In the past two weeks, it seems everyone has been talking nonstop about Jeremy Lin — from the media, to die-hard and casual fans, to Asian-Americans who have never watched basketball. It was only a matter of time before President Obama would be asked to comment on the New York Knicks wunderkind.
What is going on, and what explains his surge in popularity? What are we actually talking about when we talk about Lin?
The answers to these questions, as answers tend to be, are both simple and complex. Here are eight things that help to explain Lin’s popularity, and what that popularity says about that grand old issue of race:
Who besides Donald Trump, obsessed with his own topdogness, doesn’t like a good underdog story? Lin convincingly fills the role. The list of institutions that ignored and/or cut Lin, considering the perch on which he now stands, is staggering: Division I basketball programs, the NBA draft, the Golden State Warriors, and the Houston Rockets.Imagine if Michael Jordan had been fueled by such rejection. Would he have won 12 rings? A World Series MVP?
The model model-minority
Some of my male Asian-American students at UC Santa Barbara have been in a blissful tizzy about Lin. I suspect that he is their ideal self — smart enough to graduate from Harvard, yet athletic enough to make it to the NBA.
The stories about Lin’s perseverance fall perfectly into the “model minority myth” placed upon generations of Asian immigrants to America. They come here, silently work hard for the collective good, maintain their families, and do not ask for government handouts. And this ideal is often presented in contrast to myths about African-Americans.
The Knicks are winning
Underdogs are fine and good, but we forget them once they start losing. Lin and the Knicks are winning, and winning in style. Friday night, in a nationally televised game, Lin scored 38 points against the Lakers and Kobe Bryant, who has made it a habit of scoring big at Madison Square Garden. Talk about impeccable timing.
After the victory over the Lakers, Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni praised Lin for scoring big “in the context of team basketball.” Even though Lin has been scoring a lot of points a game, he has been celebrated for putting the team first.
In some ways, point guard may be the most racially fraught position on the basketball court. The style of play is often attributed to race. So where do we place the assumption that Lin is a team-first point guard in the racial triangle of black, white and Asian?
In one regard, Lin can be placed among white international point guards like Steve Nash and Ricky Rubio. These assist-minded players are presented in contrast to the assumption that in the post-Magic era, black point guards have been too concerned with scoring. For every exception like Jason Kidd, Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo, there is Tyreke Evans, Monta Ellis, Russell Westbrook and the much maligned Stephon Marbury.
But ultimately Lin is seen as Asian in a particular mold. If Yao Ming was perceived as too soft to be a true NBA center, reflecting his Asianness, Lin’s “Asian” characteristic of thinking about the collective — the team — makes him a vital part of D’Antoni’s system.
The humble everyman
While we look to Kobe and LeBron James from an awed distance, Lin feels more like us, albeit with a better jumper and a quicker first step off the dribble. Under the magnified lights of the Garden, Lin has been living out the everyday revenge fantasy we all entertain, made even more poignant in our recessionary time. His success speaks to everyone who feels ignored, waiting for a chance to show the skill that we believe lies within us, to prove the naysayers wrong.
And throughout his ascent, Lin has remained humble. He talks about his team. And he is God-loving. He is not as vocal about it as the guy in Denver, but he has not shied away from it either. One of the first comments he made about his sudden success was “God works in mysterious ways.”
Playoffs or bust
The Lin story is only going to get bigger and more interesting. When both Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire are playing together again, the contrasting myth of Asians and blacks is going to play out on and off the court. Who will take the fall if the Knicks do not storm into the playoffs? The white coach, the two black superstars, or the Asian-American point guard?
New York and social media
In another time, this story might have stayed local until Lin had proved himself in a sample size larger than a handful of games. But he is playing for the Knicks, in the heart of global media, and his story and highlights hopped from one smartphone to another from New York to California to China, and seemingly all points in between. And just like that, everyone knew Lin.
It is no coincidence that the three NBA teams that Lin has been on all have large Asian and Asian-American populations in their respective areas. And the Knicks serendipitously played in Toronto on Tuesday night when the Raptors had scheduled Asian Heritage Night. Plenty of fans showed up to honor a visiting player! Lin has become the ideal Asian-American, the model model-minority.
It started in a mildly offensive way with Anthony bowing to Lin after he made a big shot in a game against the Utah Jazz. And then it moved to flame-thrower Jason Whitlock’s crude tweet after the win over the Lakers: “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight.” (He’s subsequently apologized.) And now Floyd Mayweather thinks Lin is getting all the attention because he is Asian.
The subject of race is never absent from American sport. And as an Asian-American, Lin occupies an intricate position between black and white that he has no doubt been navigating for years.
But here is hoping that all this chatter around Lin dies down soon so that we can simply marvel at his game. As we have seen throughout his magical run, particularly in the closing seconds in Toronto, he has plenty of it.