The Asian Equation: Of Eastern Fans, Linsanity and the NBA


The NBA is having a hard time connecting with some of its biggest fans. It’s being pulled in two, very different directions: to the west, American fans form the game’s core fan base. To the east, Asian fans represent one of the largest, albeit not fully-tapped, markets in the world, with an estimated 400 million fans all clamouring for a taste of the sport (that’s more than the population of the United States, for the record).

Reigniting the debate as to whether the NBA should put more effort into accommodating Asian basketball lovers, NBA commissioner David Stern recently suggested that the game’s start times could be shifted to make it more accessible overseas. The NBA Global Games played in Shanghai this year also aim to bridge the divide, as well as some pre-season games in Manila and Taipei, but exhibition games seem token in value when compared to those played for keeps in the west. Logistical obstacles, cultural differences and more seem to stack the odds against the basketball organization’s international development, so what can be done?

Over the course of his team’s creation of the basketball documentary, Linsanity, co-producer Chris Chen brushed up against these aspects of basketball’s Asian development struggle while exploring Asian-American NBA star Jeremy Lin’s rise to prominence. We spoke with him about making the award-winning film, why Asian fans are so obsessed with western hoops and what the NBA can do to bridge the divide between two basketball-loving cultures. When you started this documentary, did you know you had something special on your hands?

Christopher Chen: I will say the project was actually conceived when Jeremy Lin was still in college, but he was actually on my radar when he was in high school. As you may know, he won the state championship with his Palo Alto Vikings against Santa Ana Mater Dei School, which was a big David and Goliath matchup. He ended up winning player of the year following that for his division. Being from the Bay area and a big basketball fan, you know I kind of took notice of that.

Immediately I thought, “Where’s he going to school?” Is he going to Stanford, which is a great academic institution with a great basketball team, right across the street; is he going to Berkeley, which is right across the bay; maybe even UCLA, which is obviously in Southern California. I start reading that he ends up going to Harvard. And I said, “Wow, he must not be that good.” Nobody that is a top basketball prospect would go to Harvard as his first choice. I admit now that I stereotyped him a little bit in saying that.

I started reading about him, started listening to a couple of his interviews. I found out he didn’t actually get offered a scholarship, much less playing time, in any other Division 1 school: not any of the schools we mentioned, and not even any of the smaller schools offered him a scholarship or a place on the team. Harvard was the only Division 1 school that would offer him a place on the team. As you know, Harvard does not offer scholarships for athletics, so he had to pay his own way, and he didn’t have the benefit of relaxed standards to get him into the school.

It wasn’t until his junior year when he started really playing well, and I said, “Wow this kid is really good, really inspiring, I wonder if anyone has video cameras on him?” That’s where the idea was conceived.


BnR: Where did it go from there?

CC: We had reached out to Jeremy, and he kind of sent us over to his family and kind of blew us off, frankly. He said he didn’t want documentary cameras on him, he didn’t want to be a distraction to the team, he didn’t want to be an outcast or singled out as being the best player on the team. He was always a team-first kind of guy. The parents and the family were also very unwilling.

I can say this confidently now, that we shot a lot of unauthorized footage, me and my producing partner, Brian Yang, who’s the financier for this film. He lived on the east coast, and went to a bunch of Harvard games and shot footage with his own video camera from the stands. We didn’t know where it was going to go, but we didn’t have any official clearance. We had contact with the family, but we didn’t have official permission to shoot the stuff. And so it wasn’t until his rookie year that the family came back after he found some kind of stability—it was after Summer League, it was after signing of the Golden State Warriors. That’s when we started officially filming with the family.

Going back to answer your earlier question, though, I thought we already had a great story because he’d be such an inspiration for Asian Americans. We originally had thought there would be kind of three demographics he would speak to: one is certainly Asian Americans, two—as you know, Jeremy is very religious—so the faith-based audience, and three was the general sports fan base. There are a lot of stereotypes for Asian Americans, but Jeremy broke a lot of those.
BnR: Speaking of stereotypes, but what was the most inspiring thing about having to tell the story of a minority Asian American player in the NBA?

CC: From Jeremy’s standpoint, I think it was really a lot about breaking stereotypes. Asian Americans have the stereotype of being doctors, lawyers and engineers. There’s nothing wrong with those very professional, high paying jobs, but I think where Asian Americans are less respected and are given a negative stereotype is anything to do with athletics and whatnot. “They’re weaker, they’re slower, they’re smaller, all the above.” For Jeremy to actually make a statement and be playing Division 1 college basketball, that’s already inspiring to a lot of kids. But we never knew Linsanity was going to happen. I’d be lying if I said I did.

