Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, isn’t much more than a sign and a river. To get here, you fly into Charlotte and drive three hours through the ruin of western North Carolina — past defunct factory towns with their mooring smokestacks, past spartan cow farms, past weather-stripped churches, long since abandoned. The only visible industry comes from uniform rows of Christmas tree farms, which course through the hillsides and impose a foreign linearity upon the soft contours of the Appalachians. Oak Hill Academy, a tiny Baptist preparatory school, sits high on a knoll near a cemetery in Mouth of Wilson. The school’s official philosophy has been written in the supportive yet endlessly caveated language of reform. Deep down inside, all children are good. Regardless of academic ability, every child is capable of success. All children would rather succeed than fail. Once a child gets a taste of success, he or she will want more. When you walk around Oak Hill’s campus, you see the pragmatism of building a school like that out in a place like this. Where would a wayward kid even go? What would he do in these woods? At first glance, then, Oak Hill is a fully self-evident place. There is a chapel with a stained-glass façade. There is a horse stable and an equestrian field. There are a few outbuildings that serve as student dorms. There is an ancient basketball gym with five rows of corrugated aluminum bleachers.
If you’ve followed any level of basketball in the past 30 years, you should be familiar with some of the products of that gymnasium. Since Coach Steve Smith arrived at Oak Hill in 1985, the school has churned out 28 McDonald’s All-Americans and 24 players who went on to be selected in the NBA draft. Kevin Durant went to Oak Hill. So did Rod Strickland, Jerry Stackhouse, Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, Josh Smith, Ty Lawson, Brandon Jennings, and Michael Beasley.1 Coach Smith has won eight national championships and four USA Today High School Coach of the Year awards. Oak Hill’s record is 860-53 under his watch, good for a .942 winning percentage.
A fun office debate: Would a team of Oak Hill alums win the NBA championship? This would be the roster:
C: Josh Smith
PF: Carmelo Anthony
SF: Kevin Durant (only played his junior year at Oak Hill and therefore isn’t technically an alum)
SG: Ty Lawson
PG: Rajon Rondo
Bench: Michael Beasley
Bench: Brandon Jennings
Bench: Stephen Jackson
Bench: DeSagana Diop
Bench: Nolan Smith
Bench: Jerry Stackhouse
They’d probably be too small to win it all, but I’d certainly move to any city they decided to call their home and stand in line for season tickets. I do think that with a coach who would make them competent on defense, they’d have a shot at beating Miami. I mean, how would you keep up with that foot speed and perimeter scoring?
With his ramrod posture and his ultra-tan skin, Coach Smith looks every bit the lieutenant major in some Technicolor fantasy about war in the Pacific. He has a high-pitched, raspy voice and a twang that never strays too far from its Kentucky roots. At today’s practice, Smith stands at center court with his arms folded across his chest as his team runs through a shooting drill. Six balls and 11 players go flying around the gym in a rhythm that’s nearly impossible to track. The second you figure out a drill, they’ve already switched to the next.
Oak Hill has approximately 150 students and four men’s basketball teams. The JVV team is for kids who couldn’t make the JV. The JV is for kids who couldn’t make the red team, Oak Hill’s varsity squad. The kids in the gym today all play on the gold team, Oak Hill’s most prestigious squad — the one that travels to national tournaments. Student attendance at gold team home games is mandatory. Nearly every girl at the school participates on the school’s massive cheerleading squad. Each gold teamer came to Oak Hill with a meaningful bio and a Google cache filled with excited speculation from college basketball and prep hoops nerds, and although the players on the gold team are 16 or 17 or 18 years old, you can already sense the extent of their preparation for whatever millions may come. Coach Smith goes to great extents to portray the gold team as a natural extension of the school, but it’s impossible to ignore the incongruity of 12 superathletes on a campus otherwise filled with shy, cautious kids who at some point lost their way and got sent up to Mouth of Wilson. Smith says he doesn’t like the term “basketball factory,” but once the gold team takes the floor, it’s impossible to think of student-athletes and preparing young men for futures in any field aside from basketball.
