit unbothered nearby.

Lin's time with the Rockets has been rocky: He is still struggling to mesh with new backcourtmate James Harden and at week's end was averaging just 9.9 points and 6.1 assists while shooting 38.1%. He did have a chance to give Houston fans a taste of Linsanity in early November, when he hoisted a potential game-winning three-pointer with under 10 seconds left and the Rockets trailing the Heat by one. It was an air ball.

The questions after the New Orleans game dance around his struggles. "What do you think about your shooting?" asks a reporter from a Chinese newspaper. Asks another, "So, before the game, coach Kelvin [Sampson] said you're working on going to your left? How is that going?"

After the group breaks up, two reporters from newspapers in Taiwan linger to tell Lin that they'll be on a flight back to Taipei in the morning. Lin, as always, is friendly and disarming—he looks genuinely appreciative that they have come so far to cover him. "Have a safe flight," he says. "Thank you, and see you again soon."

One of the writers is from a popular Taiwan tabloid, Apple Daily, who has covered Lin since he was a rookie with the Warriors in 2010--11. After three weeks in Houston, Dennis Tsai is headed home to Taipei to see his wife and young son. Though the job takes you 8,000 miles from home, sometimes for months at a time, the Jeremy Lin beat has become the most coveted in Taiwanese and Chinese sports media. Lin is front-page news when he scores in double digits ... whether his team wins or not. Nearly every Rockets game is shown on one of the three Taiwanese sports channels; last season one network expanded its pregame show from 10 minutes to a full hour to satisfy the swelling interest.

"Jeremy Lin is a national hero in Taiwan," says Tsai. "[Former Yankees pitcher] Chien-Ming Wang is considered the most famous and popular athlete in Taiwanese history. But Lin is already as big as Wang was—maybe bigger." When he is in Taiwan, Tsai regularly takes his son to a recreation center to shoot hoops. After Linsanity he says the crowds there "tripled, because everyone suddenly wants their kids to play basketball. They think basketball is a ticket to Harvard."

He adds, "The surprising thing is how all the women in Taiwan responded to Linsanity. Young girls see Jeremy Lin as their older brother. Older girls see him as their future boyfriend. Moms see him as their son. My mom, who never cared about basketball, sees him as her son!"

In the dense neighborhoods of Taipei, "you'll see the basketball courts crowded with kids wearing Jeremy Lin jerseys," says Blackie Chen, a former player on the Taiwanese national team and now a popular TV host. "You see the style [of play] changing too. In the past it was all one-on-one isolation. Now they pass the ball—the pick-and-roll is cool now, because of Linsanity." Chen, who tried unsuccessfully to persuade Lin to play for the Taiwanese national team last year, believes basketball may now overtake baseball as the nation's most popular sport.

On an island roughly the size of Maryland, Lin has become a figure of pride for a country that has fought for a place on the international stage since it broke from China in 1949 and that struggles for economic and political viability. Many in Taiwan are so enamored of Lin that they are oblivious to the fact that he is American-born. At a junior high school in Taipei, students were asked last spring if Lin was American or Taiwanese. Half said he was born in their country.

Last February, Eni Faleomavaega, American Samoa's representative in Congress, met with Taiwanese president Ma Ying-Jeou at the presidential palace in Taipei to discuss the escalating tensions between Taiwan and China. Ma spoke about how Taiwan and the U.S. shared similar values and views on democracy, then added, "And we both appreciate Jeremy Lin." Faleomavaega stopped him short. "I'm sorry to tell you," he said, "Jeremy Lin is American. A full-blooded born American who happens to be of Taiwanese ancestry. And we're very proud of him."

All Ma could do was laugh.

The politicization of Jeremy Lin was inevitable. "Successful minority athletes always get racially drafted, made into symbols of achievement or excellence or striving for whatever group they belong with," says Orin Starn, a Duke cultural anthropology professor and author of The Passion of Tiger Woods. "The exact same thing is happening to Jeremy Lin. He's made into this symbol of Asia and its emergence—even though he's a generic, suburban American kid."

Overnight, Lin became many things to many people in the U.S.: the Savior of the Knicks, a basketball hero in a city starved for one; a Harvard Man who glamorized Ivy League hoops; a Man of Faith, a devout Christian and the NBA's answer to Tim Tebow; an Inspiring Underdog who gave hope to against-all-odds ballers everywhere; an Asian-American Trailblazer who shattered math-science nerd stereotypes.

