Lin, Hoops, and Hopes   Leave a comment

Note: This is part 5 of a 17-part Jeremy Lin series. There’s just too much to unpack to get it done in one go.


I got cut from my high school basketball team after my freshman year. Mostly because I can’t really score or handle the ball. Okay, entirely. There were more than enough talented players to fill the team, several of them Asian Americans like myself. Multi-year stars on the varsity squad, swift as the coursing river, shooting the lights out. Seemed a shame no college took an interest in their basketball skills. Conventional wisdom is that it was a height thing. Forty points doesn’t mean anything to colleges if all those buckets are launched from 5’8. Won’t get those same shots off against players a foot taller, no matter how deceptively quick that floater climbs high into the air. Still, knowing there was no real chance of a chance to see these guys play at the next level felt like a loss.

I spent my sophomore year of high school away from basketball, opting to indulge in teen angst, breaking up and un-breaking up with the same girl several times. Could never really break up with the game though, so, knowing my effective playing days were over, I covered the team for the school newspaper my junior year. Found out I was better at describing ball movement and crisping “team wins” than beating defenders off the dribble or hitting three pointers. As usual, there were Asian standout players accomplishing highly impressive feats on the court, the next step being intramurals or church league. To play for a Division 1 team really is a rare opportunity and Asian Americans tend to have alternate paths to UCLA available. Being too short to play college ball is just a reality for Asians.

But that doesn’t really fit with the Jeremy Lin story. At 6’3, 200 pounds, Lin isn’t undersized as a point guard in the NBA, let alone college. Yet he was offered zero scholarship offers to play college basketball, after leading Palo Alto High School to a state championship against powerhouse Mater Dei featuring a player headed to Duke to play for Coach K. Harvard doesn’t do athletic scholarships, but all the schools that do wouldn’t give Lin one, so he went there. Didn’t let lack of an athletic scholarship stop him from playing college ball, despite college basketball’s best efforts. And didn’t let not getting drafted stop him from playing in the NBA, despite 30 GMs’ best efforts. Just played fiercely whenever and wherever he could.

That type of perseverance is the type of thing that transcends race, that makes any discrimination of that sort just another undistinguished obstacle that was going to get scaled. On his way to save the princess and star in the NBA, he was only going to let race be a goomba or koopa, not Bowser himself. Super LINtendo indeed. That makes Lin accessible to everybody, not just Asians, unlike, say, Yi Jianlian. Also, Lin can play. Because he’s a cocktail of talent, desire, and hard work, not because he was chosen by his government to attend a special academy since childhood to be a top athlete, unlike, say, Yi Jianlian. So the underdog story and the very visceral and traceable perseverance thread hold wide appeal for wide swaths of America. Yet it’s still special for Asian Americans.

Even if you’re Asian American, you can’t really relate to Yao Ming. He’s 7’6. He speaks broken English. He has a Frankensteinian look to him and was basically grown in a special Chinese laboratory for the purpose of NBA dominance. His gentle spirit and likeable personality work against him breaking the mold of the kind-hearted creation of darkness. I don’t know any people approaching 7’6, and certainly not Asians. If I want my kids to play basketball beyond their freshman year, they’re probably going to need 6 feet, and I don’t know how feasible that one is. As much as Yao was kind of a cool thing to have in the NBA, he wasn’t entirely embraceable as a symbol of any Asian American community and definitely not as a blueprint for more Asian NBA players.

There have been other Chinese NBA players too. Wang Zhizhi wasn’t really remarkable except for his race. Sun Yue — the first Chinese player with an NBA Championship ring — only played garbage minutes in a role similar to Lin’s before he got to play. Maybe like Lin, he just needed an opportunity, but he was well-hyped in China, and didn’t bother with a 3rd NBA team the way Lin did. Also, there’s a distance between Asian Americans and these Chinese players. Merely looking similar doesn’t cut it. Have to have something substantial in common, or a highly admirable quality. Maybe these guys did have something like that, but we didn’t get to know them well enough, but the idea of being bred and engineered to penetrate the NBA doesn’t wash off easily.

Asian players prior to Lin also had reputations for being soft, below average athletically, and specialized in some technical skill, not complete players. There was no way to cast them as American because 1) they weren’t and 2) didn’t play or speak like it. Lin plays and grew up playing the American style of basketball. He drives into the lane hard, finishes with contact, throws his body into other players, is never seen speaking Chinese. Yao’s accent was the source of humor in several commercials. Lin is American. Speaks it, acts it, plays it. Plays tough.

And if you’re an Asian American and that Americanness means anything to you, that’s important. That sports media can’t characterize Lin as another overgrown, slow-footed, rice paddy-soft foreigner, weak in courage and English. And those aren’t things he’s had to fight to mute or overcome — those are things he just never was. Not a product of a different system that has to adjust to the American style, but a product of the American system which had better adjust to him. All of this makes Lin easy to relate to and cheer for. His story is a unique story and an American story, and those two factors are as important as his being Asian American in terms of appealing to the Asian American community.

I grew up loving Michael Jordan and Kobe. Didn’t matter what color their skin was as far as wanting to be like them. Only their awesome play mattered, so it seemed like it would make sense that no one’s skin color ever matters on the basketball court. It’s easy to pretend you’re any of your sports heroes when you’re playing in the backyard or at the park. Especially if no NBA stars look like you, you can choose which one you see yourself as. No one ever called me Yao Ming on the court because even though he was the most popular Asian player in the league for years, my game doesn’t look anything like his. But with the emergence of Lin, I don’t think Asian Americans feel obligated to exactly emulate him or always pretend to be him if we’re claiming to play as certain stars. I reserve the right to be Metta World Peace even if I’m the only Asian on the floor.

So Lin isn’t the end-all be-all of Asian American basketball. We love him, sure, but if you polled long-time Asian American NBA fans on their favorite player, I truly believe Lin wouldn’t win. This isn’t China-Yao Ming. The ability to cheer him on as an Asian American and good player feels great, but we have our own favorite teams, our own favorite players, and the freedom to not be a homogenous mob with a racially-motivated blind devotion. Lin isn’t a messiah sent here to administer to all the downtrodden Asian American basketball fans, though he’d be happy to share the Gospel with you. Lin’s ubiquity is sourced in his uniqueness, not in sameness.

And Lin is a symbol. That Asian Americans have game. That we have players that can compete on the highest level. That even if you don’t get a scholarship, go undrafted, and get cut twice, you can make it. We believe. We see ourselves. We play ball. We’re inspired. I don’t have any plans to play in the NBA, but I’m still inspired. At 6’3, Jeremy Lin would be playing center if he were on my youth team. None of us were going to make it to the NBA. Another Asian American may still not make it. But hopefully more Asian Americans will get a fair look beyond the high school level. Lin doesn’t have to open the flood gates to a deluge of Asian American NBA players, but if he paves the way for more basketball scholarships for (including non-Asian) kids who wouldn’t have gotten a look before, I’m proud to have Jeremy as a symbol of the Asian American community.

Next time: Taking a look at Lin’s game. The tricky drives, those quarter-turn layups, alley-oops to Tyson and Landry, critical 3 pointers…and too many turnovers.

Posted March 7, 2012 by Wada in Jeremy Lin

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