Hannah Beech of Time asks an important question re: the basketball superstar now on everybody’s lips, Jeremy Lin: “Could China, an Olympic powerhouse and homeland of Yao Ming, produce such a gifted, confident point guard?” Her own answer to the question:
The answer for now is, most likely, no. In the U.S., Lin was underrated by pro and college scouts because he is Asian-American. Chinese fans are indignant about a stereotyping in the States that assumes Americans of Chinese descent can be good engineers or software designers, but not brash NBA stars. The criticism is absolutely fair. But in China, Lin may not have been picked for stardom either. Firstly, at a mere 6’3”—relatively short by basketball standards—Lin might not have registered with Chinese basketball scouts, who in their quest for suitable kids to funnel into the state sports system are obsessed with height over any individual passion for hoops. That’s why the Chinese basketball league has had a history of producing strong centers—big men like 7’6” Yao or 6’11” Mengke Bateer, the ethnic Mongolian who played briefly in the NBA—but does poorly when it comes to developing point guards like Lin. The problem is compounded by the Chinese sports system’s focus on endless drills and discipline over the kind of creative play needed for successful point guards.
China dominates in formal sporting competitions like the Olympics. Even with Yao’s retirement, the NBA remains popular here, especially with Lin’s epic performances. But pick-up artists on Chinese courts have almost no chance of making it to the Chinese basketball league because they aren’t part of the official system. Top-flight athletic skill is considered something to be honed by the state, through government-run sports schools. Compare that to the public courts of the U.S., which nurture future NBA stars, even among broken backboards and cracked concrete. Or India, where any dusty stretch can serve as a cricket pitch for little boys dreaming of Tendulkar. Or Brazil, where kids in the favelas hone their football skills with nary a government grant in sight. Then they grow up to become a Pelé or a Ronaldinho.