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Taiwan Captivated by 'Linsanity'

  • Ralph Jennings

New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin (L) is fouled by Los Angeles Lakers' Andrew Goudelock (R) during second half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, December 29, 2011.

New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin (L) is fouled by Los Angeles Lakers' Andrew Goudelock (R) during second half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, December 29, 2011.

Taiwan seldom has an opportunity to celebrate a sports hero as one of its own. So people on the island are not missing any chances to cheer the rapid, surprising success of Taiwanese-American Jeremy Lin, who has taken the U.S. National Basketball Association (NBA) by storm. The New York Knicks point guard has captivated the land of his roots.

Patrons at a Taipei sports bar this week cheered as they watched Jeremy Lin hit the game-winning three-point shot to lead the New York Knicks to a victory over Toronto.

The 23-year-old, 1.9 meter player has averaged more than 20 points per game since the Knicks inserted him into their starting lineup this month and has led the once disappointing team to a surprising winning streak.

In late 2010, he became the first American of Taiwanese or Chinese descent to play for an NBA team but he struggled to find success until his recent breakout appearances with the Knicks.

His unlikely path has further endeared him to hero-starved fans in Taiwan. Monica Wang, a 30-year-old Taipei interior designer, explains why she took a day off work to cheer for Lin.

She says she turned out for a televised game at the sports bar mainly because she sees Lin as a Taiwanese who had once underperformed but suddenly showed what he was worth when a coach gave him a break and called him in to play. For that reason she feels extremely proud.

The rage in Taiwan described in sports media as “Linsanity” has grown largely from the player’s comeback streak.

He failed to get an athletic scholarship to college but eventually joined the team at Harvard University. After graduation in 2010 he was not drafted by an NBA team. Although he later signed with the Golden State Warriors in his home state of California he rarely played in games and later was sent down to the NBA's minor league. But, in early February, the Knicks gave him a chance to prove himself, which started the streak that has drawn global attention.

Another part of Lin’s mystique is his heritage. The man labeled a thoughtful and devout Christian from Palo Alto, California, has won fans by just being one of the few people of Asian origin to find success in the sport.

George Hou is a communication studies lecturer at I-Shou University in Taiwan.

“Basketball is a sport usually for American people, European people or African people, because Asian people are not as tall as people from other continents. Through his working hard, (Lin) gets the recognition of the fans of basketball, so the Asian people like to feel this story because it kind of compensates their inability to win,” he said.

Jeremy Lin is all the more of a local hero because few others from the island have garnered so much international limelight. Students in newly industrialized Taiwan usually pursue business and technology careers instead of sports. Taiwan’s political rival China also uses its wide-reaching diplomatic support to ask that world sports bodies limit Taiwan’s profile in events. China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since the 1940s.

Over the past five years, only Major League Baseball pitcher Wang Chien-ming and No. 1 ranked female golfer Yani Tseng, both from Taiwan, have reached Lin’s level of world fame.

Lin’s popularity is likely to give basketball another shot at becoming a dominant sport in Taiwan. Baseball leads other sports today, both in the field and on television, but the growth of a local professional basketball league since 2003, following the collapse of an earlier one, had started to change local attitudes even before Lin emerged.

Today young men can be found shooting hoops on any Taiwanese school campus with a court. Some of them hope to be the next Jeremy Lin, says Chen Sheng-hong, former basketball news reporter and editor-in-chief of Esquire Taiwan.

“Why he’s so popular in Taiwan, as a Taiwan basketball journalist for many years I think Jeremy Lin is a dream come true for anyone, because we can see he is not very tall or very strong or very quick. Actually he is just of a mediocre basketball player build, but he still can earn a place in the NBA. That’s why people here are so crazy about him,” he said.

The local Chinese Taipei Basketball Association says one in four of the 23 million Taiwanese already follow basketball. NBA games dominate Taiwanese television sports channels in the baseball off-season, and the NBA has held marketing events in Taipei to boost the fan base.

This week, Taiwan’s basketball association told local media that it wants to ask Jeremy Lin to represent the official team in international play.

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