HEAD CASES: Linsanity reigns as fans hold up faces of the New York Knicks's sudden sensation Jeremy Lin during a Feb. 15 game at Madison Square Garden. (Photo: John Angelillo/Newscom)
Casual sports fans are confirming what hardcore NBA junkies have known for a little while now — this Jeremy Lin is something else.
Lin, for those living under a rock, is a point guard for the New York Knicks, and is not only the first Asian American bona fide star in the NBA, but the hottest name in sports right now.
After enduring plenty of bench-warming on his third team in two years, Lin finally got his number called by Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni on February 6, and delivered a breakout performance — 25 points and seven assists to lead New York to victory. Since then, he’s continued to string together impressive performances as a starter, and until an inevitable loss last night, the Knicks rode Lin’s breakout heroics to a seven-game win streak.
This would be impressive on any NBA team. But by playing with such passion and fire in a media-saturated environment like New York, Jeremy Lin has captured the attention of fans, players and celebrities across the nation, garnering an undeniably palpable buzz known simply as “Linsanity.” He’s showing up not only on ESPN Sportscenter, but on The Colbert Report and the Huffington Post.
How big is Jeremy Lin right now? He got a standing ovation after hitting a game-winning three-pointer — by fans of the opposing team.
It’s no wonder that Lin has been called the Taiwanese Tim Tebow — on top of all the basketball hype, Jeremy Lin has taken a public stand as a Christian. He’s spoken at length about his faith in God and how it fuels him as a player and as a person. He even gave a shout out to gospel rapper Lecrae when asked about his favorite music.
And yet, I can’t help but wince, just a little bit, when I hear all of this effusive praise. I worry a little for Jeremy Lin, and it has little to do with basketball.
Lin’s ascent into the spotlight reminds me of another popular ball-playing Harvard graduate-turned-rock-star. Like J-Lin, our 44th president burst on the scene by making a big splash — instead of February at MSG in 2012, it was July at the DNC in 2004.
And just like Obama in 2008, Lin is attracting, along with the waves of adulation, an undertow of bitter resentment. A national sportswriter made a tasteless putdown regarding his sexuality. And boxer Floyd Mayweather asserted via Twitter that if Lin were Black, he would not be getting so much hype. And even though that smacks of more than a little jealousy, and probably resonates with a history of racial hostility between Blacks and Asians, there is a grain of truth there. Would there be this much hype for a non-Asian player? If he were White, maybe. If he were Black, probably not.
But that’s beside the point. The fact is, he is Asian, and that matters a lot. It matters to other Asian-Americans, and it matters to Blacks.
Lin and the politics of identity
Watching Lin as a Black man gives me a little bit of insight into what it might have felt like watching Obama as a White person in 2008. See, competition is often a zero-sum game, where one person cannot win unless another person loses. So J-Lin’s staggering celebrity touches a place of insecurity for some Black folks, because it feels like an intrusion into a place of previously held dominance.
AERIAL LIN-PACT: Lin shoots over Sacramento Kings guard Isaiah Thomas. (Photo: Mike Segar/Newscom)
The unspoken assumption is that Asians are supposed to beat you with a calculator, not a crossover. Sorta like a decade ago when Tiger Woods started tearing up golf courses left and right, and all of the White golfers who never expected that kind of performance from someone so young and non-White were more than a little miffed. When someone comes in and violates all of your assumptions, it can be a little disconcerting.
And that’s part of the reason why I want folks to slow down a little on the Linsanity hype train. It’s not because I don’t think he’s a good player. He’s clearly a very good player, and he has a chance to become great. But in the group-centered ethic of Asian American culture, Lin must know, on some level, that he is representing Asian Americans every time he steps on the court. The brighter the lights, the bigger the pressure. I know that Jeremy Lin doesn’t want to be seen as simply a marketing ploy or a gimmick, but the further out-of-proportion the hype gets from reality, the more he looks like exactly that.
I worry that Lin will be fed into the grinder of 21st century mass media, where we put our celebrities on pedestals just so we can knock them down when they displease us.
And the pedestal is much higher for a professing Christian.
