Chang's rise helped pave way for Lin

Before Jeremy Lin, tennis player Michael Chang inspired Asian American community

Updated: March 4, 2012, 1:48 PM ET
By Kenton Wong | ESPN.com

Michael Chang and Jeremy LinGetty ImagesFormer No. 2-ranked tennis player Michael Chang served as a role model for a young Jeremy Lin.

Jeremy Lin isn't just carrying the New York Knicks.

He's carrying the hopes and dreams of legions of fellow Asian Americans. Most have never met Lin but might feel like they know him. They've been starving for someone like him to come around and break the stereotypes of a race that has been dubbed the "model minority."

He's the boy they grew up with, the one who was in the same class as their daughter, who played sports with their son.

Michael Chang can relate. Two-and-a-half decades ago, he was that boy.

Just like Lin, the former pro tennis player had doubters who looked at him and figured he was too small, too passive, too unathletic.

A generation before Lin made headlines from New York to Taipei, it was Chang who made it fathomable to even utter "Asian American" and "professional athlete" in the same sentence. It was also Chang who would ultimately reach No. 2 in the men's world tennis rankings.

There have been other men with Asian American ancestry to make a name for themselves in the sports world since Chang -- Tiger Woods, Hines Ward, Rex Walters and Apolo Anton Ohno, to name a few. However, because of their bi-racial heritage, the Asian American community could not claim them as theirs alone.

A second-generation full-blooded Asian American, Lin says he is proud of both his Taiwanese and Chinese heritage and is happy to be a role model.

But it's Chang who has been a role model for Lin, speaking to him on the phone prior to Lin's rookie season with the Golden State Warriors.

In describing the start to his pro career, which began in 1988, Chang said, "I felt like there was added pressure. Obviously the Asian American community wants you to do well. They are cheering you on no matter what the circumstances. The first initial feeling, at least for me, was to go out and play well and hopefully win and have the Asian community be even more proud."

Lin's pro career, however, got off to a rough start as he averaged less than three points per game, played in just 29 games and admittedly felt a tremendous amount of pressure. Many saw the Warriors' signing of Lin, a native of nearby Palo Alto, as merely a publicity stunt by the franchise to attract Asian American fans.

This season with the Knicks, though, has been a "miracle from God," according to Lin.

"The whole sports world has been just in awe of what he's been doing," Chang said. "I'm certainly really excited about it and am always trying to watch his games on TV or check to see how he's been doing."

Following the NBA lockout, Lin was cut twice and then sent to the NBA Development League, making his sophomore breakout even more unexpected than Chang's run at the 1989 French Open.

In his second year as a pro, a 17-year-old Chang entered Roland Garros as the 19th-ranked player in the world. In the Round of 16 he beat top-ranked Ivan Lendl in an epic match, then came back from down two sets to one to beat third-ranked Stefan Edberg in the final.

The win inspired many Asian Americans to pick up tennis. They wanted to be like Mike.

Chang feels many more will now head to the basketball court.

"In the tennis world, there weren't a whole lot of Asians playing. You see it a little bit more now. The same can really be said for basketball," Chang said. "There were only a couple of Asian guys before Jeremy [in the NBA] -- Yao Ming being the most prominent. I feel people can relate to Jeremy a little bit easier. He's 6-3, not a huge guy. People could never say: 'I want to be like Yao Ming.'"

Right now, everyone wants to be like Lin. According to NBA, his jersey has been the top seller in the league since Feb. 4, when the point guard scored 25 points off the bench in a win over the New Jersey Nets.

But not all the news has been positive; many come at the expense of Asian culture. Lin, who recalls being taunted since he was in high school, has had to learn to deal with ignorance and hate.

"You're going to have a little bit of racism," Chang said. "Unfortunately it's to be expected. Sometimes people put things up that they might find humorous. It's difficult sometimes when you have somebody who is of a different culture trying to make light of something that is maybe not quite something that they understand."

The basketball world is still trying to figure out Lin. Skeptics wonder how long he can maintain this level of play. But at every stop this season you can expect Asian American fans to turn up to see first-hand the excitement created by one who broke the mold.

No pressure.

Kenton Wong is a Stats & Info specialist for ESPN.