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.

15 responses to “Jeremy Lin, Why I Believe Asian Americans Love Him, and the Recipe for Linsanity

  1. Drew: not surprisingly a very well analyzed and written piece. And I’m not even a basketball fan. 🙂

  2. It’s so surreal to me, especially since I don’t have a TV anymore, and I’ve only “heard” of this great phenom! HA! As happy as I am that he is being embraced by the media and crowd, part of me is also scared they can turn on him. BUT i’ll enjoy his wave while it’s still going 🙂 GO Knicks!

    • mari! i think it’s hard to turn on him right now because everything is still a surprise – no one knows what to expect (so even if he fails, people will say, well, we knew this couldn’t last). BUT, people love what he’s done for the atmosphere of the garden and the team – there’s a wave of positive euphoria and it’s a great feeling.

  3. thanks for putting Lin into proper basketball context. I honestly didn’t understand the hype til now. btw, did you mean to leave out baseball in the list of big 3 american sports?

  4. Hey Drew,
    Funny I was reading this article and thinking I talked to a Drew Hyun one time. and sure enough it is the very same Drew Hyun. This is Didi, friend of Tim Chung. We chatted on the phone one time as I was figuring where God was leading me. Awesome article. Lin is lighting up right now against the Lakers! Even more awesome to see you are planting a church in Astoria. May the Lord bless your work there.

  5. Drew, thanks for this great post. I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of why Asian Americans (myself included) are having an emotional gut reaction to watching him play — it’s not just about defying odds and overcoming stereotypes; it’s about smashing them to bits, and watching MSG *light up* in the process.

    After tonight’s Laker game, I’ve gotten goosebumps from reading tweets from long-time Knicks fans who are saying this is the most electric feel they’ve had at the Garden in years. To quote Angry Asian Man, “Did you ever think you’d see 20,000 people rise to their feet just because an Asian kid got his hands on a basketball?”

    On top of that, his humility and genuine love for the game (I mean, for real, just reading the quotes about how much his teammates love him and how happy they are for him almost brings a tear to my eye), only pushes me further into the #Linsanity 🙂

    • so true. the city is electric right now due to his performances. let’s catch a game together if you’re ever in town!

      • Oh man, I would love that. Unfortunately, I’m on the wrong coast and probably won’t be back east any time soon. For sure, though, I would be all-Lin for catching a Knicks game with you!

        I might have to re-subscribe to cable, though, just to catch his games 🙂

  6. Excellent article! Fantastic player! My favorite athlete!

  7. Pingback: Jeremy Lin, God’s Sovereignty, Human Will, and an Improbable Story | while waiting

  8. Nice job Drew. Jeremy Lin is awesome however David Park is the only Harvard basketball player I know that has children named after him – now that is awesome.

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