Cult of Christian celebrity
Seems like every time there’s a high-profile young person with a Christian persona, the gatekeepers of the Christian establishment trot them out in front of the impressionable even-younger people, so that they’ll have a good role model. So I imagine that Jeremy Lin will soon have a publicist. If that person is good at her job, she’ll have him at conferences, concert appearances, and basketball camps throughout the offseason.
None of those things are wrong, of course, but I just hope he also has someone else in his life screening some of that stuff out, so that he can continue to work on his game and develop as a person. If sports is the ultimate reality TV, then Jeremy Lin deserves more than to become the next Christian reality TV star.
After all, the last NBA player that I remember having so public a faith-based persona when he entered the league was Dwight Howard. And that reputation has since taken a beating, not only for the hysteria surrounding his trade demands, but for fathering several children out of wedlock.
I hope that Jeremy Lin can be more than a bright star who flames out too soon. But part of what he’ll be needing to accomplish that is a little more time — to work on his game, and to find more ways to meaningfully engage his eager public. So if you really want to support him, the best thing you can give him right now is give him breathing room to play basketball player without the added weight of being the latest Christian celebrity or the shining representative of all Asian Americans.
Just don’t give him too much room, ’cause I hear he’s getting pretty good from distance.
HE GOT GAME, TOO: Knicks guard Jeremy Lin drives by Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant at Madison Square Garden on February 10. Lin Scored 38 points, and the Knicks defeated the Lakers 92-85. (Photo: John Angelillo/Newscom)
Even if you do not follow professional sports, you have probably heard that there is a whole lot of fuss going on about someone named Jeremy Lin. He’s the 23-year-old New York Knicks point guard who has transformed from last man on the bench to the team’s savior faster than you can say “Linsanity.”
A man of committed Christian faith, Lin has attributed his successes to God and directed all accolades towards his fellow teammates, prompting television commentators to dub him “the humble hero from Harvard,” which by the way is an unlikely source for professional basketball players. Born in Los Angeles, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, Lin experienced success at the high school and collegiate levels, yet was not drafted by any NBA team. Instead, he bounced around the league until he finally landed with the Knicks late last year.
Just a little over a week ago, Lin was sleeping on his brother’s couch and wondering if the Knicks were going to keep him on the team. But as injuries whittled down the Knicks’ roster, Lin’s number was called against the New Jersey Nets on February 4th. He scored an improbable 25 points, started in the next four games, and repeated the seemingly impossible by scoring in double digits each time, including 38 points in a prime-time, nationally-televised performance against Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant.
It’s an amazing, Cinderella-esque story. Some have even made parallels between Lin and Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow due to their shared Christian beliefs as well as their improbable success. But what truly sets Lin apart in his profession, besides his Ivy League education and unexpected rise, is his Asian American background.
Judging by the frenzied response of the Knicks’ multiethnic market of fans, it doesn’t matter that Lin is Asian American. Most see him as a superhero, swooping in from out of nowhere to save a seemingly doomed season. Others may be thinking he’s winning despite being Asian American.
But, make no mistake about it, Lin does mean something particularly special to those of us in the Asian American community. I have not seen Asian Americans galvanized in this way for anyone before Jeremy Lin. Not Barack Obama, not Tiger Woods in his pre-scandal days. If Asian Americans formed a political party, Jeremy Lin would clearly be the uncontested nominee for president.
The role of Lin’s ethnicity in this extraordinary narrative cannot be ignored. Coaches and scouts were quite likely unwilling to give Lin a chance purely based on his ethnicity. Phil Taylor wrote about Lin in SI.com, “I knew on some level that part of the reason Lin was so quickly dismissed was that NBA people had a hard time believing that an Asian-American could play point guard in the NBA.” It’s a testimony to Lin’s tenacity and faith that he refused to accept the reality that he saw around him. He had never seen an Asian American man play in the NBA, but he stayed fixed on his goal of being a professional basketball player, even when no one else was giving him the chance.