For gym rats and hoops junkies, an Oak Hill practice verges on pornography. You see a kid dunk in traffic, steal an in bounds pass, and then pull straight up from 18 feet like he’s young Grant Hill and you remember that he’s just 16, and a big shit-eating grin breaks out on your face. You start getting jealous of your friends who will get to root for him when he goes to Indiana or South Carolina or Kentucky or UCLA. I suppose that sort of reaction is why the gold team exists, why big-time college coaches still make the drive up to Mouth of Wilson to visit Coach Smith. There’s a proprietary, almost selfish glee in watching a future pro play basketball in an old gym. And as you add more talent, the joy proliferates. This year’s team is no different: Nate Britt, a 6-foot-1 ambidextrous point guard headed to North Carolina, brings the ball up the court with a graceful high dribble that should remind his future fans in Chapel Hill of the great Ed Cota. Gonzalo Santana, a 5-foot-9 guard from the Canary Islands, plays with such perfect fundamentals that if big-time college basketball doesn’t come knocking, he could have a secondary career as a model in basketball instructional videos. Ikenna Iroegbu, a 6-foot-2 combo guard headed to Washington State, throws himself at the rim with the bounce of a Juco-era Steve Francis. Rokas Gustys, a broadly built, affable 6-foot-8 power forward from Lithuania, can score over either shoulder from the post and already has a half-dozen polished post moves. Troy Williams, a 6-foot-7 senior shooting guard (that’s how Williams describes himself, at least) who plays almost entirely above the rim, will be suiting up for Tom Crean at Indiana next season.
Noticeably lagging behind the action at practice today is the gold team’s 6-foot-3 reserve shooting guard. Chris Tang is just a junior and hasn’t played much this season, but he’s already the focus of media scrutiny on both sides of the Pacific. Like all the gold teamers, Chris Tang already has his own YouTube presence — a series of highlight reels that show a well-built 6-foot-3 kid who loves to take the ball to the rack. The titles of his videos explain the source of the media’s curiosity and why I decided to travel from Los Angeles to Mouth of Wilson:
“Chris Tang 6’3 High School PG, the next Jeremy Lin or better?”
“Chris Tang AAU Boo Williams — Scouting Video April 2011 — Jeremy Lin TURNOVERS Academy”
“15-Year-Old Chris Tang could be next Jeremy Lin! 6’3 PG with bounce, handles, a stroke and vision!”
Chris Zihao Tang’s basketball story starts, of course, with Yao Ming. As a kid growing up in Jiangsu, a province on the eastern coast of China, just northwest of Shanghai, Tang obsessed over Yao and the Rockets, and, like all inspired young kids, went out to the local playgrounds to mimic the big man’s moves. Tang was always faster, taller, and more athletic than everyone else on the court, one of those prodigies who just pick up the game, almost through evolutionary directive. By the time he turned 8 years old, Chris Tang never went anywhere without a basketball, a habit that seemed curious to his parents, who at first asked their son to pursue other interests. He did not. “I watched basketball every day like it was my job,” Tang explained. “When I got out of school, I’d go straight to watching the Rockets on the Internet. My dad used to get mad at me because I would skip meals sometimes to watch the fourth quarter of a game, but I couldn’t stop. It was crazy just how much I loved to watch those guys play.”
Tang’s parents eventually grew to understand that their son had caught the basketball mania that infected so much of China in the early aughts. By the time he reached middle school, Chris had gotten good enough to be faced with a difficult choice — he could enter the labyrinthine Chinese national athletics program or he could try to find an alternate path to professional basketball. The choice rested on his parents’ desire for their child to live a life balanced between basketball and academics. The local club teams had already come around inquiring about Chris, meaning he had the choice to essentially turn professional at the age of 13. Here, Chris explains the life of a young club-team player in China.
Before his eighth-grade year, Chris’s parents sought out an educational consultant in China who would help the family find a school for their budding hoops star. The consultant called around looking for a school that would give Chris a shot at playing on their varsity team, sight unseen. Finally, they settled on American Christian Academy in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Greg Crowe, Tang’s coach, credits Chris with changing the entire culture of basketball at American Christian Academy. “When Chris arrived,” Crowe remembers, “he couldn’t speak much English. I’d joke around about being good-looking with him, and for a while he thought my name was Coach Crowe Good Looking.” On the court, Chris surpassed all expectations — as an eighth-grader, he scored 37 points in a game at a high school tournament and quickly established himself as the best player at American Christian. “I’ve never seen an eighth-grader with his work ethic,” Crowe said. “We’d have an off day from practice and Chris would come up to me and say, ‘No off day, Coach.'”
