NY Knicks Jeremy Lin

Yes, I am Linsane, which means I am a member of the Jeremy Lin Fan Club, perhaps the fastest growing entity worldwide over the past 10 days or so.

Before February 4, Jeremy Lin was an obscure professional basketball player, in his second season of the National Basketball Association (NBA), sitting on the bench (meaning playing very little) of the New York Knickerbockers, a pathetic team this season to that point (eight wins, 15 losses). Since then, Lin has rocketed into a blazing star for the NY Knicks, leading them to five straight wins and energizing the heretofore dispirited Knicks’ fan base — and countless millions of others, many of whom could less about the Knicks, the NBA, and even sports in general.

Lin’s explosive launch into pop-culture fame (and, maybe soon, fortune) is one of those glorious “good” stories of our cynical age. There are several reasons why this is a good story.

One is the “underdog” angle. Jeremy Lin seemingly came out of nowhere — actually, Palo Alto, California, where he led his high school to a state championship in 2006, then onto stardom at Harvard, but that’s a place famous for producing presidents and corporate chief executives, not NBA stars. He wasn’t drafted by any NBA team, but won a job with his local NBA franchise, the Golden State Warriors, based in Oakland, about an hour’s drive northeast of Palo Alto.

He warmed the bench for part of last season, his rookie year, for the Warriors, played a little in “garbage time” (when games were already decided), was released, won a place on the roster of the Houston Rockets, got cut, and then caught on with the Knicks this season, again as a bench warmer, the fourth point guard, meaning there were three guys ahead of him to play that important position. He was close to being let go again.

Because of injuries, the absence of the team’s two superstars, A’mare Stoudamire and Carmelo Anthony, and the mediocre play of the other point guards, a desperate Knicks’ coach, Mike D’Antoni, inserted Lin into the lineup on February 4 — and the NBA world hasn’t been the same since. Lin has been one of the biggest, if not the biggest, stories of this NBA season shortened by a labor dispute between millionaires (the players) and billionaires (the owners).

In the past five Knicks’ games, Jeremy Lin has scored at least 20 points, distributed at least seven assists (passes to teammates that helped them score), and, most significantly, injected life back into the Knicks, who under his stellar point-guard leadership and inspiration, have embraced a largely cohesive style of play which has brought joy and smiles to his teammates, coaches, and a whole chunk of humanity. This was when “Linsanity” was born.

Another reason this is a good story is Lin’s utter destruction of stereotypes. Lin is an ethnic Chinese in a sport dominated by African Americans. He is only the fourth ethnic Chinese to play in the NBA; the other three were born, nurtured and grew up in China, Yao Ming being the most famous and accomplished, a superstar with the Houston Rockets till he retired because of injuries.

Lin is the first American-born ethnic Chinese to play in the NBA. From an ethnic and racial perspective — a still sensitive topic even in an age when America has its first African American president (actually, a half-black, half-white Barack Obama) — Lin being the first Chinese American NBA player is a big deal.

Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans aren’t supposed to be elite athletes, especially basketball, which requires extraordinary height and athleticism. The latter are stereotypes of African Americans (and some white players too).

Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans are supposed to be 1) short, 2) nerds, 3) devoid of leadership skills, 4) unaggressive, and 5) virtually invisible since we make up only about five percent of America’s 310 million people.

Jeremy Lin shatters those stereotypes — with “authority,” as enthusiastic sportscasters roar after a slam-jamming dunk (which Lin did in one of the past five games — an Asian American dunked!). He is 6 feet 3 inches tall, smart enough to graduate from Harvard with a 3.1 grade-point-average majoring in economics, and exudes aggressive leadership skills as a quick and clever point guard, scoring points with jump shots, twisting layups and finding teammates with pinpoint passes. And he is not invisible.

Within these two major factors as to why Jeremy Lin is a good story are sub-factors that deepen the quality of this modern-day sports fairy tale come true.

The underdog angle is even more fascinating when we learn that Lin — again, a star high school player who led his team to a state championship — wasn’t recruited by three of California’s best universities. He played high school basketball practically across the street from Stanford University, which some call the Harvard of the west coast. Not interested, Stanford told Lin. He also wanted to play for UCLA and perhaps Cal Berkeley, the two star campuses of the mighty University of California system, arguably the finest public university in the nation. Sorry, Jeremy, we’re not interested either, these two universities said.

