To Lin-finity and beyond . . .
His job description is technically a professional basketball player, but Jeremy Lin is so much more than that. He is simply omnipresent. Regardless of locale, it's hard to conceive of anyone with electricity in their home who has not heard of him. The story is already well known. The son of Taiwanese immigrants, Lin grew up in Palo Alto, California, with a serious case of hoop dreams. Despite a stellar high school career, he could not secure a division one scholarship anywhere so he chose to attend Harvard. Any time Harvard is a secondary option for someone, that would constitute a major story. But this tale gets better, much better. Armed with a an economics degree, Lin still had visions of the NBA bouncing around his cranium, despite being unheralded and undrafted. He got a shot with his hometown team when the Golden State Warriors signed him, but he was cut, signed with the Houston Rockets and was cut again, before ending up buried on the bench with the New York Knicks.
Three weeks ago desperate Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, his underachieving squad trailing the New Jersey Nets at half-time, brings in Lin at point guard. Lin proceeds to score 25 points and engineer a come-from-behind victory. He starts the next six games and the Knicks win them all. World goes crazy, Lin goes viral and then he prays. 'Linsanity' is now an accepted part of the vernacular. There are two distinctive parts to Lin: the basketball player and the cultural phenomenon. The basketball player shows up a few times a week for about 40 minutes. But the cultural phenomenon is trapped in a nonstop inter-continental frenzy.
This week Lin is on the cover of the Asian edition of Time. The US version features North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with the caption: 'Li'l Kim - the untested leader of a nuclear nation'. While few can debate the newsworthiness of an erratic nuclear regime, the magazine's Asian version tells you all you need to know about the attitudes of folks here right now. Please don't push that button junior and could you also get off the front page because, while Linsanity resides in New York, it lives in Asia.
Lin, 23, is engaging the most disparate elements of Asia. Koreans have adopted him as one of their own, Filipinos as well. In Japan, his image is splashed all over the newsstands and in Hong Kong fans are streaming the Knicks game on the their mobile phones. While Yao Ming was a source of pride for many Asians, his success was predicated as much on his size as his talent. Lin is far more accessible - an athletic, intelligent Asian who is destroying age-old stereotypes.
But the often prickly China-Taiwan relations could soon be the ultimate litmus test of Lin's appeal. And don't laugh, if anybody can bring them closer it's Lin. According to a long-time Asian-based basketball source, when Lin graduated from Harvard there was a plan afoot between a huge sporting apparel company and mainland basketball authorities to naturalise Lin so he could play for the Chinese national team. You could certainly see why China would want Lin the basketball player. If he had grown up in Guangzhou instead of California, his game would be totally different. For years, the rote learning method in China has tended to discourage improvisation, the soul of sports. As a creative, ball-moving point guard, Lin makes split-second decisions and is everything China basketball, in fact China sports, lacks.
In Palo Alto, Lin could look across the road to see how visionaries like Steve Jobs affected the way the world lives. In Lin's neighbourhood, they create technology. In China, they copy it. China has loads of tall rebounders and great shooters and always has. But they lack imagination and the results confirm it. It's not a stretch to say Lin's success could have a profound influence on how children learn and play in modern China.
On the home front Lin is also having a profound impact in an entirely different way. The only athlete who has garnered anywhere near the attention of Lin in the US this year is Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. Both Tebow and Lin are religious, but that is where the similarity ends. While Lin was a member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Christian Fellowship society and speaks openly about his faith, it seems more like a personal thing to him. Tebow was born into an evangelical missionary family and grew up in the south where declarations of God and attempts to convert the unenlightened are the norm. For many, Tebow's declarations of faith are threatening while Lin's are slightly befuddling. Religious Asians traditionally have been more about showing their faith by their actions as opposed to through their words. Perhaps Lin's popularity could create a new religious openness on the mainland.
One thing is for certain though, Linsanity is massive business in Asia for the NBA and assorted hangers-on. Not since Marco Polo trod the Silk Road has any foreigner had China lust like NBA commissioner David Stern and, with Yao's recent retirement, Lin seems set to reignite the league on the mainland. This week the defending champions, the Dallas Mavericks, came calling at Madison Square Garden. During the shoot-around before the game Lin caught up with Mavericks forward and Guangdong native Yi Jianlian. Their banter was good-natured and while China fans were most anxiously and proudly watching, there was little doubt who they were focused on. Yi never saw the floor, while Lin easily led all players with 46 out of 48 minutes played.
The kid who couldn't get off the bench for two years now can't get back to it. His 28 points and 14 assists led the Knicks to a comeback victory and one more stellar chapter in the viral world of Linsanity. After stealing a pass late in the game and taking it to the basket for two points, the announcer screamed: 'Jeremy Lin is money!' Truer words have never been spoken.