His first year in America was filled with the usual awkward, funny moments that happen early on in the cultural exchange. “We had a kid from Iceland a couple years before Chris got here,” Coach Crowe recalls. “This kid mistook some air freshener for candy and ate it. So when I was showing Chris his room, I told him to not eat the air freshener. He gave me this look that said, ‘I’m Chinese, I’m not stupid. Why would I eat air freshener?'” Tang remembers his year in Alabama with great fondness. “I didn’t really know any English when I got there,” he explained. “The people at the school helped me adjust to life in America. They are like a family to me.” It was at American Christian Academy that Tang adopted the name Chris, after his favorite basketball player, Chris Paul. But when Tang returned to China for the summer, his parents went back to the educational consultant and began inquiring about schools with stronger basketball programs. “I knew when I first saw him play that he had to go on to bigger things,” Crowe recalled. “But it was tough to see him go because we loved him and treated him like one of our own. Our program’s gotten a lot better since he left, and it’s partially because all those kids played with Chris and saw exactly how hard you have to work to be great.”
The next September, Chris Tang of Jiangsu, China, found himself at Hampton Roads Academy in Newport News, Virginia. Playing in the same coastal region that produced Allen Iverson, Michael Vick, Alonzo Mourning, Gabby Douglas, and Ella Fitzgerald, Tang averaged 17 points per game as a freshman. He made it onto the prestigious Boo Williams AAU team, whose alumni include Iverson, Mourning, J.J. Redick, and Jarrett Jack. Max Gillespie, Chris’s coach at Hampton Roads, didn’t know what type of player he was getting over the summer, but during early workouts it became clear that the freshman from China would have an immediate impact on the varsity team. “He’s so incredibly athletic,” Gillespie explained, “but he’s also a very focused individual, and when you have both those qualities together with someone who just absolutely has a passion for basketball, you’ve got something special.”
For his accomplishments on the court, Tang got written up in a couple prep outlets, but nothing much more than could be expected from an international kid playing high school ball in Newport News. Colleges began to express their interest. Videos began to surface on YouTube that showed a reckless point guard running up and down the court in a style that was inimitably AAU — Chris Tang, like so many prep phenoms at his position, could bomb from downtown, he could throw no-look passes, and he could take the ball hard to the rim. He couldn’t do much else, but nobody has ever clicked on a YouTube highlight video to watch a player get low on defense, rotate on a pick-and-roll, or bury an open mid-range jumper. Midway through his sophomore year, Tang had become the best Asian or Asian American high school basketball player in the United States. But what did that really mean?
Then, on February 4, 2012, Linsanity began at Madison Square Garden. Chris Tang’s life began to get weird.
On January 14, 2011, Chris Tang scored 41 points in a loss against Highland of Warrenton, Virginia. Ten days later, he went 18-for-21 from the field and scored 42 against Bishop Sullivan Catholic of Virginia Beach. If you read the newspaper reports and watch the local sportscast footage after those games, there’s no mention of Jeremy Lin. But if you skip just two weeks forward in time, past the start of Linsanity, you’ll never see Chris Tang’s name again without its conjoined twin. Interestingly enough, even Tang can’t quite keep the events straight in his own head. He told me that people started calling him Jeremy Lin right after his 41- and 42-point games. In late January, Chris Tang, scoring dynamo and prep superstar, most likely did not remind anyone of a reserve buried deep on the Knicks’ bench who hadn’t had a relevant moment in two NBA seasons. But after February 4, those two late-January games and the entire phenomenon of a 6-foot-3 Asian point guard who scored a ton of points was absorbed into a new, monolithic context.
