Jeremy Lin’s ethnicity is only part of the story

Jason Reid
Columnist February 15, 2012

Boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. missed the point about surprising New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin. Granted, Lin’s Asian American heritage is part of his intriguing story — but the player’s unexpected success is what’s most compelling about him.

Commenting on his Twitter account Monday about the growing national interest in Lin, whose unprecedented scoring run has ignited the Knicks’ season-high, six-game winning streak, Mayweather observed, “Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.”

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Two ideas. Both wrong.

Undeniably, race is often a factor when discussing the NBA, whose players are predominantly African American. Lin is the league’s first American-born player of Taiwanese or Chinese descent. Those facts alone make him newsworthy.

Lin’s actions on the court, and how the Knicks have benefited from what he does, are what’s most important. That’s the real story.

This is one of the few instances in which the hype is warranted. When an undrafted, Harvard-educated point guard has a historic stretch while leading a resurgent team in the nation’s biggest media market, that’s a big story, regardless of his heritage.

In another inspiring chapter Tuesday, Lin made a winning three-pointer in the final second to lead the Knicks to a 90-87 victory over the Toronto Raptors.

He scored 12 points, including New York’s last six, in the fourth quarter as the team rallied from a 17-point first-half deficit. Lin finished with a game-high 27 points and a personal-best 11 assists.

In his first five starts, Lin has produced more points (136) than anyone since the ABA-NBA merger. That’s an impressive list to top.

Considering Lin’s brief NBA background, his achievement is downright stunning. Lin sat on the Golden State Warriors’ bench all last season as a rookie, was released by the Houston Rockets in training camp before this season, played in the NBA’s Development League and bounced around the tryout circuit.

Talk about a league-wide failure of evaluation.

The injury-weakened Knicks signed Lin only to fill out their roster. At the end of the bench, Lin finally got an opportunity because the Knicks had no other options. He seized it.

The Wizards are part of the story. Lin led the Knicks, playing without all-stars Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, to a double-digit victory at Verizon Center while outperforming John Wall. Then Lin had 38 points while outscoring Kobe Bryant in a victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.

Lin-sanity, indeed.

That’s what Mayweather just doesn’t get. Lin is setting a new standard for first-time starters. Regardless of race, he’s balling.

To suggest some sort of race-based media conspiracy is absurd. As for Mayweather’s assertion that top performances of African American players aren’t covered thoroughly, that also makes no sense.

Sure, some established African American players are doing even more than Lin. Caucasian ones, too. In the NBA, there are standout players from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Lin isn’t the only NBA player deserving of attention. Clearly, he’s not the only one getting it.

With a 24-hour news cycle, all-sports television networks, sports-talk radio and the Internet, the NBA’s elite players are well-covered. But in the league’s history, it has had no other players like Lin.

The 23-year-old, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan in the 1970s, is the first person in his field of his ancestry. He has broken through a barrier. Lin is a Knick. He’s also a trailblazer.

Combined with Lin’s showmanship in leading the Knicks’ turnaround, there’s just too much to ignore.

Before Lin became a starter, the Knicks were a mess. Needing star power, they weren’t getting enough from Anthony and Stoudemire. Coach Mike D’Antoni’s tenure seemed to be nearing its end.

Now, the Knicks are a national story for the right reasons. They’re the buzz of the Big Apple. Although the New York Giants recently won their second Super Bowl in five seasons, they’re suddenly sharing attention with the Knicks.

Really, it’s all about winning. Obviously, Lin’s performance and background are major components here. In the bottom-line world of scoreboards, though, the Knicks’ improving win-lost total is the foundation for much of the national curiosity.

Some have likened Lin’s impact on the Asian American community to what Tiger Woods accomplished in increasing interest in golf among African Americans. Surely, the Asian American community is following Lin. Perhaps the NBA will expand its core fan base on his shoulders someday.

Still, let’s hold off on the direct comparisons with Woods for a tad longer. Lin has done it for just six games.

Perhaps he’ll keep it up. But he’d have to lead the Knicks to a few NBA titles and win several most valuable player awards before approaching Woods’s iconic status and overall impact on sports before his self-inflicted downfall.

For now, Lin is doing more than enough. Even if Mayweather and people who may think like him don’t understand.

For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.

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