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Jeremy Lin, Why I Believe Asian Americans Love Him, and the Recipe for Linsanity

If you haven’t heard by now, there’s a fellow by the name of Jeremy Lin who has taken NYC by storm as a point guard for the NY Knicks.  Nation-wide, Lin has also captured the affections of many Asian-Americans, as well as others who are enamored by his underdog story.

Jeremy Lin is the starting point guard for the New York Knicks and is averaging 25.3 points and 8.3 assists in the last three games (all wins).

I wrote about Lin a year and a half ago and shared why he’s my favorite player, and it’s hard to believe all that’s happened in the past three games.  It seems like just yesterday when Tom Kim and I were discussing what it would take for D’Antoni to play the kid.

After scouring the internet for just about every article about Lin in the past couple of days, and reading these three insightful pieces on Lin and the Asian American community, I thought I’d chime in about my own thoughts on Lin and the peculiarity of his story that I believe touches so many Asian Americans and the broader public (it’s not simply because he’s Asian American).

I’d argue that Lin’s story is so engrossing because of a variety of factors, all of which lead to the buzz he’s generating.  If any of the factors below did not exist, I don’t think there would be as much excitement over Lin in the Asian-American community, nor in the broader American audience.

So without further ado, here’s the sentence that I believe encapsulates all the contributing factors to Linsanity (and particularly how it relates to Asian Americans).  I will dissect this sentence below to extrapolate on Lin’s significance.

Jeremy Lin is the starting point guard for the New York Knicks and is averaging 25.3 points and 8.3 assists in the last three games (all wins).

1) Jeremy Lin Jeremy’s an Asian American, and we just haven’t seen many professional Asian-American athletes in the big three U.S. sports of football, basketball, and baseball.  We’ve seen people of mixed race (a la Hines Ward or Patrick Chung) do quite well, but no one like Lin who was born to immigrant parents in the United States like so many others in this country.

Of all three major sports, basketball in particular places a higher premium on raw athletic talent, and I think it’s fair to say that one big reason that Asian-Americans haven’t played in the NBA is because in general, we don’t have the raw athleticism and size as other races.

As a result, athletics, and basketball in particular, is an area in which Asian Americans (and likely any other non-African American race) have felt stereotyped against.  I know this has been true in my own experience.

My brother-in-law David Park (former Harvard player himself) puts it this way:

The stereotyping or snaps to summary judgments occur for all non-African American players. The prototypical ultra-athletic guard is almost exclusively African-American (or from African descent). The game is designed to favor this kind of athleticism with bigger courts, rules against team defense, and even the hand-checking rules. If you’re a team that has to play the odds, you go with the athletes that have potential and try to develop their game. It’s so much upside driven.

Jeremy has a chance to carve out a solid role-playing guard spot that could even be a starting role with significant minutes for the right team. His decision making will keep getting better, and he hasn’t peaked in his strength or athleticism. Teams with players like Melo and Chandler and Stoudemire (not guard-driven) should love to play with a guy like Lin, who will defend, get them the ball in good spots (esp in transition), and hit open jumpers at a decent rate (which he should improve as well over time).

I’m sure Marshall could tell tons of stories, but I always felt discriminated against when I was playing hoops, often by my own teammates. I chose to take it as people being people, and not take it personally. It’s just human nature to stereotype and Asians are absolutely some of the guiltiest in this regard. Jeremy is a pioneer and will have to fight tougher battles than the guys to follow, but there will be guys that follow, esp. from Asia., at some point. For Asian Americans honestly I think it will be harder because the risk/reward is so incredibly high for pursuing professional sports with the kind of commitment you need to be successful.

Jeremy is an outlier in the Asian American community because he has a unique combination of God-given athleticism and talent that eludes most Asian Americans, but he also has the drive to maximize those talents.  The drive alone is inspirational, especially if there are kids after him who also happen to have the size and talent (hopefully our own son David will).  Haha…

Personally, I appreciate that he’s a Christian as well (and Lin mentions his Christian identity as first and foremost in his life), and for folks who are both Christian and Asian-American (a significant group at many college campuses), these are both ways we can relate to Lin.  You can see my previous post from 2010 for more about this.