People have been describing Lin’s breakthrough as a “Jackie Robinson” moment, and perhaps one of the eventual results of Lin’s success is that in a decade or so, we’ll start to see more Asian Americans in the NBA. But what I find fascinating about “Linsanity” is how the Jeremy Lin story reveals racial and ethnic differences amongst us and illuminates assumptions that still persist.
For one thing, Asian culture is collectivistic rather than individualistic, which essentially means that it fosters thinking such as “we’re all in this together,” and “what happens to you, happens to me.” When an Asian American reaches a particular level of accomplishment and achievement, we all feel the sense of sharing in his or her successes (and the reverse is also true, such as the deep shame many of us experienced after Seung-Hui Cho went on his murderous rampage at Virginia Tech).
In Asian American churches, adults go by the appellations “Auntie” and “Uncle,” further communicating to the next generation that we are all just one big family. Given Lin’s clear profession of faith, Asian American Christians in particular embrace him both as fellow ethnic kin as well as a fellow believer. He is a “brother,” in every sense of the word. And so when he does well, it reflects positively on the larger family of Asian Americans everywhere.
MORE THAN BASKETBALL: Jeremy Lin's significance as an Asian American athlete playing at the highest level of his game goes beyond mere sports.
But why do Asian Americans need the collective ego boost that is coming from one, singular professional sports figure? Aren’t they already considered the “model minority,” rightly or wrongly? Don’t Asian Americans easily assimilate into the larger culture, just like Lin is fitting seamlessly into his team of non-Asians?
Often when I write or speak about matters of race, I invariably hear questions like this, implying that we now live in a color-blind society, that racial conflicts are relics from the past. But I think the excitement that Asian Americans are demonstrating over Lin reflects the exact opposite: that racial and ethnic differences still matter a great deal. As Michael Luo reflected in the New York Times on his own thrill over Lin’s success, “It boils down to a welter of emotions from finally having someone I can relate to enter the public consciousness.”
If you think race does not matter in the 21st century, you likely have never been that lone ethnic minority walking into a room. Asian Americans (and other minorities) know and feel it instantly when they are the only non-white face in any gathering. We feel it whenever we walk into a classroom, a conference room, a coffee shop … a church.
To add further to our sense of marginalization even in the Christian subculture, when none of the role models presented to us in Christian contexts look like someone we can relate to, little by little we begin to doubt that our voices will ever be heard, that we are valued contributors, that anyone even notices we exist at all. If all we ever see in the pulpits, at the podiums, or on the covers of magazines and books are the faces and names of majority America, then those institutions and places of influence are missing a significant part of the American story.
Jeremy Lin gives us a great story that we can all rally around — America loves nothing more than an underdog tale. And the fact that Lin has gained such widespread, mainstream acceptance has filled Asian Americans with a collective sense of sheer, unbridled joy and pride. Lin’s popularity has suddenly given Asian Americans a gift we have not always experienced: acceptance, from a society that still mistakes us as outsiders.
Talk to any Asian American, and you will likely find that he or she has a story to tell about being on the receiving end of a racist epithet or some racially charged comment. Just the other day, I was speaking with a Korean-American named Susie who recounted a recent experience in a Wal-Mart parking lot. As she walked toward the store with her family, a pickup truck sped by with its passengers yelling “Hi-yaah!” at her and her family in a cartoonish mockery of martial arts screams. The truck then passed them, turned around, and returned for a repeat performance before peeling away. On the night of Lin’s incredible 38-point performance against the L.A. Lakers, I watched my Twitter feed spew comment after comment celebrating Lin while still regarding him as a foreigner. “So excited #jeremylin speaks solid English,” read one such tweet.
Jeremy Lin’s recent successes won’t wipe away all the years of racial stereotyping, all the ways that ceilings and misconceptions still block the paths of Asian Americans and other minorities in countless institutions, the church included. But shared appreciation for his extraordinary story is binding together both his fellow Asian American “brothers and sisters” as well as his fans from every tribe, tongue and nation. I don’t think the fact that Lin’s team is located in one of the most multicultural cities in the world happened by chance. Behind all the amazing events surrounding this young man’s rise is a deeper purpose, and I believe there’s way more to this story than just basketball.