The biggest sports story in New York City for the third week running is not the Super Bowl winning New York Giants or the NHL Eastern Conference leading New York Rangers. It is the understated and previously unknown New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin.
Jeremy Lin (otherwise known as “Linsanity”, “Linderella”, “Super Lintendo”, “Linsational” etc.) is an Asian-American Harvard grad who was an undrafted NBA journeyman until he got his first significant minutes with the New York Knicks on February 4th. Since then (as of February 19): the Knicks have gone 8-1 (after starting the season 8-15); Lin has averaged 25 ppg, 9.2 ast, and 2.2 steals; Jeremy Lin’s No. 17 jersey is the NBA’s top online seller; Knicks merchandise sales are No. 1 overall in the NBA; Lin’s Chinese Wikipedia-style page has picked up 3.5 million hits; the Knicks have raised their average ticket prices by 27 percent; and there is a new a eBook about Lin called “The Ultimate Jeremy Lin Fun Facts and Trivia Book”.
Lin has vaulted himself onto the sports scene to such a degree that I wonder whether “Tebowmania” was only a warm-up for “Linsanity”. Even seasoned sportswriters speak about Linsanity with a measure of novelty because they admit they have never seen anything like this before.
Linsanity has captured the imagination of not only America, but of the world. No matter your race, education, or sporting interests, everybody can find a little bit of themselves in Jeremy Lin. I mean, we all need a little Linspiration don’t we?
For that reason, the most fascinating part of Linsanity for me has been the collective difficulty people have had when trying to explain why we are all feeling a little Linsane.
Many argue that Lin’s rise to relevancy has as much to do with race as it does with sport. Growing up, Lin had to endure racial taunts on the court telling him to go back to China or to open his eyes, so even though Lin has always been an excellent basketball player, he has rarely been given his due respect.
In high school, Lin led his team to the California state title and was named the state player of the year, yet he did not receive a single Division I scholarship offer. After a successful college career at Harvard which included his increasingly well-known 30-point game against the 12th ranked Connecticut Huskies, Lin remained undrafted and was left to play his way onto NBA rosters as a free agent. As a result, Lin was cast from the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets before landing with the New York Knicks 2 days after the beginning of this season.
What is most disconcerting to many familiar with Lin’s journey to the NBA is not that he had to overcome obstacles, but that many of those obstacles were the result of his race. Lin could be considered a trailblazer because he is the first bona fide Asian-American to have success in the NBA, but the fact that the Asian community even needs a trailblazer to overcome deeply embedded sports stereotypes is the real problem. The sports world often becomes stuck in a retrospective mindset where they think that what has worked in the past is the only thing that will work in the future. A good example of this is in the recent movie Moneyball, where the Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane struggled to overcome deeply embedded and flawed methods of scouting baseball players. In the same way, Jeremy Lin has likely been a victim of deeply flawed scouting methods (or stereotypes) for basketball players, and his current success only makes it more apparent that we need more athletes like Lin, from every race, to break out of the retrospective boxes we so easily get trapped in.
However, it should not be forgotten that sports, unlike many other arenas of life, provide a unique opportunity for our retrospective boxes and stereotypes to be broken. Some of the most prominent racial trailblazers of the last century (Jackie Robinson, Mohammed Ali, Jesse Owens, Bill Russell) have been African-American athletes.
This is why the negative response toward Linsanity from some prominent African-Americans like Floyd Mayweather Jr. has been particularly surprising. Mayweather believes Lin has received undue attention because of his race, something Mayweather is particularly sensitive about. Although Mayweather may be exceptionally obtuse in his treatment and assessment of Linsanity, he does represent the opinion of many when he says that Linsanity is primarily about race.
But is it true? Is the reason we are all feeling a little bit Linsane primarily because of Lin’s Asian roots?
Well, what is clear is that many who do not share Lin’s Asian roots are quick to look to other factors to explain Linsanity.
For one, Lin is the first Harvard grad to play in the NBA since 1954, and he is in many ways the antithesis to current the “one and done” system where NBA players are only required to play one year of college before turning professional. Despite the NBA’s best efforts to promote reading and education among kids, education still remains an after thought. The current system is not conducive to college degrees, especially those from demanding institutions like Harvard. Lin represents the hope that sports do not have to be in conflict with education. As a result, those who hold a high view of education often see Lin as one of their own.
Also, predictably, New York Knicks fans also see Lin as one of their own. If Lin wasn’t playing on a mediocre team in desperate need of a point guard, or in a point guard friendly system under Mike D’Antoni, or in a city in desperate need for a competitive basketball team, or in a city with the biggest media market in the world, Lin would probably still be a relatively unknown backup point guard struggling to break through. If it weren’t for Lin playing in New York, we probably wouldn’t have Linsanity as we now know it.
But, the comparisons with Lin don’t stop there. Lin has also been said to be the American Dream personified. As mentioned, Lin was not recruited out of high school and not drafted out of college and after being cut by two NBA teams in the last two months before landing with the Knicks, he has made the most of his opportunity. Everyone loves an underdog and most everyone loves to see themselves as an underdog, so it is no surprise that Lin has become a true underdog story for many.
Finally, Lin has become an endearing figurehead for Christianity. Lin speaks openly about his faith and was a leader in Harvard’s Asian American Christian Fellowship when he attended the university. In an interview with Sports Illustrated in July 2010 he expressed interest in the possibility of one day becoming a pastor. Although Lin is a quieter and less polarizing Christian sports figure than Tim Tebow, he appears more than able to hold the demanding and increasingly scrutinized title of a “Christian professional athlete”.
Ultimately, I think we find it difficult to fully explain Linsanity because we, like the scouts that overlooked him, too easily put Jeremy Lin in a box. We all want to claim Lin for ourselves. But, we must remember that Jeremy Lin is not just Asian, or just a Harvard grad, or just a Knick, or just an underdog, or just a Christian. He is all of those things, which is why we are all able to be just a little Linsane.