There’s also that Jeremy is a Christian, and people say Christians are too nice, they can’t be aggressive on the court; there’s the stereotype of Ivy Leaguers, that they’re bookworms, that they can’t play sports. But Jeremy proved that he can play at the highest level. There hasn’t been an NBA player from harvard for 50-something years. While there are Harvard graduates that are famous all around the world for different reasons, not many of them are sports heroes.

Jeremy has certainly represented the hopes and dreams of Harvard people that are good athletes as well. Jeremy dealt with racism both as a youngster, at the collegiate level and at the NBA level. As you may know, there were some disparaging remarks on websites, headlines and some news reporters that were critical of him, all playing to Asian stereotypes. I think the way that Jeremy handled it was applauded by many.

BnR: You did mention the Linsanity phenomenon, the namesake of the documentary. One of the cool things is that it transcended borders. We had fans in the west that had caught Linsanity, and the east wasn’t safe from it, either. How was it capturing the phenomenon on a global scale?

CC: Thanks for asking that question. I think that people tend to gravitate to people that they feel comfortable with. I think Jeremy is many things to many people: if you’re an Ivy Leaguer, he’s a fellow Ivy Leaguer. But to Asian Americans, on the surface you can tell he’s Asian American, you can’t tell that he went to Harvard, you can’t tell that he’s a Christian. Because of this, he was immensely popular in the US as well as in Asia, making Linsanity a global phenomenon.

I remember when when we went back with him to Taiwan before Linsanity. Certainly, before Linsanity he was famous, but after Linsanity, he was Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson and The Beatles all wrapped into one. He was the number one star in Taiwan, and certainly in China, and to Asian American folks back home.

BnR: The NBA still has a bit of growing pains over in the eastern market. What are some of the challenges the NBA is facing trying to develop its brand of the sport over there?

CC: On the surface, the NBA is a US- and Canada-based league. Simple time differences are a factor, so a 7 p.m. start time in New York is a 7 a.m. start time in Beijing.How do you capture a live audience that’s watching at 7 a.m.? Sure, with Jeremy, people were okay to wake up at 7, 8, or 9 o’clock to watch these games, but just for regular season games, is that taking place? However, the NBA has made a concerted effort to play pre-season games there. Even this past off-season, there were games in Manila and Taipei with the Rockets and the Indiana Pacers. There were also games in mainland China in Beijing and Shanghai, with the Lakers and the Warriors. I think the NBA has made a big effort to reach out over there, and to develop new fans in Asia as well as around the world.

BnR: In terms of the fans there, you said many are totally okay with waking up for those 7 a.m. games, as long as Jeremy is playing. Is there a disparity between Asian fans’ appetite for the NBA versus their home Asian basketball leagues?

CC: I don’t know the exact numbers of that, but in my observation, there are up to 400 million basketball fans in China alone. Already, that’s greater than the entire population of the US. Clearly, they recognize the NBA as the top of the totem pole from a talent standpoint. The CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) has done a great job of trying to bring in foreign talent and ex-NBA players to actually help increase their level of play, als also the excitement among its fans. There’s still certainly an interest in the local product, because the local product is easier for them to touch and feel, but certainly the NBA will always be the top choice. It helps when they can see players for themselves, too. You see a lot of NBA players in their off-seasons, in their free time, going to China for marketing activities, like LeBron James going to China several times, or Kobe Bryant making his trips during his off-season.

BnR: Feeding that appetite is certainly hard given the obstacles to capturing that audience. NBA commissioner David Stern suggested exploring changing game start times, but do you think there are any other ways?

CC: The NBA, they’ve done the best job of any of the leagues to market internationally. Meaning, a lot of it has to do with the fact that basketball is probably the most simple game to play. You can play by yourself, you just need a ball and a hoop, versus team sports, such as baseball and football. David Stern has had a lot of foresight, building awareness in Asia and Europe and the fans out there. I think certainly the time change is never going to be easy, but I think the biggest step that can be taken is playing more pre-season games in Asia, reaching fans over there so that they can feel, see and touch the game they watch on television.

BnR: So, more questions about the fans. There’s the unfair stereotype of Asian fanboys, who are characterized as rabid consumers of whatever, whether it’s basketball, pop idols, or comics. Where did this social construct come from?

CC: I think your observation is correct, but there are fanboys of everything anywhere. I was just at Comic-Con this year. You see Asians, blacks, latinos, you see everything. It’s a big rainbow of fanboys and/or people that are interested in a specific thing. I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily stereotypical of Asians, or at least I don’t see it as a stereotype, and certainly not a negative stereotype, either.

BnR: Like comic fans, basketball fans are all about creating communities. A lot of this is helped by the internet—digital communities such as the /R/NBA Reddit, Twitter and so on. How do Asian fans create a community, what’s their outlet?

