Feb 16, 2012

Why I'm Going "All-Lin"

I was at Confines last Saturday when the highlights from the Knicks-Wolves game in Minneapolis came up on one of the 20 TV sets inside the building. The final segment in the montage was that of Jeremy Lin swishing the game-winning free throw in the dying seconds, and then being mobbed by his teammates afterwards. The "Linsanity" movement was five games and ten days old at the time, and he was gaining more and more followers by the day.

This has been an incredible story, even from a purely athletic standpoint: an obscure nobody from Harvard (by the way of Palo Alto, CA), who was underestimated and under-appreciated from his high school days, who had already been cut by two NBA teams that year, and was on the verge of being cut from the third, suddenly transforming into the unlikeliest of basketball heroes on the biggest stage in America.

I turned to my friends at the bar during the commercial break and made the point, with zero sense of hyperbole or irrationality, that what Lin is doing right now has never been done before by any Asian athlete, regardless of their country of origin. No Asian sportsman (or woman) has ever captivated an American sports audience quite like he has. There's simply no precedent for a phenomenon like this in the sporting arena.

That might sound like an exaggeration given the successful careers that the likes of Ichiro and Yao Ming had in their sports, but did any of them ever capture the imagination of an entire country -- America, in this instance -- in which they played? I personally felt pride in watching them outperform their competition at the heights of their abilities. In saying that, however, their careers did not have the transcendent feel, both athletically and socially, that has shrouded the Linsanity phenomenon.

Is that an unfair comparison for Ichi and Yao? Sure, but here's the key thing: the entire Asian-American community seems to be gravitating and embracing Lin in the way they never did for those two star players. To get straight to the point: they were foreign-born heroes in a community that was crying out for a homegrown one. In Jeremy Lin, we have a household, mainstream name that Asian-Americans -- regardless of what generation they may be -- can claim as "one of us."

Anyone who has followed his career from his Harvard days knows that he would be the first to downplay the racial aspect of his meteoric rise. But in a society where the Asian-American population is severely underrepresented, he has emerged as an inspirational, talismanic figure. Apolo Ohno, great as he may have been at his field, never had anywhere remotely close to the kind of pull that Lin has.

Personally speaking, I make no bones whatsoever about the fact that a large part of my fascination and admiration for Lin stems from his Chinese/Taiwanese origins. I wasn't born in the States, but I have been raised here long enough to know how the social structure works in America. I've been exposed to Pearl Harbor taunts, The Joy Luck Club, Long Duk Gook, Ken Jeong, and most recently, utterly embarrassing campaign ads. Positive portrayals of Asians are still a rarity in this country, so it has been refreshing so see our man from Palo Alto work his magic for everybody to see.

Perhaps the greatest thing about watching Lin do his thing is that he's shattering society's preconceptions about Asian people, while making us re-evaluate our own expectations for ourselves. Think of all the unflattering stereotypes that have been associated with us for years -- and then watch as Lin take a sledgehammer to each and every one of them on live television. There's a reason we can't get enough of his fearlessness and swagger on the court, not to mention his big smile and humor off it -- those traits run counter to the joyless, robotic, and weak-willed labels that have been attached to us for years. We're finally seeing someone kill that particular image off in a very public way.

Could he possibly keep this up for longer than two weeks, never mind over the entire season and beyond? That's the biggest question surround the Jeremy Lin hype machine at the moment. After all, every sports "mania" tends to end in one of two ways: either the athlete gets used to the high level of play, or they end up falling back down to earth. But even if he slinks back to obscurity from whence he came, Lin has left an indelible social impact in a country full of obsessively devoted sports fans. In the bigger picture: he has become one of the biggest sources of inspiration and pride in an environment where there has only been a precious few of them.

That, ultimately, could be the biggest takeaway from the Linsanity phenomenon.

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