For the broader public, I think they can appreciate the underdog story of Lin, not being offered a Division 1 scholarship, being undrafted, being cut twice earlier this year.  At every level of basketball he has proven that he belongs – the same is now true for the NBA – he just never really had a chance at significant minutes in the NBA, and it took a coach with his back against the wall to finally give him some minutes.

And as has been customary in Jeremy’s career, he’s proving that he belongs in a league that has never seen anyone like him.

2) …starting point guard… this story would be different if Lin was a big man like Yao, or if he was anything but a point guard.  Let me explain.

In general, the point guard is the quarterback of a basketball team (unless you run the triangle or you have a capable playmaker like Lebron or Allen Iverson).  In other words, the point guard often leads the team, almost as an extension of the coach himself.

In D’Antoni’s offense in particular, the point guard is crucial for its success, a point which many Knick fans have bemoaned seeing the point guard play this year.

As a point guard in D’Antonti’s sytem, one needs to be the alpha dog.  The point guard makes the engine go, and if the right person isn’t in that spot, everything else suffers (again, see the Knicks before February for proof of this).

Jeremy has not simply been a back-up warming the seat for the next guy.  He’s been the guy.

And Jeremy’s not some specialist like Steve Novak who gets 19 points/game but gets little love, or a big man who depends on someone else to feed him the ball.  For Novak and guys like Jared Jeffries, their production comes from someone else’s playmaking.

Jeremy has been the lead guard for the Knicks these past three games.  And he’s taken the reins and been fearless in his role.

There are many Asian American stereotypes of Asian men being paper tigers, as well as the broader feelings of Asian Americans as having a bamboo ceiling, as if Asian Americans are only helpful in support roles but not in lead roles.  As an Asian American, I can attest to this perception, whether real or not, being felt in various places I’ve been.

But here’s Jeremy Lin playing a lead role on his team, and his style of play actually breaks the norms of what Asian-Americans are expected to be/do.

Jeremy’s not just spotting up for open jumpers or playing some side role.  He’s forcing and initiating the action, and as much as people want to talk about the intelligence of his game, he’s actually got a bit of “bad-ass” to his game that basically says I’m going to take it to the cup every time I can.

In other words, it’s not just the fact that Jeremy is having success that gets the Asian American community excited, it’s the way he plays the game.  He’s fearless as a player and leader, and quite frankly, a “bad-ass” in the way he plays.

This is not to say that alpha-dog mentalities are the only ways that Asian-Americans can/should act or behave – it’s just to say that there are few examples that buck the stereotype of passive, support-type, personalities amongst Asian-Americans.

With Jeremy Lin, the stereotypes of paper tigers and bamboo ceilings get challenged with each fearless foray to the hoop.

Sidenote: Shout out to my boy Marshall Cho, coach another bad-ass guard who along with my bro-in-law David are two of the best Asian-American ballers I know.  I loved playing with Marshall because his game was a lot like Lin’s!

3) …for the New York Knicks I may be wrong on this one, but this story is even more buzzworthy because it’s happening in New York, the largest city in the United States and possibly the most influential city in the world.  Jeremy is playing at Madison Square Garden, which is often referred to as basketball mecca.

I texted someone that if Jeremy wins the crowd, he’ll win the battle against every odd against him (a la the movie the Gladiator), and boy, did he win the crowd.

There’s nothing as electric as having the Garden behind you, and now that the New York media is on top of this thing, it’s created a phenomenon.

Could this have happened if he played in Houston?  Golden State?  I don’t know.  I don’t think it’d be quite as significant.

In the words of Frank Sinatra, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”

Jeremy is proving on the biggest basketball stage that he can be a lead guard amongst the best basketball players in the world.