An interesting irony in this story twist is this: some Chinese American and Asian American parents (parents of other races and ethnicities share this trait too) drool at a chance for their offspring to attend Harvard, ranked first or second of all institutions of higher learning in the U.S., and maybe the world, and yet Jeremy (and presumably his Taiwan-born parents) had higher priority targets in their home state. He in essence “settled” for Harvard because it was one of two Ivy League colleges interested in his basketball skills.

The racial stereotype-busting angle has equally intriguing sub-plots: One has to do with expectations.

Many people, including those of Chinese and Asian descent, “expect” Chinese Americans and Asian American youngsters to be scholarly nerds, potential math and science geniuses, maybe classical-music prodigies, and hard-working, self-sacrificing small business entrepreneurs. Few “expect” Chinese Americans and Asian Americans to be professional-level athletes.

Almost no college or professional basketball talent evaluator — general managers, coaches, scouts, pundits — “expected” much from Jeremy Lin as an NBA player, let alone potential star. Some thought he was a “good” player, but none thought he had the chops to be a leading point guard in the NBA. I love the fact that Lin’s breakout stardom, at least in the past five games, has revealed the blind spots of so-called basketball talent evaluators.

Yet another sub-plot is this nuance and subtlety of racial and ethnic politics: For decades, some Chinese American and Asian American technocrats — those gifted in, say, computer sciences, math, physics, medicine, etc. — have chafed privately or within their own circles about being thwarted from advancing in their respective fields, especially as administrators, managers, and bosses.

This well-educated and higher socioeconomic class subset of the very diverse Chinese American and Asian American population has felt overlooked and, well, stereotyped as not being leaders. They felt discriminated against by affirmative action programs that sought to promote African Americans, Latinos and perhaps lower-class Asian Americans. A few even scoffed at the black-dominated NBA as giving special advantages to African Americans and shutting out others, including Asian Americans.

In essence, they believed in a meritocracy — opportunity or promotion by performance and skills, not to compensate for past egregious social policies like slavery, exclusion, or Jim Crow practices. They didn’t like how liberal affirmative action policies impacted negatively on their skills- and results-based performance.

Well, Jeremy Lin’s meritocratic performance on the NBA courts over the past five games, I am sure, has warmed the hearts of these Chinese Americans and Asian Americans — and many more who do not share the social, cultural and political views of the anti-affirmative action set. Lin, since February 4, has outplayed stars and superstars like John Wall and Kobe Bryant where it counts the most in sports: on the court or field of play.

Which leads me to the concept of opportunity. Ah, opportunity, a chance to do something. In the first, oh, 100 years of Asian American history — from the Gold Rush till end of World II, roughly — Lin’s racial and ethnic ancestors had almost no opportunity to “do something” outside of their segregated enclaves. In fact, for about 60 years (1882 to 1943), ethnic Chinese seeking to come to America to better themselves were excluded from entering. Talk about a lack of opportunity!

Even after official exclusion policies were repealed, opportunities for the small, but gradually growing Chinese American and Asian American population were slow to develop. They have greatly accelerated over the past 30 to 40 years. Jeremy Lin benefits from this progress, but even then, as pointed out above, he almost wasn’t given any chance to show he could play at the NBA level, until Coach D’Antoni basically turned to his final option: play Lin because he was one of the last warm bodies on the bench.

I realize that five games do not a season make, and games ahead will determine whether Lin can sustain his high level of play. Strictly from a basketball perspective, it will be most interesting when Carmelo Anthony returns to the Knicks’ lineup. Anthony is a me-first type of player; he likes to have the ball and doesn’t mind if his four teammates on the floor aren’t much involved in the offensive schemes devised by Coach D’Antoni and his staff.

William Wong

Lin’s forte thus far as a point guard is the opposite of me-first. Sure, he is scoring a lot of points, but he likes to distribute the ball to teammates so they can score, the ultimate in team play. His teammates are loving it, especially so because the team has won five games in a row.

How will Coach D’Antoni handle Anthony’s return to the lineup? Will he tolerate Anthony’s predilection to hog the ball, or will he continue to put his faith in Lin’s more team-oriented point-guard leadership? These are questions I am sure Knicks’ fan have, and the potential answers should continue to make the Jeremy Lin story a must-follow for basketball fans and Jeremy Lin Fan Club members like me into the foreseeable future.