Whether he likes it or not, Jeremy Lin is the new face of Asian-American basketball. This article explains why he matters so much to Asian community, how the overwhelming support for him could be negatively impacting his game and what the future holds for the second year guard.
Lin and supporters following Asian Heritage Night after a Warriors game last season.
For a fifth teen man on an NBA roster, New York Knick guard Jeremy Lin receives a disproportionately large amount of media and fan attention. Most definitely, Asian-American basketball fans such as myself are to blame for this phenomenon. So whats the big deal with Lin?
Unlike any player before him in the NBA, Lin is truly unique because his story resonates with so many Asian-Americans and their own experiences growing up in the United States. Those who have been told they were too small, not athletic enough and basically unfit for basketball understand how far Jeremy has come in fulfilling a dream to play in the NBA.
Due to his race, Lin has been doubted throughout his career: something aspiring Asian-American athletes are all too familiar with. Every last ounce of respect Lin gets on the court had been earned the hard way. After all, this is the same player who was told that “orchestra is on the the other side of campus” in by opposing fans college and that “there is no volleyball tonight” when he arrived at the gym early to warm up for a game.
“Growing up a lot of people have always told me I would never play high school or never play college,” he said. “You don’t get respect for being an Asian-American basketball player in the U.S”. Lin recalled, “When we would line up for the jump ball, the other team’s point guard and shooting guard would argue over who would guard me, because they both wanted to”.
Given these experiences, Lin’s importance to the Asian-American community is even more so than Yao Ming’s. Not only did Yao grow up thousands of miles away in China, but he is also about two feet taller than the average Asian. Sure, Yao might look like some Asians living in the US (because we all look alike, right?), but there is little commonality beyond that phenotype. Yao and the other freakishly tall NBA players from Asia made the league primarily because of their abnormal height. As Garron Chiu wrote in the Banana Times,”Though [Lin] will not create a basketball buzz like Yao did back in 2002, he does have a drive and slash game that relies on his athletic gifts that previous Asian players like Yi Jian Lian, Yuta Tabuse and even Yao himself do not have”.
Furthermore, Yao certainly did not have the childhood most Asian-Americans typically experience. When he was just nine years old, Yao was shipped off to a sports academy. He tried out for a professional team at age 13. On the other hand, Lin grew up in California to immigrants from Taiwan and enjoys hanging out with friends, playing XBox, going to church, chowing down on a juicy In-N-Out burger. He first picked up basketball at the local YMCA after his father, who learned the game by watching old tapes of NBA legends, introduced him to the game. Like other young Asian-American youngsters, Jeremy has a genuine love for basketball but certainly had no expectations of one day playing in the NBA. Yao, on the other hand, was groomed at an early age to become a basketball star.
Lin was named the San Francisco Chronicle's Player of the Year in high school.
Lin has appeal beyond just the Asian-American community as well. Forget his ethnicity and his life path is just as captivating. Despite winning a state title and being named the San Francisco Chronicle’s Player of the Year as well as garnering several statewide honors, Lin did not receive a single Division I scholarship (What if his name was Jeremy Smith?). So, after graduating from Palo Alto High School, Lin headed to Harvard University. Again, despite being named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award- the nation’s best point guard and leading Harvard to its best season in school history, Lin went undrafted.
For an Ivy Leaguer with zero Division I scholarship offers to make it to the NBA is a tremendous feat. In fact, Harvard has produced more presidents (8) than NBA players (3). Perhaps this is why Lin got so much attention in last season’s Summer League for an impressive showing against John Wall (becoming an instant Youtube sensation at the same time). As a commentator during the game put it: everyone wants to see David slay Goliath. And by the end of the game, the crowd that initially came to watch the #1 draft pick found themselves rooting for his opponent: the no-name, undrafted player out of the Ivy League.
Lin’s rise to notoriety comes as a double-edged sword. Because of his status as the only Asian-American in the NBA (and only the second-ever: Wat Misaka, who also played for the Knicks back in 1947, was the first), tremendous pressure has been placed on Lin’s shoulders to succeed and “represent” the community. While it certainly isn’t a problem that Asian fans are passionate about Lin, there are times when this excitement has gotten a little out of hand. For example, at Oracle Arena last season, Warriors fans would loudly cheer every time Lin touched the ball. This threw him off and got so bad that some Golden State supporters were encouraging fellow fans NOT to cheer for Jeremy.
The fan obsession with Lin is what it is and it’s not going away anytime soon. Search “Jeremy Lin” on YouTube and you will find dozens of highlight mixtapes and game footage. I’m pretty sure I have found clips of every single basket he scored last season (OK, there weren’t that many, but still). On Twitter, he has trended worldwide during the first two games he appeared in as a Knick, despite only playing a total of three minutes.
Even before his rookie season in Golden State, Lin explained that: “When I put that pressure of pleasing everybody else, the Asian community and every other Asian, that’s when I lose my joy for playing the game and that is when it’s not fun for me anymore because I am playing for the wrong reasons. It is impossible to please everybody.”
Lin may have lost some of that joy last season. His agent, Roger Montgomery, explains that pressure got to Jeremy at times. “It was extremely taxing for him,” Montgomery told media when Lin signed with the Knicks in December. “He wanted to please a lot of people.”
Ultimately, Jeremy Lin is the new face of Asian-American basketball, whether he likes it or not. Therefore, what he does on and off the court will be heavily scrutinized by both the fans who look up to him as a symbol of ethnic pride, as well as the ever-present doubters who argue his sole purpose in the NBA is as a “marketing ploy”. It will be up to him to persevere and overcome this obstacle, just like he has previously done when faced with challenges.
Now that Lin has a season under his belt, there is reason to believe Jeremy has grown accustomed to the exaggerated amount of support for a player of his caliber. In addition, leaving the Warriors (and its roughly 30%+ Asian fanbase) might have been a blessing in disguise. Dealing with rabid fans who cheer every time he breathes on the court at Oracle Arena will no longer be an issue. As a result, Madison Square Garden, arguably the biggest stage for basketball in the world, may actually provide an easier, calmer environment for Jeremy personally- believe it or not.
Lin still has much to prove on the court. Last season, he was sent down and recalled from the D-League three separate times. In his limited minutes with the Golden State Warriors, he showed flashes of brilliance but overall, did not perform up to his own personal standards – let alone the heavy expectations fans had for him. After a whirlwind off season (cut by the Warriors, claimed by the Rockets, cut by the Rockets, claimed by the Knicks in a three week span), Lin suddenly finds himself on a Knick team desperate for a backup floor general to run Mike D’Antoni’s offense. Being thrust into the spotlight, New York provides a perfect venue for him to showcase his talent until Iman Shumpert and Baron Davis come back from injuries. Some speculate that Lin’s non-guaranteed contract status will allow the team to waive him without a cap hit and sign Kenyon Martin in March. More recent developments indicate that the Knicks are close to signing guard Keith Bogans, who would presumably take Lin’s roster spot. Given this, it is fair to assume that his time in the orange and blue may be short as February 10th is the date that all contracts become guaranteed.
But, perhaps Lin can pull off the unlikely and find a way to stick on the Knicks roster. After all, his nickname was “Mr. Improbable” in high school because of his ability to surprise his doubters. Call him whatever you want- the Great Asian-American Hope, a marketing tool, a scrub. For someone who has been doubted at every step of his career, the adversity and scrutiny nothing new. Jeremy has rallied to overcome obstacles and proven he belongs at every level he has played at, whether it be high school, college or the D-League.
While it still remains to be seen if Lin can succeed in the NBA, one thing is for certain: a lot of supporters will be rooting for him every step along the way.