It took some time, though, for the phenomenon to catch on in China, where Lin presented a problem for the government. The Taiwanese flag—an image banned from Chinese media—was being waved at nearly every Knicks game as Lin, who had never started a game before before joining New York last December, revived an injury-depleted team and led it to victory after improbable victory. Lin's religion was also an issue; Christians in China are a persecuted minority. At the height of Linsanity, on the night in February when Lin drained a three at the buzzer to beat the Raptors, CCTV, China's state-run network, was showing a taped Champions League soccer match instead of the Knicks. "At first [China was] behind the story because of the political issues that CCTV had to deal with," says Cai Wei, editor of the basketball magazine SLAM China in Beijing. "People just watched his games online. But then he just got way too big to ignore."

For years China has been hungering for the next Yao Ming. After the hugely disappointing NBA careers of Wang Zhizhi and Yi Jianlian, Lin was the player Chinese fans were waiting for: someone new of Chinese heritage to represent the country in the world's best basketball league. Lin was also a player fans could relate to; he wasn't a Yao-like giant but a 6'3" 200-pounder who, by comparison, would not look completely out of place in the streets of Beijing. "No one expected a Chinese point guard who could actually play in the NBA," says Cai, who notes that Allen Iverson remains one of the most popular athletes in China.

One day this spring Cai walked into a bookstore in Beijing and counted the unauthorized Jeremy Lin biographies and magazine special issues on the stands. He found more than 100. Lin's wild popularity in China—he has three million followers on the Chinese social networking site Sina Weibo (three times as many as he has on Twitter)—extends beyond the country's desire for an NBA star. "We're looking for any positive figure to represent the Chinese [in the West]," says Wei. "Who do we have? Jackie Chan? Jet Li? Lin is someone everyone, not just sports fans, can be proud of."

While Lin's father's family has been in Taiwan since the 1700s, his maternal grandparents are from a small village in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang. As Linsanity grew last spring, Chinese newspapers began referring to him as the Pride of Zhejiang. An article in the Xinhua News—the official press agency of the government—called for Lin to play for the Chinese national team. lin looks like he just might start the war between china and taiwan, read a headline of one the countless online threads devoted to Lin's roots.

"While Jeremy Lin is a big point of reference for identity politics in Taiwan," says Shelley Rigger, a political science professor at Davidson, "this is also about China's soft power campaign. It's about the inability of the People's Republic of China to make itself attractive to the world. The problem is, people don't like it when you try to appropriate other people's national heroes and turn them into your national heroes."

Battles between Taiwan and China over international celebrities are nothing new: Both countries have claimed Taiwanese-born film director Ang Lee as their own, and in 2010, golfer Yani Tseng, who was born in Taiwan and is now ranked No. 1 in the world, was offered a $25 million endorsement deal by a Chinese company on the condition that she change her citizenship. (She declined.) Lin's endorsement portfolio includes deals with Chinese-owned Volvo and KFC China. Maxxis, a Taiwanese tire company, sponsors the Rockets. Lin and his family have taken a diplomatic tack in the Chinese-Taiwanese debate: In order to avoid offending fans (and, perhaps, sponsors) in both countries, they have gone to great lengths to avoid the topic. "This has become a competition," says Rigger. "The Taiwanese feel their invisibility in a huge way. The shadow of China has gotten so large. With Jeremy Lin, that started to change."

In mid-November, the morning after that win over the Hornets at the Toyota Center—it was Jeremy Lin Bobblehead Night, and fans wearing his number 7 jersey were out in full force—I met Lin in the tunnel outside Houston's locker room. He talked about his trips to Taipei this summer ("It was awesome; I always have such a good time there") and how he misses the days when he could wander the city anonymously. "I love the night markets there—the food is so good," he said. "The energy is so amazing. I really wanted to go out more. But I just couldn't. It was so crazy."

