China has been very good to Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lin.
He has millions of followers on Weibo, the Chinese parallel of Twitter. He makes millions off endorsement deals for cars, sports apparel and sports drinks. He draws massive crowds on the mainland for every promotional appearance or basketball camp.
And then there’s the other side of being so famous in a country with more than 300 million basketball fans.
“It can be scary, too,” Lin said in a lengthy interview with the Observer. “When people somehow know what room I’m in, what floor I’m on. Fans aren’t supposed to get up that elevator, but somehow they do. And then they’re waiting for me and all I can say is, ‘You know you are not supposed to be up here?’
“If I am in China I always have a personal body guard, and if I’m making an appearance I’ll always have a team of security. The body guard is legit; he’s always there to stay by my door to hear every knock. Then I can be comfortable and feel safe.”
Lin is an Asian-American who played college basketball at Harvard. His parents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan and his grandparents were born and raise on mainland China.
Lin typically makes several trips annually to China. It’s a big part of his off-season. But this trip will be different; for the first time he’ll play in China in the Hornets’ two exhibitions against the Los Angeles Clippers (Sunday at 1:30 a.m. EDT and Oct. 14 at 8 a.m.; both games on NBATV).
The Hornets didn’t sign Lin with this trip in mind -- these games were announced last winter -- but the buzz he’s creating is palpable. Both games were quick sellouts despite the court-side seats being priced at about $500 each.
“I think fans are hugely excited to see Jeremy Lin play in mainland China,” said David Shoemaker, CEO of NBA China. “I’m sure Linsanity is alive and well in China. He’s enormously popular.”
The Perfect Storm
Lin’s juice in a country with 1.3 billion-plus residents is one of those perfect-storm scenarios. Basketball is so popular in China that NBA China has 140 employees spread over four offices.
When Chinese native Yao Ming was selected No. 1 overall in the 2002 draft, it stimulated intense interest in the NBA. A 7-foot-5 center, Yao was a six-time All-Star for the Houston Rockets with a career average of 19 points and 9.2 rebounds.
When Yao retired in 2009, the Chinese needed another idol. Then Lin, who was never drafted by the NBA, unexpectedly got a string of starts in February of 2012 with the New York Knicks. He excelled, becoming the first player in NBA history to register at least 20 points and seven assists in his first five starts.
The New York tabloids labeled this “Linsanity” and Lin hit the cover of Sports Illustrated. Soon China swooned over the only NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent.
“It’s going to be a unique experience because I haven’t gone over there for a game before,” Lin said. “Normally when I go it’s very busy -- morning, noon and night with appearances, basketball camps and foundation stuff. I share my testimony and stuff like that.
“This is going to be as close to the actual (regular) season as this can get.”
Lin says he views both Taiwan and the mainland as his heritage.
“It’s like asking me to choose between, ‘Are you Asian or American?’ ” Lin said. “My grandparents are from the mainland, my parents are from Taiwan. I’ve visited both many times and I speak the language in both countries. I understand the culture of both countries. I celebrated holidays from both countries growing up.
“It’s really hard to distinguish, to say I’m only this or I’m only that.”
Adapt to custom
A devout Christian, Lin often shares his faith publicly. When he signed with the Hornets over the summer, following a tumultuous season with the Los Angeles Lakers, Lin sent out an email requesting “prayer that I would build great chemistry with coach (Steve) Clifford and my teammates in Charlotte.”
The Chinese government has a history of tight control of religious expression. Lin continues to share his faith, but he adapts his message to the culture.
“In China it’s different. You can’t always overtly share everything you want to share,” Lin said. “The theme, the overall message, I try to keep the same without offending certain people. Maybe it’s wording it in a different way.”
Lin first visited China when he was 6, traveling to where his grandparents grew up. Twenty-one years later he’s learned to go with the flow of the adulation. Asked for the best illustration of that, Lin shared a story of a significant flight delay into China a few years ago.
“Our flight kept getting delayed and delayed and delayed. It was supposed to land at 10 or 11. We ended up getting in at 3 or 4 a.m. And the fans were still there, waiting to say hi at the airport. There were still like 20 to 25 people there.
“All I could think was, ‘Man, that is impressive!’ ”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129: @rick_bonnell