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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 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.