Chris doesn’t have much of an opinion on Linsanity. He told me he likes Jeremy Lin, but mostly because Lin plays for the Rockets. And although Tang understands why someone would compare him to another Asian basketball player, the asymmetry — basketball-wise — bugs him. “I wish they would call me Dwyane Wade,” Tang said, cracking a smile. “I want to play like Wade. An athletic guard who gets to the rim.”
One of the great disappointments of a sportswriter’s career comes when he realizes that his favorite athletes process the game much differently than he does. The kids on Oak Hill’s gold team love LeBron James and Kevin Durant in the same way Southern fiction writers love William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. They appreciate the mastery of a craft, and, as practitioners, don’t feel the need to muck everything up with silly metaphorical meaning. This might be maddening to those of us who want to paste our own limits onto a gritty story of perseverance and glory, but there’s a simple elegance to the answer, “I root for LeBron because he’s the best.” It places sports within something resembling a proper perspective.
But an athlete’s public profile is mostly reverse-engineered and pieced together with scraps of what’s already familiar. Chris Tang was dominating Virginia Beach high school basketball before Jeremy Lin scored 25 against the Nets, but all his accomplishments and the actual narrative of his journey through the United States will now be filtered through Linsanity. Internet time at Oak Hill is strictly monitored and cell phones are not allowed, but Tang has already found some of the Chinese articles that refer to him as the next Great Asian Hope. There have been news stories in China of all types, some which even reprimand him for heading off to America instead of playing for a Chinese club team, but even the Chinese press won’t mention Chris Tang without evoking Jeremy Lin.
The reason for the endless comparisons is patently simple and unavoidable: Without Linsanity, Chris Tang, 16-year-old combo guard for the Oak Hill Academy Warriors and one of the top prospects in the state of Virginia, is not a story. He’s just another international student who came to an American prep school to improve his chances of playing college basketball in the United States.
Five of the 12 players on the gold team could be described in exactly the same way.
Because of Coach Smith’s success, because of the dozens of jerseys that hang in the gym, one for each kid who went on to play at a Division I school, and because of the visibility Oak Hill receives as one of the premier prep programs in the country, the gold team tends to reflect current and future trends in college basketball. The international players on the gold team all came to Oak Hill to better focus on hoops, but their paths to Mouth of Wilson show just how many avenues exist for promising players from nearly anywhere in the world. Coach Smith does not recruit. He fields phone calls and e-mails from parents who lobby for their children and makes decisions based on whether the kid would be best served by the school. In the past five years, those phone calls and e-mails have been coming from farther and farther away from Mouth of Wilson. Every time an international player makes it at Oak Hill — regardless, really, of the extent of his success — a pipeline is opened up back to his home country. Back in 1993, Oak Hill went 36-0, led by Jerry Stackhouse, Jeff McInnis, and a 6-foot-9 power forward named Makhtar N’diaye, who, after a frankly bizarre college career,2 went on to become the first player from Senegal to play in the NBA. Other players from Senegal saw N’diaye’s path to the league as a blueprint, and they came to the United States to play high school basketball. Oak Hill has had several players from Senegal since, including DeSagana Diop and Khadim Dieng, a 6-foot-10 reserve center on this year’s gold team.
For those who don’t remember, Makhtar N’diaye originally committed to play at Wake Forest as one of the top recruits in the country. After being ruled ineligible by the NCAA, he went on to Michigan. After an undistinguished two years in Ann Arbor, he came to Carolina, where he played on the 1998 Tar Heel team that lost to Utah in the Final Four. After the game, he accused Ute forward Britton Johnsen of using a racial slur on the court, an accusation he quickly rescinded. Most recently, N’diaye was an agent for Jeremy Tyler. N’diaye traveled to Israel to advise Tyler, who skipped his senior year in high school to play professional basketball in Haifa.
Last summer, the 2011-12 national champion gold team went on a tour of China and played in a tournament that featured youth squads from the host country, Australia, and Lithuania. Rokas Gustys, who at the time was playing for Lithuania’s U-18 team, saw an opportunity to play against higher-level competition. When the tournament ended, Gustys went home and e-mailed Coach Smith and asked if there might be a spot for him at Oak Hill. Gonzalo Santana, who started his international basketball career at the age of 13, came to the school from IMG Academy in Florida because he wanted better practices and more exposure, but also because he wanted to attend a school with a better academic record. Like Tang, Santana worried about the rigors of playing youth basketball in Spain, a system where there is little choice or flexibility: You either make it to the pros or you end up another uneducated cautionary tale.
