Jeremy Lin’s once-in-a-lifetime explosion into the American consciousness is many, many things. Even nonfans of sport in general and basketball in particular can find in his rise to fame something universal, relatable and inspiring.
Because Lin’s story these last few days has been so pervasive and all-consuming, I have to assume that you already know how he came from nearly being demoted to the NBA’s Development League and sleeping on his brother’s sofa to humbly yet assertively leading the temporarily superstar-impaired New York Knicks to six consecutive wins as of Tuesday, scoring 20 or more points per game (including 38 against our hometown Lakers and a game-winning three-pointer Tuesday night), from the inside and the outside, electrifying professional basketball — and, especially, this group we call Asian Americans.
It’s been called “Linsanity” — but from my perspective, it’s more like “Lindication.” And it couldn’t have happened in a more dramatic fashion.
With the Knicks shorthanded by injury and family emergency, the prayers of the devoutly Christian Jeremy Lin were answered when he was plucked from the end of the bench to be a starter. It might have happened in Oklahoma, Portland or Cleveland — but it didn’t. It happened on a much bigger stage, in New York’s Madison Square Garden (no MSG jokes, please), in the bright lights of the big city. And the kid not only stepped up, he wowed the doubters in the biggest way possible, by scoring and winning and leading.
Only in NBA basketball can someone who at 6-feet 3-inches is above the national average in height, is a graduate of a top-ranked university, is devout, isn’t covered with tattoos or punctured with body piercings and isn’t high on drugs be considered an underdog.
But Jeremy Lin was, it seemed, not just an underdog. He was an under-underdog. Since joining the NBA two seasons ago, the undrafted Lin has been on the roster of three teams, getting passed along like last year’s fruitcake. No one in the pro ranks seemed to think there was anything special about him. No one. Because if anyone did, someone would have kept him. Even the Knicks didn’t think too highly of Lin until circumstances gave them no choice.
Why was that? To me, Lin simply didn’t fit a preconceived notion that college or pro basketball’s “conventional wisdom” seems to need to justify someone taking a chance on him. He was neither a rural White kid, some “hick from French Lick” or a “Zeke from Cabin Creek” who spent hours shooting a hand-me-down basketball at a peach basket nailed to the side of a barn, nor was he some urban Black kid raised by a single mother of 11 whose only way up and out of the ghetto was through a basketball hoop.
To the NBA and mainstream America, Jeremy Lin simply was invisible. He didn’t fit a category or mold. Jeremy Lin isn’t White or Black. He’s Asian American, Taiwanese American to be specific. To the decision-makers, the people in power, there’s no scaffolding to build upon, no precedent. Drafting a 7-foot-6-inch baller from China is a no-brainer. But an Asian American baller from Harvard? Harvard?! No way.
Once again, the Asian in America was about to celebrate Passover. But once again, an Asian American had to rewrite the script. Jeremy Lin may be a new story to most, but he’s actually the latest variation on a story that has played out over the many decades Asians have been in America.
Take Bruce Lee. The San Francisco-born actor and martial artist was a talented, inspirational and gifted person whose trip to stardom via Hollywood hit a brick wall after some minor TV successes. No one in this country was going let a Chinese male star in a movie, much less star in a TV show. That was the conventional wisdom. Hollywood let Lee play a manservant-cum-masked sidekick (“The Green Hornet”) and allow him to create a concept for what would become a popular TV show (“Kung Fu”) — but nothing more. Despite (or maybe because of) the setbacks, he became the world’s greatest action movie hero and he’s still revered today.
Take the Japanese Americans who fought for their country in WWII. They initially were rejected when they tried to enlist in the military. They were classified as enemy aliens. Those who were already active duty had their weapons taken. Many hailed from camps where their families and friends remained incarcerated. Despite (or maybe because of) the setbacks, those who served in the 442nd RCT became the most decorated military unit for size and length of service in U.S. history. They are still revered today, at least to the people who have heard of them.
Those are just two obvious examples of a boxcar filled with similar Asian American success stories. Add Jeremy Lin to that boxcar.
In recent years, we’ve had an influx of sports talent from Asia, starting with Hideo Nomo through Hideki Matsui through Ichiro Suzuki (and many others) in baseball. Then Yao Ming in basketball and Manny Pacquaio in boxing. These guys are or were great on the field, on the court and in the ring — but at the end of the day, they were not Americans. They were foreigners. And to most Americans, that’s still what they see when they see a fellow American of Asian ancestry. Jeremy Lin, however, despite his Asian physical features, is an American, playing an American game. Evidently there are places in America where they still haven’t gotten the Asian American memo.
It’s why I’ve contended that had Ichiro been born in, say, Arizona, with the same genetics for speed, motor skills, manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination, coupled with the same father who pushed him to excel in baseball, by the time he reached high school and college, some clueless wonder in a position of authority would have handed him a stack of towels or a clipboard so he could be the towel boy or statistician. Ichiro-mania would have been, no pun intended, nipped in the bud.
Now, with Jeremy Lin, this all has changed. Jeremy Lin has broken through. Jeremy Lin has transcended.
For Asian Americans and Asians alike, Jeremy Lin has, in the parlance of street basketball, driven the lane and dunked over opponents or shot a three while tightly guarded and said to the world, “FACE!”
So, while I doubt he’d approve of it, Jeremy Lin makes for a very convenient way for anyone from any walk of life who feels they have been unjustly slighted to give back as good as they’ve gotten.
To the NBA? “FACE!” To stupid White folks? “FACE!” To ignorant Black folks? “FACE!” To racist Hollywood? “FACE!” To hidebound immigrant Asian parents who turn their kids into wimpy, nerdy social outcasts? “FACE!” To White women who won’t date Asian men? “FACE!” To Asian women who won’t date Asian men? “FACE!” To the employer that didn’t hire you? “FACE!” To the school that didn’t accept you? “FACE!” To the jerky comedian who jokes about eating raw fish or dog? “FACE!” On and on.
Vindication? Nope. Lindication.
While Jeremy Lin’s trajectory won’t and can’t last, his accomplishment, no matter how short-lived, will. He’s created more hope and change in a handful of basketball games than President Obama in three years. Maybe it will translate to better chances for a Japanese American kid playing basketball at the local level to get a second look at by a college hoops program. Maybe Hollywood will finally stop whitewashing when casting a movie that should star an Asian American or an Asian. (Then again, knowing how Hollywood works, they’ll try to make a Jeremy Lin movie – and cast Shia Le Beouf to play him.)
Jeremy Lin is still the same guy he was a month ago. He didn’t change. What changed was this nation’s collective perspective. It was changed thanks to some good, solid fundamental basketball, courtesy of Jeremy Lin. Lovely. So, for now, let’s enjoy it. It’s a great story. Thank you, Jeremy.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2012 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)