By: Karan Madhok / @hoopistani
“You can’t celebrate Jeremy Lin,” an Asian-American friend jokingly said to me, “You’re Indian. He’s not your type of Asian!”
But I disagreed. In an unbelievably short span of time, Lin has come to represent more than anyone could have ever fathomed. An Asian, a Taiwanese-American, a point guard, a New York Knick, an underdog, a Harvard graduate, a struggling backup, a game-winning superstar, a new legend, an inspiration.
Two weeks ago, only super-hardcore NBA geeks, Asian-American basketball fans or Ivy-League basketball nerds knew much about this undrafted 6’3” point guard. He had spent the first year of his NBA ‘career’ being a benchwarmer for the Warriors, getting cut by them and then by the Rockets, and being relegated to the NBDL. No Asian-American had starred at the highest level of basketball before, so when the New York Knicks (my favourite team) brought in Lin for an unguaranteed contract on December 27th as their fourth or fifth choice at point guard, it barely fluttered any feathers around the league.
And until two weeks ago, he remained an unheralded backup, struggling to secure a real job behind Baron Davis (out injured), Iman Shumpert, Toney Douglas, and Mike Bibby also at his position.
Two weeks later, Jeremy Lin secured an NBA job, all right. In the process, he also became the Knicks’ starting point guard, averaged 26.8 points and 8.5 assists over a six-game stretch, replaced Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire as the face of his franchise, secured a guaranteed contract with the Knicks, saved Coach Mike D’Antoni’s job, reignited the NBA’s popularity in China after Yao Ming’s retirement, inspired thousands of fans in Taiwan, outplayed NBA legend Kobe Bryant, hit a game-winning three-pointer, heard ‘M-V-P’ chants, was named NBA’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week, and helped the struggling Knicks – who were previously 8-15 – win six games in a row, mostly without their All Star-caliber players Anthony and Stoudemire.
Trust me, I’m flabbergasted too. Everyone is.
And despite the hilarious comment from my Asian-American friend, yes, I can ‘celebrate’ Jeremy Lin, too. Everyone can.
First and foremost, who doesn’t love an underdog? Because of the colour of his skin and his background, Lin had to fight for every chance in the basketball world. He is the son of a Taiwanese immigrant that grew up in a nice neighbourhood in Southern California and went to the college that every Asian mother dreams for her child – Harvard – but one that isn’t known for its basketball. When there have been so many stories of players making it from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’, Jeremy Lin, a kid from the ‘right side’, is considered an anomaly.
The Harvard angle is particularly interesting as Lin has somehow managed to bring together the two traditionally polarising worlds of bespectacled students in libraries and testosterone-filled athletes in gyms, becoming a nerd and a jock at the same time. His backcourt teammate with the Knicks, Landry Fields, attended Stanford, another prestigious academic university, and commentators have joked that they might be the geekiest backcourt in the league.
I happen to be a big fan of the New York Knicks, and rarely in the majority of my life have I felt this excited for the Knicks. The Knicks were struggling despite the trio of Anthony-Stoudemire-Tyson Chandler, and had no able point guard to run Coach D’Antoni’s famed offense. Lin got his opportunity to star against the Nets on February 3rd by virtue of the pure desperation of a coach on the verge of getting fired, and the young guard took it. The Knicks won that game, and Lin became a starter. He hasn’t looked back since, and in the process, Lin set a record for the most points by any NBA player in their first five starts since the NBA/ABA merger in 1977 with 136. All of a sudden, my Knicks have gone from a major disappointment to its most celebrated possession. ‘Lin’ and New York Knicks jerseys became the top online selling NBA jerseys since the Feb. 3 breakout game. Most importantly, the Knicks have won all six of the games since Lin’s emergence.
