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."