Jeremy Lin and the Perils of Racial Progress
After a Friday-night defeat, the frenzy surrounding the New York Knicks’ sudden superstar Jeremy Lin threatened to settle down just a little after Lin’s nine turnovers helped end his team’s seven-game win streak. But then Lin went out on Sunday afternoon and tallied 28 points and a career-high 14 assists to help take down the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks and we were right back to fever-pitched “Linsanity.”
Suddenly, Jeremy Lin has become that kind of sports phenomenon that broadcasters adore — the exciting, charismatic athlete that even casual sports fans must tune in to watch. Indeed, the causal fans are confirming what hardcore NBA junkies have known for a while now — this Jeremy Lin is something else.
Lin, for those comfortably ensconced beneath a rock, 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 that inevitable loss on Friday night, the Knicks rode Lin’s breakout heroics back to NBA respectability after a long search for team identity.
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. 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 Barack 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. 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.
Then there was the offensive and racially charged headline used by ESPN after the Knicks’ Friday loss that eventually led to the firing of one of the sports networks employees and the suspension of another. Even if we wanted to play down Lin’s ethnic background and simply appreciate him as a good basketball player, we cannot. One cannot log a significant racial milestone in this nation without stirring up a little drama.
The fact is, Jeremy Lin is Asian, and that matters a lot. It matters to other Asian Americans, and it matters to Blacks. (It even matters to white Americans, though they might not say it.)
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. Larry Wilmore of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show provides an over-the-top but thought-provoking commentary on the issue. Watch it below:
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. After yesterday’s game, he politely pleaded with the media to respect the privacy of his family in Taiwan who are apparently being bombarded with attention in the wake of Lin’s success. 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 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.