Jeremy Lin is the talk of the town in New York and across the NBA this week.
Why? Because he’s an Asian American Harvard graduate suddenly averaging 25 points per game over the last week, dunking and leading the Knicks to three straight wins. And, perhaps more importantly, because he’s doing it all with a smile as wide as the Grand Canyon on his face.
No doubt, Lin’s novelty factor is the driving force behind his soaring popularity. And, as Deadspin’s Emma Carmichael wrote: “Only in the NBA can an Asian-American Harvard grad’s success shock everyone.”
But in the post-Yao Ming NBA, Lin just might be the player to further the league’s growth in Asia, while continuing to inspire athletes to break the mold.
The nicknames and catch phrases are everywhere. “Linsanity” has arrived just in time to pick up the torch from “Tebow Time.”
But Lin’s big week has also brought racial epithets, slurs and negative stereotyping to the surface for fans of a league with scarce Asian representation on its rosters. He heard similar jeers from hecklers during his career at Harvard. On Wednesday, back in the arena where one fan yelled “sweet-and-sour pork” during the Crimson’s December 2009 loss to Georgetown, Lin went off for 23 points and 10 assists in a head-to-head matchup with last year’s No. 1 overall pick, John Wall.
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.
Lin may not reach Yao Ming’s level of stardom. For starters, he’s 15 inches shorter in a league where 6 foot 3 guards are a dime a dozen. Lin is also an American, not a player groomed in China to become the nation’s NBA star.
But Ming’s stardom helped drive global jersey sales, extending the league’s brand across the Pacific Ocean. And his unprecedented popularity — he was voted as an All-Star starter eight times in nine seasons — was a driving force for basketball’s growth in China. In 2007, when Ming’s Rockets played fellow countryman Yi Jianlian and the Bucks, the game was watched by more than 200 million people in China.
On Thursday, the NBA said its Asian TV partners have added Knicks games to their broadcast schedules. Stations in Taiwan will televise the team’s games against Toronto, Sacramento, New Orleans, New Jersey and Atlanta this month.
Lin may take up the mantle, whether he wants to or not. Or he may become a passing fad when the Kicks get their horses — Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Baron Davis, the player signed to play point guard for them — back.
Most impressive—and transgressive—is that he plays with a flair and . . . has given a dour, mopey Knicks team a sense of purpose and joy. His pre-game handshake alone with teammate Landry Fields has more intelligent soul than Donald Glover....
In the middle of every sideline giggling, chest bumping, mosh pit is their point guard, Jeremy Lin. This is the true heart of Lin-sanity. It’s not the Asian-American piece, although the pride he’s producing is nothing to dismiss and people of Asian descent have been breaking ankles on courts for decades. It’s not the Harvard piece. It’s not even the flair that makes you question stereotypes of how he’s “supposed” to play. It’s that when he’s doing his thing, you forget all the superficials and all the racial detritus, and just see his grin and feel the joy. Maybe it won’t last. Maybe he’s just played well against awful teams. Maybe Carmelo will play the role of Nurse Ratchett, ordering the Cukoo’s Nest to stop having fun and making Coach Mike D’Antoni give Jeremy Lin a basketball lobotomy. But for now we can relish in the Lin-sanity: a player who breaks the ultimate stereotype: making tired NBA players look like they’re having the time of their lives.
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