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Shaun Powell

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Jeremy Lin's newfound fan base has jumped across racial and cultural lines.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Lin is transcending race and helping to shatter stereotypes


Posted Feb 17 2012 10:56AM

If you say his race has nothing to do with it, and besides he's American anyway, and people of all backgrounds are finding him fascinating, and who cares as long as he and basketball are both winning, you'd be absolutely right.

And also somewhat naive.

The Jeremy Lin story, the kind that comes along and grabs you by the throat, is appealing for many reasons. That's why it's uniquely American. That's why we can relate, because we see part of ourselves in his unexpected journey, even though we're not throwing lob passes and rescuing the Knicks and blowing up Twitter.

Who wasn't told, at one point, that they weren't good enough? Who hasn't been flat-out rejected, either by a grade-school crush, or a company CEO, or a loan officer? Who hasn't had to scrape themselves off the floor after another failure and come up with a new plan, another way of doing the same job better, in order to make it?

Lin was ignored in high school, wasn't drafted by an NBA team, couldn't stick with two of them, had to beat the bush leagues and then slept on a sofa because he wasn't sure the Knicks would keep him. Then he caught fire overnight. The first time he scored 38 points in a basketball game in his life, it came against Kobe Bryant. Because nothing was ever expected of him, and no fuss was ever raised over him until a week ago, he isn't spoiled by nature. He's humble and free of the jersey-tugging, preening, gesturing, chest-thumping culture that has polluted sports and soured it for many. That's all part of the legend and the lore by now, and that's why he's getting lots of underdog love.

But it also ignores the one thing we all notice but aren't quite sure how to handle, or even if we should handle at all. It's the one thing some of us don't or can't relate to.

Yes, the race thing.

Quite simply, it's the curious part of this wonderful tale. Because, while a point guard with Taiwanese blood is busy breaking ankles on the court, he's also shattering stereotypes just as viciously. He's doing what Tiger Woods did in golf, what the Williams sisters did in tennis. It's that special element, the racial element, which kicks Linsanity up a notch, in a refreshingly good way, while at the same time, bringing out the worst in some folks.

This story just wouldn't be the same if Lin came up hard as a black kid, or was a white product of the heartland, or imported from Spain, or discovered kicking a soccer ball in a dusty field in Africa. We've been there and done that in the NBA. We've also had Asian players, too, All-Stars even, but none of normal height and serious skills. Not like this. This is special.

And also, this is needed because, in these types of instances, ignorance and biases begin to crumble.

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The Lin-inspired punch lines and cliches have become a widespread phenomenon.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Our society is programmed to see certain people built for certain roles and not for others, mostly because they haven't been exposed or given the chance. When people of certain backgrounds have success in areas where historically they didn't, we're all a bit wiser from it.

Of course, this has led to some clumsy PC moments, as you might expect. The TV network of the Knicks flashed a graphic showing Lin and a broken fortune cookie. A sign in the Garden read "Yellow Mamba," playing off Kobe's nickname. A headline in a New York newspaper screamed "Amasian" after he hit the game-winner in Toronto. Floyd Mayweather, famous for putting his fist in someone's face and also his foot in his own mouth, wondered if a similar black player would get the same hype. The internet, home to all sorts of anonymous goofs, is a breeding ground for Lin-inspired punch lines, jokes and puns.

And none of it has anything do with him going to Harvard.

The beauty is Lin seems above it all. He's transcending the racial angle, as valid as it might be, and moving himself -- and us -- in another direction. And he's making anyone who doubted him for racial reasons look pretty stupid.

Even better, he's exposing the game to people who look like him. Asian-Americans are showing support for Lin in force, but what's especially refreshing is they're being far outnumbered by whites and blacks and others who are forging a link with Lin, too. Everybody is claiming Lin.

This is a gift from the basketball gods to the NBA, which in the past dealt with racial backlash when the league was considered too black to appeal to white America. That "game" has changed, and because of Lin, there's plenty more distance between those days and now. Folks who seldom or never watched the NBA are suddenly into the league and wondering what a certain player will do next.

Jeremy Lin is the most popular player in sports right now because he's a true underdog who came from nowhere to own New York. We've never seen anything quite like this, or anyone quite like him. Best of all, by next year, where he came from and what he looks like won't even register with anyone.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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