Someone asked Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford on media day if he was concerned Asian-American guard Jeremy Lin’s popularity in China could turn this preseason trip into a distraction.
“Well, remember,” Clifford said knowingly, “I was there with Yao.”
Clifford was an assistant with the Houston Rockets when China native Yao Ming was their All-Star center in the early 2000s. Yao might be the most iconic athlete in Chinese history, and when the Rockets played two exhibitions on the mainland in 2004, it was a “Beatles come to America” experience.
“It was crazy even getting in for practice,” Clifford recalled. “All these people would be lined up (to get a glimpse of 7-foot-5 Yao). They’d have to have a (wall) of security just to get him from the bus to the gym. A line of security on both sides just so he could walk from here to there.”
Clifford treasures a picture he has from that trip of the entire Rockets roster visiting Tiananmen Square.
“The place was so packed. They finally moved everybody out just so we could take a team photo under Mao Zedong’s picture,” Clifford recalled.
Lin was born and raised in the United States after his parents immigrated from Taiwan. His grandparents all grew up on the mainland. So Chinese basketball fans – estimates say there are more than 300 million of them in this country – have adopted Lin as their own.
The Hornets play two exhibitions against the Los Angeles Clippers (Sunday at 1:30 a.m. EDT in Shenzhen and Wednesday at 8 a.m. EDT, both on NBATV). This is the first time Lin has played in China as part of an NBA team.
Clifford anticipates Lin’s presence to be a sensation.
“I think it will be very similar” to that Rockets trip, Clifford said. “He’s wildly popular there, and they love basketball. He can have some fun.”
Lin knows that. He also knows this is a little different from his off-season trips to China for promotional appearances, basketball camps and inspirational speaking.
This is his day job, even if the games don’t count in the standings.
“I’m excited, and I’m also kind of scared,” Lin said before the 20-hour trip from Charlotte to Shenzhen. “I feel like in some ways I’m indirectly hosting it. But I think it will be fun. Honestly I’m excited to see the fans over there.”
As you might expect with any homecoming, Lin is wary of being overly amped to show what he can do on the basketball court.
“There is definitely more pressure. I’d be lying if I said this was just like Miami (the Hornets’ first preseason trip). It’s not. But I have to stay in the mindset this is still the preseason.”
The good news for Lin is he’s been through this drill in the biggest market the NBA plays.
Lin’s life changed dramatically in February 2012 when injuries pushed him into the New York Knicks’ starting lineup. He wasn’t drafted out of Harvard and struggled at first just to stick on an NBA roster. Then he accounted for 20 or more points and seven or more assists in each of his first five starts.
He made the cover of Sports Illustrated, and the New York tabloids fell in love with back-page term “Linsanity.”
He got a multi-season guaranteed contract with the Rockets and many lucrative endorsements.
Though Lin has never quite regained the heights of that “Linsanity” month, he learned a lot about managing expectations, both the public’s and his own.
“It changed my life. It was unbelievable,” Lin said in a lengthy interview with the Observer. “I had so much fun, but I wish I had slowed down and appreciated it more.
“But I also know it was very difficult at that time; you’re just trying to stay afloat with so much coming at you at once.”
His time with the Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers wasn’t nearly as satisfying. By the middle of last season Lin was out of the rotation with the worst Lakers team in recent history. There was talk of friction with star player Kobe Bryant, something Lin declined to discuss.
What did those three seasons teach him?
“That I really love the game because Iife has gone through some highs, but a lot of lows, too,” Lin said.
“I would not choose to go through the last three years again. In my mind, they were very, very hard. So I learned how much growing I need to do as a person, and how much spiritually I have to grow, not to let my job affect so much how I do things or my personal joy.”
Being the only American NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent has been very good to Lin in terms of marketing, endorsements and identity.
But he’s learned to accept that some NBA fans will never embrace him while others defend him to the extreme.
“Either it’s ‘It’s not that you’re Asian, you’re just that bad!’ And then others will say, ‘No, no! He’s the best player ever!’ ” Lin said.
“It’s just a natural human tendency – a stereotype. When you watch the NBA you don’t see a lot of Asian-Americans or Asians in general. When you see one, it takes you by surprise, so you don’t necessarily think the same thing.”
Tour guide for teammates
Lin’s new teammates – he signed with the Hornets over the summer – look forward to tagging along for this ride. Point guard Kemba Walker said he plans to spend every minute next to Lin to soak in the rock-star treatment.
Fine with him, Lin replied.
“I’m going to have 14 friends with me this time,” Lin said of his teammates. “I just want to share the culture. I hope it won’t be too scary. I know they won’t want to eat everything that I eat over there. But I can show them where my grandparents are from.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell