You’ve probably seen Jeremy Lin paralyzing John Wall with a crossover dribble Wednesday night, knifing through the lane before driving hard and rising for his first dunk in an NBA game. But the zeitgeist moment that came afterward was actually more telling, the moment a young Asian man, identifying deeply with someone who looked like him on the court, proudly held a sign aloft:
“Who Says We Can’t Drive?” it read.
“There were a lot of funny signs out there,” Lin said after leading the Knicks to their third straight victory. “Last year, I wouldn’t have imagined this. I think I’m more shocked than anybody else is.”
Less than a season ago, the undrafted Harvard economics graduate was toiling in the NBA Development League. Less than a week ago, he was glued to the Knicks’ bench. The past three games, he has either started at point guard or played major minutes.
Lin spoke Wednesday in front of maybe three dozen, tightly bunched reporters, 15 of whom were from Asian media outlets that had requested credentials just that night.
ESPN is having a viewing party Friday night when the Knicks take on the Lakers. Replete with hundreds of fans, dancers and highlight packages, and did we mention this was happening in Taiwan, where TVBS is replaying his Lin’s two games in New York?
Wednesday’s game in Washington was broadcast live back to his parents’ homeland. Since he was summoned from the Knicks bench on Feb. 2 to Thursday, Lin has gained 60,000 followers on Sina (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter).
This is Linsanity. This is the world Jeremy Lin has created for himself in 111 minutes of scintillating floor time.
Look, when a faith-based underdog enraptures a disgruntled fan base in less than three games and lights up his opponents almost as much as he lights up Twitter, only one other can identify with such stratospheric, instantaneous celebrity:
Really, who does Tim Tebow think he is, the Caucasian Jeremy Lin?
“He’d laugh at that one,” said Eddie Lee, Lin’s friend who used to cram into Lin’s dorm room as he led Bible study at Harvard. “I really don’t think anyone expected this to happen. One day he’s on the bench, and the next day he’s a sensation.”
Lee spoke after the Knicks had outclassed the Wizards and as we scurried behind the Most Important Sports Story in America At This Very Second. (Sorry, Peyton, you’re soooo three minutes ago.)
Lin doesn’t know it yet, but some of his friends have already begun referring to him as “the Asian Tebow” or “Tebow 2.0.”
Which is catchy and all, but lumping him in with the overachieving Denver Broncos’ quarterback doesn’t quite encapsulate the unusualness of Lin’s journey.
Yes, they have the devout Christianity and underdog themes in common. Yet before Tebow got to the NFL, he was a highly recruited Heisman Trophy winner from a college football powerhouse that he led to two national titles. Only then was he told by many of the game’s observers he could not play the quarterback position effectively at the next level.
Lin was essentially told he shouldn’t aspire to the NBA at jump street. He played college in the Ivy League. Undrafted, he was cut by the Warriors and Rockets and ended up in Erie, Pa., a D-League outpost, before the Knicks brought him up and stuck him at the end of the bench.
And that’s when it happened.
With Lin directing traffic, the Knicks started sharing the ball more. Moving. Passing. Scoring. Chest-bumping in midair. All because Lin is a stutter-stepping, stopping, popping, player making the Garden go mad with noise and belief.
“He’s unified the team,” former Wizard Jared Jeffries said. “He’s given our team a new energy.”
Who knows if Lin one day becomes an elite point guard in the NBA, whether a returning Anthony and Stoudemire and their need for the ball even allow that. Who cares? One week in, it’s still worth asking: How did an undrafted Harvard economics graduate become the marquee billing on a Friday night at Madison Square Garden involving the Knicks and Lakers?
Lin didn’t merely overcome basketball-pedigree stereotypes to make it to the NBA; he overcame ethnic stereotypes, which sadly have manifested themselves in Asian slurs across the Internet since his breakout performances the past week.
Less offensive was the white kid with the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Point Guard” sign, which drew a few glares at Verizon on Wednesday night. So did G-Wiz, the team’s mascot, while karate-chopping a cinder block marked “Knick” at midcourt. (The team said this was coincidental and part of the blue furry beast’s usual schtick.)
The flip side is the outpouring of racial pride and identification for millions of Asian Americans, who dreamed the NBA dream growing up and had to deal with the reality that the few players of their ethnicity who had played at the highest level professionally were from overseas.
To them, Lin, California-reared and Harvard-educated, is in effect Yao Ming with a crossover, who just happens to speak perfect English.
“I think there’s a parallel with Allen Iverson, where he was like 6-foot and under and he become people’s favorite player because of that,” said Joe Kim, another fan of Lin’s who lives and works in Washington. “Now we have someone we can relate to with Jeremy Lin. He’s not fast. He can’t jump that high. But he has that IQ, that presence. I think a lot of kids imitate that and can relate.”
Added Lee, his friend from Harvard, “You look at the folks in the crowd: It’s not just Asian-Americans. People of different backgrounds are supporting this guy. I think he inspires all of us, regardless of our race, to believe that anything is possible.”
He’s dominating Internet traffic. He’s outplaying Deron Williams, Devin Harris and John Wall. And some guy in the lower bowl of the arena is turning a tired Asian stereotype on its head.
Indeed, who says Jeremy can’t drive toward the rim?
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.