How Linsanity Is Changing Basketball in China - Wall Street Journal (blog)

Journalist Jim Yardley's story antenna started vibrating when "Boss Wang," the impulsive, bullying billionaire owner of the Taiyuan Brave Dragons, hired ex-NBA coach Bob Weiss to try to turn around the worst team in the Chinese Basketball Association. Yardley, then the New York Times Beijing bureau chief, immersed himself with the team for a season chronicled in his book Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing (Knopf). Yardley spent six years reporting on China and won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the legal system; the book reflects his deep understanding of the country. He talked with the Journal about Brave Dragons, Jeremy Lin and the state of Chinese sports. Excerpts:

You write very directly about how Chinese players and fans have an ingrained sense of athletic inferiority – that they can't be as good as Americans. Do you think this explains the intense pride and interest in Jeremy Lin?

Yes. Lin has roots in China but his family is from Taiwan. He is 6 foot 3 – tall but hardly a giant – and is disproving all the preconceptions held by many Chinese, including coaches, about physical inferiority. I'll never forget listening to a Chinese coach tell me that Chinese players were the equivalent of substandard raw materials, as far as producing basketball players. The best way to improve them, these coaches argued, was through relentless and repetitious drilling.

Lin is proving that someone with an Asian heritage can physically compete, even dominate, against the very best athletes in the world. Of course, Lin is American, and … he grew up in an environment where he was better able to develop his individual skills. His parents also sound like they were incredibly supportive. And, most of all, Lin sounds like a very determined guy, and, in the end, talent rarely rises without determination, too.

I think that Lin's relatively average size (compared to Yao) makes him a potentially transformative figure in China.

You are absolutely right. The whole Chinese basketball system is consumed by the search for another Yao, or at least for other big players. Lin forces that equation to be changed. There are plenty of 6-foot-3 players in China. But why aren't they developing the way Lin did by growing up playing in the United States? I think that question will resonate and, I hope, will help change the typical Chinese training methods. To some degree, it is already happening.

You observed the shock American players feel watching how hard the Chinese players are worked. They view their teammates almost as slaves to the team. Do you think the Chinese players felt that way?

No. After all, factory workers in China often work seven days a week, 50 weeks a year, doing the same repetitive, mind-numbing work. Being a basketball player is much better than that, and these guys do get paid better, too. Still, many teams in the Chinese league essentially operate like basketball factories, in which players are kept on a tight leash, living together in a dorm and practicing constantly. When I followed the Brave Dragons, I watched a Chinese assistant coach run the team so hard that two Chinese players collapsed.

You suggested recently in an article that the NBA's plans in China are struggling. How ecstatic are they about Lin?

The NBA remains very popular in China, but they have seen their ambitions curbed in recent years. They wanted to create their own league in China, if in partnership with the CBA. But the Chinese league turned them down. They talked about creating a network of arenas. But that also hasn't happened. Television ratings had sunk since Yao's best years – say, 2005 and 2006. Again, the league was still popular, but the NBA was facing tougher challenges. Now along comes Jeremy Lin.

Fans in mainland China and Taiwan are going nuts. Knicks jerseys, real and counterfeit, are flying off the shelves. I assume television ratings are shooting up. Given that Yao retired last year, Lin would seem to arrive with absolutely perfect timing for the NBA. He doesn't solve some of their deeper issues, about finding new ways to make money, or about developing a league. But I assume they are absolutely thrilled.

Read more at our sister blog, The Daily Fix.

Alan Paul lived in Beijing from 2005-2009, and wrote's award-winning The Expat Life column. He is the author of Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing. Visit him at, or on Twitter: @AlPaul.

24 Feb, 2012

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