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Before Jeremy Lin: Asian athletes abound in pro sports

5 athletes who could offer Lin some sage advice.

Before Jeremy Lin, there was Yao Ming.

In fact, Asian athletes are well placed and successful in sports across North America. The Houston Rockets drafted the Chinese-born Yao first overall in 2002, becoming an all-star eight times before injuries forced him to retire last season.

His success in the NBA led to as much off-court success, including a documentary film, Super Bowl commercial with Yogi Berra and some fast-talking New Yorkers (Yo, Yao, Yogi…) and a starring role in Beijing’s 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony.

Maybe that’s why it seems Yao spotted Lin’s talents long before he became a media darling for the New York Knicks. Lin was part of the Yao Ming Foundation’s 2010 tour of Taipei, and the two remain fast friends.

“I talk to Yao after every game,” Lin told ESPN. “He’s taken me out to eat every time we’re in the same city. He’s obviously a role model and a big brother and mentor to me. We keep in touch all the time.”

More from GlobalPost: China quick to champion Jeremy Lin

Yao is probably preparing Lin for the pressure of representing an entire culture. Yao’s success led to the Milwaukee Bucks drafting his Chinese Olympic teammate, Yi Jianlian. When the two played each other the first time in 2008, an estimated 200 million people in China watched on TV.

A few other Asian superstars could probably offer Lin some advice, too.

HOCKEY

You can thank Canada’s multicultural influence for this, because players of Asian ancestry abound in professional hockey.

The most accomplished is Paul Kariya, a bona fide NHL superstar who played 15 seasons with Anaheim, Colorado, Nashville and St. Louis before injuries knocked him from the game. He averaged a point per game in his career (a rare accomplishment) and twice earned the league’s most sportsmanlike player award.

Kariya’s heritage sparked an international following when he arrived in Japan with Team Canada for the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

“There's not a lot of hockey in Japan, but they know the game,” Japanese coach Dave King told Sports Illustrated then. “The Japanese see themselves in Paul. He’s 5'11", not 6'3". He’s skilled and courageous. His presence in Nagano could motivate a lot of Japanese kids to play the sport.”

Today, Minnesota’s Devin Setoguchi and Manny Malhotra of the Vancouver Canucks are important players to their teams. Setoguchi is half-Yonsei and a fourth-generation Japanese-Canadian. He’s perhaps one of the league’s top young stars, too. Malhotra has played for 12 seasons. He was born to a French-Canadian mother and his father is from Punjab, India.

FOOTBALL

Perhaps most people recognize Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward for his winning turn on Dancing with the Stars, an ABC reality-TV standard.

However, Ward has twice won a Super Bowl, is a former championship MVP and holds numerous team records. Ward’s father – an African-American GI – abandoned the family when Ward was 2 years old after moving the family to Georgia. His mother didn’t speak English, and Ward didn’t fit into black, white or Asian circles.

His mother, Kim Young He, was an outcast in South Korea, but their return there in 2005 created a media frenzy. His success in the NFL even spurred democratic change in the country, and the president at the time introduced legislation to protect the rights of biracial South Koreans.

“I really want to raise some awareness about this issue," Ward said in a Sports Illustrated feature story. “I’m not here to change laws. But I want to shed light on (the treatment of) biracial kids, or maybe change a person’s mind who is borderline, make people look differently at a mixed-race kid because of what they’ve seen me accomplish.”

His fame will no doubt continue to rise, with a cameo in The Dark Knight Rises this summer.

BASEBALL

The Asian influence in Major League Baseball is longstanding. The sport’s popularity is truly global, and the Japanese professional league is considered the best outside North America.

Because of their passion for baseball – introduced by American GIs stationed overseas after the Second World War – Japanese and Korean players routinely land on American soil, and none has reached greater heights than Ichiro Suzuki has.

He’s a former rookie of the year, MVP and holds numerous team and league records with the Seattle Mariners.

“When I look at the records and see where my place in the history of the game might be, I guess you could say it was a good decision to come here,” he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2004. “It’s not just me. Maybe I’ll have an effect on others in the international part of the game.”

Many credit pitcher Hideo Nomo for triggering a wave of Japanese players in the big leagues. He arrived in 1995, won rookie of the year honors and went on to pitch two no-hitters in his career. The hype was so high, Nike created the Air Max Nomo and his games were broadcast in Japan.

GOLF

Many credit Tiger Woods for breaking down racial divides in golf, making the country club sport relatable to African Americans. However, his influence in Asia is even greater.

His mother is of Thai-Chinese-Dutch ancestry, and his father is a blend of African American, Chinese and Native American.

When Woods first arrived in China a decade ago, the country’s most affluent paid $80,000 to play alongside him. Feng Delin paid $30,000 for his daughter, Cindy, to play two holes with Woods.

She’s now a budding superstar in the US.

“Tiger’s China trip changed my daughter's life,” Delin said in an ESPN article. “Lots of kids from her generation took the path of golf all because Tiger came to China and introduced the game to the Chinese people.”

Michelle Wie had as much influence on young girls when at 16 she turned pro. Hawaiian-born to Korean parents, Wie attempted to play with men before finally winning her first tournament on the women’s tour.

She earned as much attention for her Nike endorsements and her attitude as her golf, but she’s shaping into an accomplished professional after two career wins. She’s still only 22.

“She’s probably going to influence the golfing scene as much as Tiger, or more,” Arnold Palmer said, according to The Baltimore Sun. “She’s going to attract people that even Tiger didn’t attract, young people, both boys and girls, and families.” 

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