Stardom awaits Jeremy Lin, newest member of the Beijing Ducks

The China Sports Column is a SupChina weekly feature in which China Sports Insider Mark Dreyer looks at the week that was in the China sports world.

The big news this week is that Jeremy Lin has signed with the Beijing Ducks in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), hoping that his ninth stint with a professional club in as many years will finally spark Linsanity 2.0.

The first iteration of that phenomenon came while playing for the New York Knicks in February 2012, with Lin’s run both so strong and so unexpected that it was truly a “where were you when…?” sports moment.

One particular game stands out: Kobe Bryant came to town and dropped 34 points in Madison Square Garden. But Lin outplayed and outscored him in a 92-85 win over the Lakers.

It didn’t last, of course. That amazing run with the Knicks was in fact just 26 games long, before the Rockets made Lin an offer New York couldn’t — or wouldn’t — match, and the rest of his NBA career was blighted by injuries. He never again reached the on-court heights of those memorable two months.

But Beijing truly gives Lin the chance for redemption to what was a painful end to his NBA playing days.

One report out this week gives Lin a huge lead over his nearest rivals when it comes to online popularity in China among basketball players, with his Douyin account particularly dominant.

In other words, there’s no bigger basketball star in China right now, meaning that Linsanity 2.0 is almost certain to take off away from the court, irrespective of how he plays on it.

This columnist was in the U.S. primarily covering soccer when David Beckham swooped into MLS in 2007, and though he only played in five league games without scoring any goals in an injury-hit first season, his presence in the country gave the sport an undeniable boost.

He still traveled with the team from coast to coast even if only to sit on the bench in casual clothes, with stadiums across the country in anticipation of a Beckham appearance.

Lin’s stint in the CBA can have a similar effect, though perhaps the hardest adjustment for the player himself will be a mental one, after the rollercoaster of emotions he’s experienced over the past couple of months.

From becoming the first Asian to win an NBA Championship with the Toronto Raptors — despite later saying he felt he had not really earned it due to his limited playing time — and then enduring the free agency crapshoot during which his name often topped the “Still Unsigned” list of point guards on the open market, it became painfully clear that no NBA team was ready to take the plunge.

A tearful video clip of Lin in Taiwan last month in which he proclaimed he had hit rock bottom and was still falling shows just how painful that reality was.

For all the hoopla over his signing in China, this was not a moment that Lin envisaged – or even wanted – just a few weeks ago.

But for a man who talks openly about his emotions, he’ll receive all the support in the world in China, and none of the prejudice that has followed his decade-long career so far.

How else to explain the fact that someone who has played over 500 games in the NBA — starting nearly half of them — went undrafted?

This point is not new: author Michael Lewis famously quoted Rockets GM Daryl Morey in saying that teams passed on drafting Lin because he was Asian, despite objective data showing he had the necessary athleticism to make it in the NBA.

Lin has spent his life trying to fit into a world in which he was never really accepted — remember when he got dreadlocks two years ago and was then roundly derided by Kenyon Martin?

But in Beijing, and across the league, Lin will belong. The only difference will be his on-court dominance.

There is the whole American/Chinese/Taiwanese question, of course, which some will want to turn into an issue, but Lin has been coming to Asia year after year and knows how to handle himself. Plus he’ll largely be facing sports reporters keen to talk about his game.

In addition, his younger brother has played in the region for a while, and Lin himself actually played a few games for the Dongguan Leopards — now the Shenzhen Aviators — during an off-season tournament in 2011.


China beats Cote dIvoire 70 55

It’s all basketball this week, with the FIBA Basketball World Cup kicking off across China this weekend, with the U.S. team favorites to take home another crown, despite a surprising loss to Australia in a friendly game last week.

The tournament games come thick and fast with eight match-ups on each of the first 10 days, with venues in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Dongguan, and Foshan hosting the action.

China beat Cote d’Ivoire on Saturday evening, 70-55, its first World Cup win in nine years — the team failed to qualify in 2014. Its last victory in 2010, incidentally, was also against Cote d’Ivoire, when the team went 1-4 in group play before being summarily eliminated in the Round of 16 by Lithuania.

China hopes to do better as the host this time around, with a very favorable group draw: Poland and Venezuela are the other two teams in Group A.

The team is led by three centers with NBA pedigree — captain Yi Jianlian, who played for four NBA teams over five seasons; Zhou Qi, who sadly couldn’t make his time with the Rockets stick last season; and Wang Zhelin, who was drafted by the Grizzlies in 2016, though isn’t likely ever to suit up in the big league.

Nike-sponsored guard Guo Ailun is another to watch, while a couple of Uyghur players — Abdusalam Abudurixit and Kyranbek Makhan — could have an impact off the bench.

Meanwhile, the USA line-up is more B team than Dream Team, with Kemba Walker and Khris Middleton the best players on view.

The Americans may yet put it all together to continue their streak of winning at the top level, going 42-0 in the last three Olympics and two World Cup combined, but the gap is closing and the other nations are lining up to knock Team USA off its perch.


Womens runners

The most bizarre story to emerge this week was the questions swirling around the winning Hunan team in the women’s 4 x 400m relay at the Chinese Athletics Championships. There was so much speculation online about the gender of two of the team — Tong Zenghuan and Liao Mengxue — that the Chinese Athletics Association put out a statement to confirm that they were indeed ladies.

Tong and Liao have each had success in the individual event, and have represented China, too, but this week’s resurfacing of photos even made into English-language media, with People’s Daily posting on their Facebook page about the rumors.

Not exactly the kind of story you would expect state media to be promoting, but clicks sometimes get in the way of dogma.


Highlight of the Week:

This week’s video highlight comes from everybody’s favorite Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui, who shot to fame with her emotive expressions and honest responses from the Rio Olympics three years ago. At a military training camp for the national swim team this week – hastily arranged due to a disappointing performance at the World Championships – she was seen “conducting” in typically exuberant fashion.

The China Sports Column runs every week on SupChina. Follow Mark Dreyer @DreyerChina.