New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin dribbled across half court at a measured pace on Wednesday night, keeping John Wall a few steps in front of him while surveying the court. With a subtle head fake, Lin got his Wizards counterpart to lean left, then crossed over his dribble to blow by Wall for a thunderous one-handed dunk that brought the crowd at Verizon Center to its feet.
It’s a sequence that happens virtually every night in the NBA, except what made this moment different was its significance to Asian Americans, particularly those of Chinese heritage at an arena in the heart of Chinatown. Lin, who finished with 23 points and 10 assists in the Knicks’ third straight win, is the first American-born NBA player of Chinese descent, and in just three games, he’s debunked one stereotype after another.
“I didn’t know he could dunk,” teammate Tyson Chandler told the New York Times after the game. “When he’s going in for it, I go: ‘No, Jeremy! Just lay the ball up.’ And all of a sudden he dunks it.”
Not that Chandler meant anything disparaging or offensive by that remark. It’s just that almost no one expected a lanky, Harvard-educated, twice-cut NBA hopeful to have those hops or quick first step, especially one-on-one against the No. 1 overall pick from Kentucky in 2010.
And throughout the history of professional basketball, it’s not as if countless Chinese American players have blazed a trail toward NBA stardom. But perhaps Lin’s surging popularity will inspire more American citizens of Chinese and Asian ethnicity to compete on the basketball court or other athletic arenas.
Lin’s sway certainly has made an impact in Taiwan, from where his parents (and my mother, incidentally) emigrated in the mid-1970s. ESPN, for instance, is hosting a viewing party in Taiwan on Friday night for New York’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers. Meantime, Lin’s followers on Sina, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, rose from 190,000 to a quarter of a million in one week.
Having watched Lin’s promise expand with each game, I couldn’t help but think back to when Yao Ming burst onto the scene in 2003. Yao wasn’t the first Chinese player in the NBA, but the retired eight-time all-star became a transcendent athlete recognized around the world while handling himself with grace despite the immense pressure of representing the most populous country in the world.
Among the less than 1 percent of Asian American basketball players in division I while he attended Harvard, Lin didn’t necessarily sign up for the same, although he can’t escape comparisons now that he’s featured on sports highlight shows nightly and playing in the largest television market in the United States. Lin, though, isn’t really representing China so much as he’s proving American-born Chinese belong in professional sports.
Like Yao, Lin also has carried himself with dignity in the wake of racial epithets too many to mention. It happened often, Lin has said, during Ivy League games, when he heard, “Open your eyes,” “Go back to China,” and other narrow-minded heckling.
“It’s humbling, a privilege, and an honor,” Lin said in an interview with AOL Fanhouse’s Elie Seckbach. “I’m really proud of being Chinese. I’m really proud of my parents being from Taiwan. I just thank God for the opportunity.”