Tang came to Oak Hill through more conventional means. He proved himself in Virginia prep hoops and with Boo Williams’s AAU program, both of which serve as direct pipelines to Mouth of Wilson. Coach Gillespie says Tang left Hampton Roads for Oak Hill because he believed the seclusion he would find in Mouth of Wilson and the elite, singularly devoted teammates he’d meet there would be the best preparation for his future. And at its core, that’s what the gold team is: twelve incredibly focused kids who are willing to give up pretty much every comfort of home to get better at basketball. Many come to Coach Smith with college scholarships in hand. Sindarius Thornwell, the gold team’s 6-foot-5 small forward, committed to play at South Carolina when he was in the ninth grade. He came up to Mouth of Wilson to keep himself motivated and to get his body ready for the next level. Although Tang has not yet signed a letter of intent, several schools have shown interest, including Maryland, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Stanford, Oregon, and Harvard.
If all this sounds a bit complicated for 16- and 17-year-olds, it’s because the pressures of international hoops have trickled down to the prep ranks. Promising international players like Gustys and Santana are forced to make decisions earlier or risk falling behind other kids who benefit from around-the-clock training and top-level competition. No. 3-ranked Findlay Prep, a “school” that only enrolls students who happen to be really great at basketball, carries six international players. No. 1-ranked Huntington Prep, another school with a somewhat specious academic record, has exactly two players on its roster who hail from the United States. The rest come from Russia, Puerto Rico, Nigeria, Turkey, and Canada. Oak Hill, with its chapel and its strict uniform code and its — gasp — students who aren’t on the basketball team, is much more of a traditional school than its powerhouse competitors. As such, it’s an attractive landing spot for prep superstars who might need either a good, long dose of isolation or help with their studies. Oak Hill might be a basketball factory, but it’s an old one, and therefore it still plays by the old rules.
The cultural exchange always comes with attendant problems and its awkward moments. The gold team players, especially the exchange students, look out for one another. Fourth-period Ecology is filled with gold teamers. They do pretty much everything together at Oak Hill. They live together in a dank, squat dormitory on the edge of campus. They watch NBA games together on a small tube television in the dorm’s basement. They eat meals together in Oak Hill’s cafeteria. They get their school photos taken at the same time. And they tend to sit together in class. Today’s ecology lesson is on deer meat. The teacher asks if any of the students have eaten venison. One kid in the front row, a surfer from Charleston, South Carolina, says his family eats quite a bit of deer and confirms the teacher’s opinion on the deliciousness of venison tenderloin. The discussion switches over to fish, and once again the surfer from Charleston and the teacher have a long discussion about gar, which apparently is some kind of nasty fish. In the corner of the room, two girls stare hatefully at one another.
The members of the gold team try to interject themselves in the conversation, and when the teacher asks if any of the students will be eating fish when they go home for the upcoming holiday weekend, a gold teamer raises his hand. The teacher says, “I’m not talking about Wendy’s fish sandwich.” Then, after a short pause, perhaps to consider the appropriateness of what was just said, the teacher adds, “They make a good fish sandwich at Wendy’s, but that’s not what I’m talking about.”
The gold teamers snicker. The teacher points toward the back of the room and asks, “Chris, are there any strange animals you guys eat over in China that we don’t eat over here?” Chris Tang looks up from his notebook and grins self-consciously: “No.”
The teacher then asks Tang if they eat a lot of fish in China. Tang says, “Yes.” But when he’s asked what species of fish they eat, he just sort of shrugs. A teammate offers, “They probably mostly eat fish with rice and noodles over there.” The teacher says, “Yup. I bet Chris was real excited when he saw the ramen on the shelves of the student store.”
