Even if you don’t follow sports, the phenomenon known as Linsanity has been unavoidable across both mainstream and social media. Linception, #Linning, Super Lintendo, it’s been everywhere. The man this all centers around is Jeremy Lin,a second-year, 6'3" point guard for the New York Knicks, who has just started his 6th NBA game and taken the league by. He's gone on a scoring rampage, breaking a record previously held by Shaquille O'Neal for most points scored in a players' first six starts. The hyper attentive New York media has amped the attention devoted to Lin, but his ethnicity has truly propelled him into the spotlight as the first Asian American of Taiwanese or Chinese descent to play in the NBA, a league largely devoid of Asian Americans. Lin, who was sleeping on his brother's couch in Manhattan just a few weeks ago, now has a brand valued at $14 million according to Yahoo Sports, and his jersey has been flying off the shelf is the top seller in the NBA.
Lin, raised in Palo Alto, California, led his high school to the state championship but went unrecruited by any of the top collegiate basketball programs including his dream school and my alma mater, UCLA. Only Harvard and Brown would offer him a spot on the roster but as a matter of policy did not offer athletic scholarships. After gaining some notoriety his senior year by scoring 30 points and grabbing 9 rebounds against the 12th Ranked Connecticut Huskies, a traditional basketball powerhouse, he went undrafted in the in the 2010 NBA Draft. After having notable success in the NBA summer league, the Golden State Warriors (both mine and Lin’s hometeam) signed him to a contract.
Linsanity has been a strange experience for me. Caught in its grips I’ve read every article I could on Lin for the past 3 years, long before ESPN followed his every dribble. Even in college, Lin’s success was a huge deal for me personally. Lin being an Asian American, only 14 months younger than me, from my part of the Bay (we have the same area code), who then went on to join my favorite team, felt like I was in ways living a dream vicariously through him. I didn’t expect him to take the league by storm but thought he would fit in the team well and be a real contributor. I bought a Lin shirt almost immediately and have rocked it consistently since then
Lin’s time on the Golden State Warriors, was unspectacular. He looked lost and was afraid to take his shots. The Knicks player now splitting double teams and finishing with contact was blowing easy layups and open jumper shots. His defense was good, which on a Warriors backcourt with notoriously terrible defenders, meant he wasn't a total wash, but there were probably other young guards who could defend adequately and not brick easy shots. But for a fanbase that counts the most Asian Americans of any team, the expectations placed on him were enormous. Every time Lin stepped on the floor the applause came on like thunder, notably eclipsing the team’s best players, Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis. The weight of a community, so starved of seeing one of their own in the media, much less the NBA, visibly hung on him every time he checked in. Warriors fans, hoped that he would be part of the answer to lead our team from the NBA desert and back in to the playoffs where we’d only been once in the last 18 years
For many Asian Americans, basketball is their favorite sport. Part of this—especially in the West Coast—can be attributed the popularity of Japanese/Asian Leagues, which trace their roots to the 1930’s as all Japanese American leagues with some evolving in to Pan-Asian American leagues. Basketball, which was initially popular for its low equipment costs has given way to a culture spanning generations. In just the Peninsula section of the Bay Area (where Lin and I are from) one can count at least 15 youth teams. Many mocked Warriors Fan’s enthusiasm when Lin would check in during garbage time, the last few minutes of a blowout game where the result has essentially been decided. All those cheers appeared to, and justifiably, freaked Lin out and made an intimidating situation—being an NBA rookie stepping in to the greatest league in the world—an even more difficult one. That said, I was one of those people cheering raucously for him because seeing a guy that looks like me (sort of) in the NBA is a sort of validation to us that many don’t understand.
In American culture, Asian men are effeminate, nerdy, or invisible. On the movie screen, even when they're the lead (Romeo Must Die, the Replacement Killers) Asian men still don't get the girl. Even when we create a car culture, the main character of the Fast and the Furious is played by white Paul Walker, even after an Asian American Director took helm of the series' in its 3rd installment set in none other than Tokyo. More often than not they're a sidekick, like Kato. The last Asian American man who was defied those stereotypes in the mainstream media was Bruce Lee, Who died long before many in my generation were born. He passed away 14 years before I was alive, yet I still grew up with posters of him, read his books, and dedicated a decade of my life to martial arts. It's hard for Asian men to find masculine representations of them in our culture and professional sports are the most masculine thing around.
Yao Ming was a big deal both for Asian Americans and the NBA. He was the first prominent Asian Player, who dominated at center before injuries derailed his career. But he wasn't Asian American and his 7"5 stature made it hard for myself and other Asian Americans to relate to. And even then, too often people think he was only successful because he was big, when real NBA junkies know Yao's touch, mid range jumper, fluidity, and free throw shooting, are what made him one of the most legitimately skilled centers of all time.
Lin is different; he plays like a regular NBA baller. He’s not just a guy with good fundamentals (in fact his shot is iffy and he can’t drive left) but takes it to the hoop with wild abandon, puts flourishing spin moves on opponents and hits 3's in the face of Lakers’ player Pau Gasol and Raptor’s player Jose Calderon (who I, and many other Asian Americans will never forgive for posing with the Spanish National Team making the dreaded “Chinese Eyes” gesture that ever Asian American has seen at least once on the face of a bully). He doesn't play scared, in fact he plays with such and infectious joy and outright swagger that I had to bring back NBA persona non grata Gilbert Arenas’ famous quote for the title. When he's on TV (at 6"3 he's a lot taller than a lot of Asian American men) looks about our size when we go play pickup at a park. He makes Asian Americans feel like they can be real men in America. Comments on various sports blogs have found this point to be hyperbole, and I know a lot of people can’t understand it, but this is really the core of Linsanity for my community.
The media likes to talk about his underdog story but let’s not forget Lin is from one of the wealthiest cities in America, (according to Coldwell’s Home Listing Report Palo Alto has the 2nd most expensive housing prices in the country), went to one of the nation’s best high schools and graduated from Harvard. You know, the school that eight United States Presidents attended. In the general race of life Lin is anything but an underdog. Still in the world of basketball, and professional sports in general, Asian Americans are completely unrepresented. Countless writer say "how could no one have seen this before in him?" when the answer is just so painfully obvious, it's because he was Asian so you weren't looking. It's the same reason he didn't get a scholarship to UCLA, Lin's dream school. Everyone knows why they're so surprised that Lin is good but they can't publically say it because it makes them sound racist. Doesn't mean they weren't racist though.
Asian Americans barely exist in American pop culture, there’s a few of us out there (Gray’s Anatomy, Hawaii Five-0, Glee) but by and large it’s like we’re not real. A friend of mine complained that they kept showing all the Asians in the crowd every time they talked about Jeremy Lin, but when was the last time you saw regular Asian Americans on TV? It’s almost like proof we’re real. And more than that, we can be men.