4) …averaging 25.3 points and 8.3 assists in the last three games (all wins)… These are ridiculous numbers.  These are Lebron-esque, Derrick Rose-esque numbers.  Look at where Lin ranks on the Player Efficiency Rating – 2nd in the entire NBA, above guys like Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, and Dwyane Wade!

Now, you might call this a fluke, but Lin was actually leading the Knicks in PER before he was getting significant minutes.  Sure, it may have been garbage time, but somehow, he elevates the team when he’s in the game, and now he’s done it in starter minutes.

Some people are saying, “well, Knicks fans were up on Iman Shumpert earlier this year, or Toney Douglas last year”, and while that’s true, none of these guys put up these numbers.

The only other players who put up these kind of numbers are named Lebron, Rose and Paul.

I’m not saying that Lin can sustain these numbers, but the numbers show that statistics are backing the hype, at least right now.

If Lin had put up these numbers and lost, there wouldn’t be as much hype.

If Lin had put up half these numbers and won, there wouldn’t be as much hype.

But Lin has played exceedingly well as the lead contributor to the team’s winning and renaissance.

Everyone is expecting something to drop off – either the wins and/or the numbers – but they haven’t.

It’s preposterous to posture that the Knicks will win every game and that Lin will continue to play this well statistically (especially with Stat and Melo coming back) but the numbers and the wins support the hype right now.

And that’s why this city is going bonkers with Linsanity.

And as a Christian Asian-American sports enthusiast, I’m going bonkers too.

Reasons Why I’m a Huge Jeremy Lin Fan

Jeremy Lin is my favorite basketball player.

There are so many things to like about this guy, and I’ll outline why I’m such a big fan in this post.

Jeremy Lin's game is like a slasher/playmaker.

Either way, it’s been fun following his career up until now, and I’ve been thrilled to pieces over his signing with the Golden State Warriors.  Granted, he still has to perform well, but even making it this far is quite an accomplishment.  I have little doubt that he’ll do everything he can to take his game to another level.

I remember first hearing about him after Harvard beat BC, who had just beaten the #1 ranked UNC Tarheels.  After that, I googled him and found out that Lin was the California State Player of the Year and State Champion in Division II basketball in California.  I won’t go into why this is such an impressive accomplishment as a high school player, but this is a very BIG deal considering the talent that comes out of California from the prep ranks.

Shortly after the BC game, I remember having a conversation with David Park, my brother in law and former Harvard player himself, about the case for Jeremy playing in the NBA.  Fun times.

After that, I tried to catch as many games as I could, and thanks to this guy – poor man’s commish – I was able to follow Jeremy’s path to the NBA quite closely.  Poor Man’s Commish did an amazing job of making the case for Jeremy as an NBA player, and I’m so grateful for all of his efforts.

I watched as many games as I could (Harvard games are hard to find), saw him play live at Columbia (and even met his mom), watched the entire NBA draft just to see if Jeremy would get drafted, then watched every single one of Jeremy’s summer league games on TV.

I’m so proud of the guy.

Anyhow, here’s why I like the guy so much (besides the obvious fact that he’s Asian American).

1)  He’s a committed Christian – Check out this interview and this one.  Jeremy wants to be a pastor in an urban community one day.  Now, this alone is something that gets me excited, but I think there’s something about his game, his effort, and his accomplishments that seem to reflect so much of what we believe as Christians.  I’ll expound on this later.

2)  He’s been an underdog most of the time – To some degree, it’s hard to argue that a Harvard grad has been an underdog, but when you consider Harvard basketball vs the rest of the NCAA, it’s a true underdog story (even if he went to Princeton, more folks may have seen him as a more legit prospect).

Consider:

Jeremy has constantly proved detractors wrong.