It’s hard to tell exactly how Chris processes life in America. He is endlessly positive, but also endlessly quiet. He says his athletic talent and the routine of being on a team have afforded him some respite from the loneliness that can infect international students. There are several other Chinese exchange students at Oak Hill, all of whom were sent to Mouth of Wilson through the oftentimes random pipelines of international education consultants. Chris tries to find time to hang out with these kids — they play video games together and go on chaperoned trips to the nearest Chinese restaurant, a half-hour away — but the majority of his day is spent around his teammates. Chris, who had never seen a black person in Jiangsu, has lived the past three years around young, black basketball stars. “Back in China,” he explains, “I was only around Chinese people. Now I’m around a lot of different people and am learning from them. It’s just a better way to live, I think.”
His teammates and coaches have been impressed by Chris’s ability to adjust to life in Mouth of Wilson, a task he tries to carry out through his own brand of humor. Rokas Gustys, who shares a bunk with Tang, says Chris routinely wakes him up at night to test out new jokes. Since coming to the States, Chris has become a huge fan of hip-hop and has taken to rapping 2 Chainz songs in the shower, a practice that provides endless entertainment for his teammates. “I don’t know why they laugh when I sing 2 Chainz in the shower,” Chris says. “Maybe they’ve never heard someone sing in the shower before?” As a prank early in the season, Troy Williams stole Chris’s packets of instant noodles, which sent Chris on a witch hunt that lasted all day. At the team meeting that night, Chris asked, “Coach Smith, did you steal my noodles?” In this way, Chris plays the classic exchange student — he’s aware that his cultural differences might be funny to his new friends, but doesn’t quite react to any malice — perceived or real — he might sense in their more insensitive comments.
Tonight, High Point Christian Academy (North Carolina) has traveled up to Mouth of Wilson to take on Oak Hill. Half an hour before the game, the players huddle in the locker room and sing, “This is a song to all my haters ” Coach Smith comes in and lectures his team about being on time. Tang and two of the team’s starters, Lennard Freeman and Troy Williams, came late to the mandatory team dinner. Freeman and Williams will be benched. Coach Smith doesn’t say much else — there is no scouting report on the opposing team, no real spirited talk, no pomp or inspirational words.
It’s not even clear, really, if Oak Hill’s coaching staff knows anything about tonight’s opponent, except that they are “big” and “don’t like to lose.”
After the requisite huddle-up and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, the gold team jogs to the gym, which is packed tonight with High Point Christian fans who have made the bus ride up the hill to Mouth of Wilson. During warm-ups, Oak Hill goes George Foreman on the heavy bag. For three minutes they do nothing but line up and throw down ridiculous dunks. Tang gets down a windmill and a reverse, but the star of the session is Troy Williams, who has that unique quality, exclusive to the highest of high-flyers, where a dunk almost seems suspended in time, so that when you watch him in the air there’s always a moment when you swear you’re looking at a photograph.
High Point Christian jumps out to an 8-2 lead thanks to some early hot shooting. Troy comes into the game for Oak Hill and restores order by throwing down a dunk on the back of a helpless High Point big man. When he lets go of the rim, Williams screams right in the poor kid’s ear, prompting an eruption from High Point’s head coach. “How can you let him scream in my kid’s face like that?” he yells at the ref. Later in the game, Williams will dunk again and run up the court, sticking his tongue directly into the faces of the High Point Christian fans. Despite Williams’s high-energy contribution, High Point maintains a lead throughout the first and for much of the second quarter. With 1:30 left in the first half, Chris Tang finally checks in at the scorer’s table for his first action of the game.
And that’s about it. Chris goes back to the bench for the start of the second half. Oak Hill eventually overwhelms High Point Christian in the fourth quarter, but the game is too close to get Chris any extended minutes. Until he learns the offense, Chris will be stuck behind Nate Britt and Terrence Phillips, the latter a sophomore who has shown flashes of the speed and explosiveness that took his older brother, Brandon Jennings, to the first round of the NBA draft.
Tang’s final stat line: two minutes played. 0-1 from the field. 0 rebounds. 0 assists.
After the game, the gold teamers huddle excitedly in the locker room. Lennard Freeman says, “Troy, if we weren’t Oak Hill, you’d have had like five technical fouls in that game.”
Troy, brightening, yells, “Are you crazy? I would’ve been ejected!”