CC: I wouldn’t’ say it’s dissimilar for how things happen here. For instance, I think Kobe Bryant has been a pioneer of sorts in reaching out to Asian fans. For a period of time, he was doing a live chat after ames. They have social media outlets, and one of their biggest is Weibo. People have accounts, they’re’ able to follow each other. Jeremy himself has a Weibo account, with more than 3 million followers. It’s very similar to Twitter. They also have watch parties and other outlets like they would here in the US.

BnR: One of the big pluses of social media on both sides, regardless of the network, is that there’s a live connection. People who can’t see and touch NBA players can get the next best thing when you have a Reddit AMA. That would be a very good tool for talking to people literally halfway around the world.

CC: I think social media was also a big part in Linsanity. It’s much, much easier these days to actually see, touch and feel your fans, because it’s really just a couple clicks away. I think that’s been a big plus of how NBA players have been able to reach out to people, how they’ve been able to touch people in different ways. From a fan standpoint, they get a much more personal connection with their heroes these days. If they can hear from them on a daily or weekly basis, that means a lot more than listening to interviews on television.

BnR: Looking back at our conversation, it does seem that while the NBA as an organization is doing its fair share, it’s really almost the players themselves that are heavily responsible for this connection from east to west. Would you agree with that?

CC: I would definitely agree with that. I would use Kobe Bryant as an example—when he finally joined the social media game, he immediately received millions and millions of fans, all that can have that extra-personal touch from him. Social media has evolved so much in the last few years and it has been a huge help in reaching Asian fans.

BnR: Well, the media is also partially responsible for bringing the NBA to Asia. How can western NBA media connect with Asian fans?

CC: For one, I certainly would publish this article [laughs]. What I would say is that the league is very, very interested in working with various publications to speak about the league and general basketball pop culture. I know a lot of American players are playing in Asia, as well, so doing interviews with them or doing stories on them might be an interesting way. Again, a lot of these players have millions and millions of fans in China, and just one interview you do with them is something worthwhile. That’s a good place to start.

BnR: Linsanity wasn’t the first doc you’ve done on an Asian basketball player. You did one on Yao Ming, called The Year of Yao. Would you say they’ve had a similar story?

CC: I’d say that they’re very, very different. The Yao Ming film was conceived before he came to the US, but not only was he a first round pick, he was a first overall pick. He immediately came with a huge deal of hype and expectations, because immediately he was the tallest and the biggest guy in the NBA. There was no hiding, there was no underdog to Yao Ming. With that project we had known it was a film from day one. That film was really about cultural understanding, it was about him coming to the US, and not even assimilating into the US culture—which is difficult enough—but assimilating into the basketball culture, which as you know, is very, very different as well.

Unfortunately, Yao didn’t win the rookie of the year, they didn’t’ make the playoffs. That film ended up becoming a buddy story: him, the 7’6” Chinese giant, with his buddy, Colin Pine, who was 5’6”, white and happened to be his translator. That film was really about cultural understanding and seeing his year in the NBA through that lens. That was a different story from Jeremy, because we never had that expectation from him, and he surprised us.

However, Yao made great strides in developing the NBA culture in Asia. While he wasn’t even the first Asian basketball player to rise to prominence, he was certainly the most high profile. He had a specific story of how he made his way into the US, and very different overall from Jeremy. Jeremy was born and raised in the US, he was scouted like any other player, he became eligible for the draft, like any other player.


BnR: Is there anything else that I haven’t asked about the documentary or the Asian development of the NBA that you’d like to chat about?

CC: I think the important thing to understand about Jeremy is that the story is really about his journey and knowing that it started before Linsanity was even in the vocabulary of pop culture. The Lins were super, super co-operative with everything that we asked of them. They gave us tens of hundreds of hours of home video that we included in the film.

I think the one thing that I always like to say is that even though Linsanity was such a well covered media event, you never really saw that many interviews with Jeremy himself, and you certainly didn’t see any interviews with mom, dad or any of his brothers. But while he was turning down interviews with the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and other magazines, he was talking to us on camera.

We have him in various situations where you would never ever see an NBA player. For instance, before the biggest game of his life—facing the Lakers and Kobe Bryant, after Bryant had made some disparaging remarks against Jeremy—he’s just sitting there at his brother’s apartment as a visitor, and they’re doing laundry before the biggest game of his life. I think it’s one of those things that shows Jeremy’s personality off the court. This film really shows the behind the scenes and what was going through his head before and during the whole Linsanity ordeal. I hope that people can appreciate it for that.

BnR: Alright, so when can we get our hands on the film?

CC: It’s in theatres right now, and it’s performing very well. It’s also currently available on iTunes and Amazon for rental. We are actually the top one or two most-rented documentaries out right now, so that’s exciting. The DVD will be released early next year in January, but otherwise we hope people can check it out in theatres while it’s still there.

BnR: Swell! Chris, thanks again for taking the time to chat with us. I think you shed a unique light on the NBA in Asia.

CC: I appreciate your call!


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