I mentioned that my parents are from Taiwan and, like his, immigrated to the U.S. some 40 years ago. I hadn't lived in Taiwan and was far from fluent in Chinese or Taiwanese, and I never was comfortable with labeling myself as Asian-American, or Taiwanese-American, or Chinese-American. Still, I feel a deep connection to my parents' birth country. Perhaps he felt the same way? "I definitely have strong ties to Taiwan," Lin said. "I have a ton of cousins there, and every time I go back, I feel this connection to this place where my parents came from." He added, "And I feel the same way about China because my grandparents came from there. When I went to China [in 2011], I went to the village where my grandmother grew up, and that was an amazing experience."

I asked Lin how he views the controversy in the two Asian nations that claim him. "I know it's a very complicated question," he said. "And I understand where the hostility comes from and why it is the way it is. I just try to stay out of all that stuff."

In the end, what Lin considers himself to be is irrelevant in the Jeremy Lin Story. He knows this: He long ago accepted his role as a symbol for the people—wherever those people are and whatever they want him to be. "When he was at Harvard, being Asian-American was a burden," says Jessica Kung, a reporter for Taiwan's China Television Company who has covered Lin since his college years. "He used to say that his goal wasn't being a good role model, but being a good basketball player. But now he embraces being a role model."

More and more, he is just Jeremy Lin, Point Guard—though there are still reminders that he's not just another NBA player. Two weeks ago the Petition and Appeals Committee of Taiwan's government rejected an application for the establishment of a political party named after Lin. "There will always be this battle over him, but I don't think it matters what color you are or what country you're from—I think he's a role model for all Asians, and for everyone who's suffered stereotypes," says Kung. "I think he will get to a point where his story is beyond race—where he transcends it."

Back in the Toyota Center tunnel, Lin puts forth a simpler goal. "I don't see myself as an ambassador or as someone that stands for something," he says. "All I want to do is make everyone proud."

To the Taiwanese, Lin is seen as a "cross between Bill Clinton and Justin Bieber."
"No one expected a Chinese point guard who could actually play in the NBA," says Cai.
"I don't see myself as an ambassador," Lin says. "All I want to do is make everyone proud."

FANS' CHOICE

MOMENT OF THE YEAR

With 2012 drawing to a close, we asked a simple question: Who was the most inspiring performer of the year? On SI's Facebook page, you told us: Jeremy Lin. Now, cast your vote for the top moment of the year among our 10 finalists (right). The winner will appear on the cover of SI's year-end issue. Go to Facebook.com/SportsIllustrated.

ILLUSTRATIONIllustration by GUY STAUBERROBERT SEALE (LIN); PAUL BERESWILL/GETTY IMAGES (LEE)PHOTOGREG NELSON (LIN)IF YOU CAN MAKE IT THERE ... Lin has yet to replicate his New York success in Houston, where he has struggled to find his groove in the offense.PHOTOKEVIN TERRELL/AP (TEBOW)STEELERS GET TEBOWEDPHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER (SUPER BOWL)GIANTS' SUPER BOWL UPSETPHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER (PHELPS)MICHAEL PHELPS CAPS HIS CAREERPHOTOAL TIELEMANS (DOUGLAS)GABBY DOUGLAS STRIKES GOLDPHOTOCLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES (MURRAY)ANDY MURRAY GOES GOLDPHOTOCHRIS HUMPHREYS/US PRESSWIRE (MANNING)PEYTON MANNING RETURNSPHOTOBRAD MANGIN (GIANTS REIGN)THE GIANTS REIGNPHOTOROBERT BECK (RYDER CUP)EUROPE'S RYDER CUP MIRACLEPHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (BOLT)USAIN BOLT RACES INTO HISTORYPHOTOMITCHELL LAYTON/GETTY IMAGES (HAMILTON)JOSH HAMILTON'S HOMER FOUR-PACKPHOTOCOURTESY OF FLIGHT INTERNATIONAL MARKETING CO.FEEDING THE BEAST Since his emergence last winter, Lin has been trailed by dozens of reporters who meet the demand for updates in Taiwan and China.PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERPEOPLE'S CHOICE At first many Knicks fans couldn't understand why the team let Lin walk, though New York's 15--5 start has made his absence forgivable.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER (RIGHT)[See caption above]PHOTOGREG NELSONSYMBOL CRASH In college Lin chafed at having to be more than just a player, but in the NBA he has accepted his status as a role model to divergent groups.