Williams asks how many dunks everyone had. The players start listing off their stats. Gonzalo Santana, 5-foot-8, who played even less than Tang, jokes, “I think I had three.” Everyone gives a loud, celebratory laugh. The players start chattering about whether any of the kids on High Point Christian deserve D-I offers and how the opposing point guard reminds them of some other kid who is headed off to some school out west.
Chris stays quiet amid all this business-oriented chatter. He pulls on his warm-ups and comes over to apologize to me for not getting into the game. He gives me his e-mail address and promises to help out in any way possible and asks if I had a good time at Oak Hill. As he slinks out of the locker room, a teammate walks up beside him, slaps him on the back, and yells, “Jeremy Lin!” into his ear.
Jeremy Lin remembers what it was like to be Chris Tang. “Since I was in fifth or sixth grade,” Lin says, “everyone called me Yao Ming. Every time I stepped on the court, I heard ‘Yao.'” Lin says it’s definitely “weird” to think that his name has been substituted for Yao’s, but he seems both cognizant and respectful of his platform as one of the most famous Asian Americans in the world. “At first, I let all that put a lot of pressure on me,” he explained, “but over time, I had to re-prioritize my life to play for God. That’s when I’m at my best, when I play for Him.” No matter whom Lin plays for, he will be the representative of his people for the sole reason that his very visible and widely celebrated workplace simply has no other options. Lin, who watched Chris Tang’s highlight videos last year and has high hopes for Tang’s career, has some advice for his next coming: “If people are calling him Jeremy Lin or whatever, he should just play harder and better. Make it so that when the game’s over, they don’t have anything to say that’s not about your game.”
Neither the real Jeremy Lin nor the next Jeremy Lin think much of the Jeremy Lin effect. The real Lin says the idea makes him uncomfortable because he still has so much improving to do as a player. The next Jeremy Lin sees the whole thing as a bit of an annoyance. “There’s nothing I can do about people calling me Jeremy Lin,” Tang said. “I know I’m Chris Tang and he’s Jeremy Lin. We’re different.” But of all the hoops fans in the world, Lin and Tang are the least likely to squeeze both inspiration and metaphoric meaning out of the legend of Linsanity. As gifted athletes who have played at high levels, neither needs the reminder that one of his people can make it all the way to the NBA. Instead, you can see the imprint of Linsanity on kids like Min Lee, a 16-year-old Oak Hill junior from South Korea who plays on the junior varsity. Lee came to the United States at a very young age to improve a poor academic record back home in Seoul. In the States, Lee grew to love basketball, and he chose Oak Hill over other preparatory schools because he believed the close proximity to Coach Smith would give him a better chance to land on a college roster, which would then prepare him for his dream: a career in the Korean Basketball League.
“The next Jeremy Lin” is one of those meaningless phrases born out of basketball’s superstar economy and its tendency to divide its worldwide fan base down into easily defined, component parts. Somewhere in this country, there’s a 6-foot-3 kid who plays a lot more like Jeremy Lin than Chris Tang does, but unless that kid has some Asian heritage or unless he ends up at an Ivy League school, the comparison will be moot. In part, an idea like “the next Jeremy Lin” comes from historic, and frankly inexcusable, laziness by generations of sportswriters who refuse to compare athletes across races, leaving us with absurdities like “Keith Van Horn reminds me of Larry Bird” or “Danny Amendola plays like a young Steve Largent” or whatever other stupidity has been spilled in the name of being “careful about race.” This is all obvious, and I suppose the tendency to divide all second comings along racial lines happens in nearly every American forum, whether politics or poetry. But it happens more in sports, where stars are held up as proof of a people’s physical worth. Once Jeremy Lin became a referendum on all things Asian American, the next Jeremy Lin was an inevitability. And unless this Chris Tang makes it to the NBA, the next Chris Tang will be called Jeremy Lin, as will the next and the next and so on until a Chris Tang goes out and actually supplants the legend of Jeremy Lin. The great American underdog narrative demands a hopeful coda — when you come out of nowhere to inspire a people, the last shot in your movie will always show a bunch of kids running around a playground in your replica jersey.
This article has been updated to correct information on when Makhtar N’Diaye played for UNC.