Linsanity. Need I say more to set this post up than that? If you don’t know what it is, take a moment to peruse one of any number of major news sites to catch up. But I wanted to point out something about this whole phenomenon that I think has been overlooked this past week.
Jeremy Lin is not the first high performing Asian American athlete in history. Michael Chang was one of the best tennis players of the 1990’s, and even won a French Open. There are many excellent Asian American golfers, including Anthony Kim and Michelle Wie, who are near the top of their game. Think about all the great Japanese baseball players, like Norihiro Nakamura, hahaha. So even though his racial background (or continental background, as the word “Asian” implies) is obviously a large part of this story, it’s not the main one. Asians can be an athletic bunch.
Neither is Jeremy Lin the only Christian athlete in sports, not by a looong shot. There’s Tim What’s-His-Name. Just kidding. There’s Michael Chang, whom I mentioned before. There’s Derek Fisher, the L.A. Laker that Jeremy burned so many times a few days ago. There are many incredible people of faith in every professional sport, playing at the very highest levels of their game. And so even though Jeremy Lin’s faith is a big part of the story, it’s not the main part of the story.
Part of this phenomenon has to do with the fact that he was unheralded, that he essentially came out of nowhere, that no one knew that he was going to be this good. There’s some debate about this, as even Kobe Bryant admitted that Lin must have had those skills all along, it’s just that everyone missed it. But there are many such stories in professional sports, and Jeremy Lin is hardly the only one to come from out of nowhere to do extremely well in his sport. Isn’t that what the movie “Major League” is all about?
I’m not going to talk about him being from Harvard. That is nothing but a liability, and I would have much preferred that he attended another school in Connecticut instead.
So perhaps it is is the fusion of all of these elements together that makes Jeremy Lin’s story such a compelling one – the fact that he is Asian American, Christian, unheralded, and from that terribly pretentious school in Cambridge. Now that’s something to think about, and I think is a more persuasive argument on the whole. It is his entire story that is so remarkable, rather than any one individual component of that story. But I still think that there is one component of this phenomenon that stands out, and that is the specific sport: basketball. Jeremy Lin is the first Asian American to play professional basketball at such a high level.
Why is that such a big deal? I can only explain from my own personal perspective and story.
Growing up, I remember being surrounded with examples of Asian excellence at all times. Asian people would woop me in musical competitions. Then they would spank me in tennis tournaments. They would embarrass me in math club as well, not assuming that the simplest answer was the correct one, as I always did. And so it was not as if I could not have imagined an Asian American doing something well. I knew that it was only a matter of time before those young people grew up and distinguished themselves.
Except in one field: basketball. There was just this tacit understanding that despite the excellence that Asians exhibited in every single other field, from ping pong to tennis to math, they would never be good at basketball. Basketball was urban, and Asian American by and large were suburban. Basketball is dominated by the tall, and Asian Americans are dominated by the short. (Don’t get mad at me because I said that. Jeremy Lin is a tall guy by Asian standards, admit it.) Basketball was a cool American sport, and Asians only excelled in other sports that weren’t as popular, like short track speed skating and archery, stuff like that. So at least to my mind, basketball represented this unique sphere of American life that was untouchable by Asian Americans. It seemed to represent everything that Asian Americans males were not – urban, tall, cool.
But when Jeremy Lin got drafted, there was this universal shiver sent through the young Asian male population of the United States – “A Chinese guy from Harvard got drafted into the NBA?” Maybe this was it. Perhaps finally, we were going to see our promised land. But then he got cut, and our hopes were dashed. But then he got picked up by the Rockets, forever a friend to pro-Asian basketball fans. But no, he got cut again. But then this week, not only does he play, but he plays at a remarkable level – he is not just a good player, but…dare I say it…”a baller“.
*sniff sniff* Give me a moment to compose myself.
Of course, I write much of this tongue in cheek. But part of me is actually very serious. Many Asian American males, including myself, labored with a heavy inferiority complex while growing up. We knew in ourselves that we could be good at many things, and anything. But there was an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) assumption that we could only be good at the things that looked good on a college application, not the things that actually were considered cool. And I think a great many of us bought into that. Even though there was no reason that this had to be true, we assumed that it was, that we and our children would forever be the race of people who were known for speed track skating and ping pong, that it was somehow encoded into our DNA.
But when Jeremy Lin broke into basketball, we realized what a pile of absolute crap that assumption was. There was no Asian curse! We could be just as good at basketball as we were at math! And by extension, we can be bad at math as well! I can be bad at math…I CAN BE BAD AT MATH!!! It was as if we realized, Hey…I’m normal! I’m not some strange and one-dimensional person who is destined to do certain things well, and other things badly, like some archetype in a role playing game – “You are the Asian, excellent at math and science, but cannot wield basketballs without penalty. Complements well with tank characters like the heavy-set comic book reader.”
And to be honest, I am deeply thankful to Jeremy Lin because hopefully my children, and especially my son, will not labor under such an oppressive and false stereotype. He might be good at basketball, he might not. He might be good at math, he might not. In other words…he’ll be a normal kid.
Not to say that I wouldn’t mind having a son who plays in the NBA.