Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Only in America

The surprising success of the New York Knick’s point guard Jeremy Lin has become the story of the NBA this year. Chinese-American, Harvard-educated, and evangelical Christian is an unlikely profile for someone attending an NBA game, let alone being the best player on one of the premiere teams in the league. But Lin has excelled for over a month now and looks to be the real deal.

The Economist analyzed his success and what might have happened if this son of China (by way of Taiwan) had stayed in China. Excerpts:

Mr Lin is, put plainly, precisely everything that China’s state sport system cannot possibly produce. If Mr Lin were to have been born and raised in China, his height alone might have denied him entry into China’s sport machine, as Time’s Hannah Beech points out: “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 sport system are obsessed with height over any individual passion for hoops.

The machine excels at identifying, processing and churning out physical specimens—and it does so exceedingly well for individual sports, as it will again prove in London this year. But it happens to lack the nuance and creativity necessary for team sport.

What of Mr Lin’s faith? If by chance Mr Lin were to have gained entry into the sport system, he would not have emerged a Christian, at least not openly so. China has tens of millions of Christians, and officially tolerates Christianity; but the Communist Party bars religion from its membership and institutions, and religion has no place in its sport model. One does not see Chinese athletes thanking God for their gifts; their coach and Communist Party leaders, yes, but Jesus Christ the Saviour? No.

Then there is the fact that Mr Lin’s parents probably never would have allowed him anywhere near the Chinese sport system in the first place. This is because to put one’s child (and in China, usually an only child at that) in the sport system is to surrender that child’s upbringing and education to a bureaucracy that cares for little but whether he or she will win medals someday. If Mr Lin were ultimately to be injured or wash out as an athlete, he would have given up his only chance at an elite education, and been separated from his parents for lengthy stretches, for nothing. Most Chinese parents, understandably, prefer to see their children focus on schooling and exams.

So China almost certainly has its own potential Jeremy Lin out there, but there is no path for him to follow. This also helps explain, as we have noted, why China fails at another sport it loves, soccer. Granted, Mr Lin’s own path to stardom is in itself unprecedented, but in America, the unprecedented is possible. Chinese basketball fans have taken note of this. Mr Lin’s story may be a great and inspiring proof of athleticism to the Chinese people, but it is also unavoidably a story of American soft power.

Wait a minute. You mean to that central planning, immense investments in bureaucracy, and a government with unfettered power to do whatever it pleases to the people ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be? Simply shocking news. And Thomas Friedman wept! This is becoming kind of a theme today.