Being an unabashedly biased fan of exciting guards – from Gary Payton to Allen Iverson to Dwyane Wade to Derrick Rose – Lin’s ascent was especially sweet for me. He wasn’t just leading the Knicks offense, he was also scoring, going mano-e-mano against the NBA’s most popular player Kobe Bryant, and hitting game-winning 3-pointers.
In this short span of time, Lin and the Knicks’ value has skyrocketed. Jerseys are selling, ticket prices are rising, more Knicks games have been added to the broadcast schedules in Asia, his name (and its many hilarious variations) has become a regular trending topic on Twitter and taken China’s version – Weibo – by storm. There’s already a poll on ESPN.com asking fans to rank the best Lin nicknames, including Linsational, Linvincible, Super Lintendo, Mr. Lincredible, and of course, Linsanity! People have made rap videos about him. Forbes.com has crowned him as the fastest-growing athlete brand in the world. Meanwhile, back in his paternal homeland of Taiwan, the Lin Legend has grown to unforeseeable heights.
I have travelled to Taiwan three times in the space of the past seven months, including as recently as two weeks ago. It’s a country that likes its basketball. Even before many Taiwanese knew who Jeremy Lin was, they had already welcomed the likes of LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard and others to their shores. Once Lin – or Lin ShuaHao as he is known there – exploded, his Taiwanese background became more publically known, that his Taiwan-born father Gei-Ming Lin had immigrated to America. Taiwan has fully embraced the Linsanity over the last 10 days, which has included regular newspaper coverage, ESPN viewing parties, and even Taiwan’s sports lottery designing Lin-related bets.
To the bigger plethora of Asians – Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Korean, or Nepali, and of course, Asians in America – Lin immediately becomes the one basketball role model they always needed. Yao Ming was of course the first real Asian superstar in the NBA, but he was a gargantuan 7-foot-6. The average child couldn’t even dream of emulating the giant. In Lin, Asians and Asian-Americans finally had someone who looks and talks just like them, who had suffered through similar racial stereotyping that they may have suffered, and despite it, who is now achieving his wildest dreams. While Yao evoked gasps by his physical presence and his grace on the court, Lin inspires because he did with the one skill that any kid anwhere of any size could potentially possess: hard work.
From being unknown and forgotten to becoming one of the world’s most popular athletes, Jeremy Lin has had a heck of a fortnight. But where do we go from here?
Every Cinderella Story has a midnight hour, where the fairytale ends and reality catches up. There would be no Linsanity if there wasn’t success, and as long as the Knicks keep winning with Lin, the fairytale will continue. Lin is clearly a very talented player, able to score and create well in D’Antoni’s system, and he possesses the passion and fearlessness to go against anyone on the basketball court. Inspired by his passion and ability to work the offense, the Knicks’ support players like Fields, Jared Jefferies, Shumpert, Chandler, and Steve Novak have all elevated their games on both sides of the floor.
During the course of this week, though, the Knicks will be incorporating both Stoudemire and Anthony back into their starting lineup. And how quickly the tables have turned for them: from being the marquee basketball players in New York, the two now have to fit their talents around Lin, their point guard with a Midas touch. How well they fit in will make a difference between the Lin story being a flash-in-the-pan or the Knicks becoming a legitimate contender in the league.
Until that question is answered, I’m happy to revel in the fairytale, watching Jeremy Lin dominate. Never have I come across a more inspiring story in basketball. Lin was a star at Harvard, but after an unsuccessful start to his NBA career, he could’ve easily quit and pursued any other career choice – he was a Harvard graduate, after all. But he persisted with what he loved – hoops – and worked hard until he got his opportunity. He hasn’t let go of it since.
So you don’t have to be an Asian-American to celebrate Jeremy Lin. You don’t have to be Taiwanese, or Asian at all, or an Ivy-Leaguer, or a nerd, or a jock, a fan of point guards, a fan of the Knicks, or a fan of basketball. Jeremy Lin’s story of success is a story of great human persistence, of battling against all the odds. To celebrate him, all you need to be is human.