- Jeremy was not offered a Division 1 scholarship out of high school, even though he was the State Player of the Year.  That’s crazy.  I don’t think that’s ever happened before (I’ll leave the research to poor man’s commish).  Some suggest it’s because he’s Asian-American… it’d be hard to argue otherwise, considering he played in arguably the best state when it comes to prep basketball.  Btw, his team (Palo Alto) beat Mater Dei, a perennial powerhouse in Southern California.

- Jeremy played for Harvard, and he helped turn them into a winner. Again, Harvard has never been known for its basketball program, and yet they were on the cusp of the NCAA tournament this year.  He played well against bigger named schools (he even dropped 30 points on UCONN and Jim Calhoun said he could play with anybody), but…

- Jeremy went undrafted – Even though Jeremy put up some record breaking numbers at Harvard and led them to winning seasons, he went undrafted because people didn’t think he could play at the NBA level.  Most folks counted him out because of his perceived lack of athleticism.

- Even on the summer league team, Jeremy had to claw for minutes - The Mavs had two former first round picks playing ahead of him at guard (Beaubois and Jones), and while they’re great players, Jeremy still had to show his game in limited minutes.  Beaubois battled some injuries, which allowed Jeremy to get more minutes than normal against John Wall.

I love that Jeremy has persevered so much, even despite all the setbacks and disappointments.  I haven’t even mentioned the racial slurs and all the stereotypical stuff.

And yet, Jeremy hasn’t backed down, even against the #1 pick in the draft.  Just watch these highlights and watch Jeremy’s fearlessness.  The kid doesn’t back down from anyone.

Now, it’s a bit ridiculous to say that Lin is better than Wall or that he’s even with Wall in terms of production.  But, I think it’s fair to say that Jeremy is just as strong a competitor as Wall.

I think this says something about Jeremy’s faith, a fighting spirit that is confident yet humble, working hard to beat the odds.

3)  Jeremy’s type of game beats so many stereotypes - First, one would expect a guy from Harvard to have a specialist game of some sort, a la Chris Dudley, rebounding machine from Yale.

Moreover, one would expect an Asian American to be a dead-eye shooter of some sort, making up for a lack of athleticism or size.

But Jeremy’s a slasher/playmaker. He plays great D, has an unorthodox shot, and is fearless going to the rim.

And he plays so hard – his motor is constantly going.

I love it.   

4)  He loves basketball and has excelled in it – This point relates more to what I think about him being a Christian athlete.  Too many times Christians believe that to excel at anything outside of Bible Study, prayer, etc is to be a less devoted follower.  And yet, here’s someone who identifies first with Christ, and still has the guts to work hard and excel in a game he loves.

Christians often pit the two as mutually exclusive – excellence in faith and excellence in work.  But Jeremy is a model that it’s okay, and even ideal, to be excellent at both, and that by doing so, excellent work is a spiritual enterprise.

5) He went to Harvard – This story would be different if Jeremy went to UNC or UCLA.  That’s the typical route to the NBA, and it would allow people to validate his athletic prowess alone.

But for Asian Americans, Jeremy would be a weird anomaly, someone who was a freak athlete and that’s it.

In a weird way, Jeremy going to Harvard allows more Asian Americans to relate to him because he didn’t go on a basketball scholarship – he just went to the best school where he was accepted as a student and where he thought he could play ball.

Now, it’s crazy that Jeremy went to Harvard of all places, the second best school in the country (to Berkeley), but the fact that Jeremy enrolled in a school and went about pursuing a dream (instead of having it handed to him) is really remarkable.

I think Jeremy’s typical as an AA who goes to college but really would prefer to do something else with his life rather than econ, law, or medicine.

Most AAs know other AAs similar to what I described – going to the best college I can, but secretly wanting to do something else with my life.

The difference with Jeremy is that he’s doing that “something else” now.

And so we all celebrate as if Jeremy was one of us.

Because he is…

… but with the faith, courage, and determination to pursue “something else”.

**being 6’4″ 200 lbs certainly helps too!