After Saturday’s breakout performance against the New Jersey Nets, I told myself I vowed to wait at least two more games before writing about Jeremy Lin. For one, one game is not a large enough sample size to make and grand assumptions, and for two, I needed a few games for the hype to build. Granted, three games is also a small sample size and a half of week of hype isn’t close to where this is probably going, but I think it’s about time.
I don’t need to go into too much detail on the basketball side of things. He’s easily the best (also the only) active point guard on the Knicks roster, and on the low it’s hard to imagine Baron Davis outperforming Lin when he gets back. It’s unclear how the return of Amar’e and Melo will the chemistry of the team and Lin’s numbers, but it’s hard to imagine him regressing to a role of non-contributor.
The other notable aspect of the J-Lin uproar is, of course, the fact that he’s Asian. The internet has exploded with applause, jokes, and general bewilderment based on Lin’s racial background. Somehow, I actually think this is an underrated phenomenon. From a sociological standpoint, this is immeasurably intriguing.
In general, this country is pretty terrible at having race conversations about Asians. Well, we’re pretty terrible about having race conversations about everyone, but with Asians, we mostly like to pretend that they aren’t even a minority. In regards to athletics, America perceives them to be uber-white. If white folks are stigmatized to lack what society defines as “athleticism”, Asians are just assumed to have it even worse. This is mostly by virtue of the fact that the stereotypical Asian is juxtaposed against the average athlete, in that they are associated with academia, structure, and submission. Everything the NBA, the pinnacle of the way we perceive athleticism, is not about.
Of course, we all know Lin isn’t the first Asian in the NBA. A few have made camps and rosters in the past, and then there’s Yao. Before I say this next part, I want to make one thing clear: Yao Ming is one of the most important players in NBA history. Basketball is the second most accessible sport in the world, and the way that it’s so easily glamourized, it’s no wonder it caught on in some of the world’s largest population centers. Yao provided the NBA with the face required to imprint their product onto billions. Although he is now retired, Yao’s relative success ensured that basketball’s influence extends to either side of the world, setting both The League and the sport up for a promising future.
All that being said, I think Jeremy Lin could go down as more important… in a sense. As someone who is not an Asian-American, I’m not going to try to act like I know what Yao or Lin means to Asians and Asian-Americans, that’s not my angle. I do think Lin has the potential to go MUCH farther in providing a true counter-narrative to our perception of what it means to be Asian. While Yao was a great basketball player, there was still something so stereotypically methodical about his game. He was BUILT to be good at basketball. Seven-foot-Five, a bevy of post moves, a smooth jump shot, and a great free throw shooter. He never quite had the fire to be a truly dominant player, but he was skilled enough, put up good enough numbers, and had enough cultural relevance that he’s an easy hall of famer.
Lin is an entirely different animal. For one, he plays point guard, which, when played correctly, is a position that is completely non-academic. You can’t really learn how to play the one well by doing anything other than playing a lot of basketball, to the point that every move you make becomes reactionary. Sure, you can watch some video or read some manual to learn the basics, but it really comes down to whether or not you’ve got the gift. Jeremy Lin is looking more and more like he has it, but what’s interesting is the wrapping it’s coming in. I like to think of Steve Nash as the family friendly point guard. Besides the fact that he’s white, his game is also based on below-the-rim smarts, being fundamentally sound, making the right pass, and having a lights out stroke. Everyone knows Nash is good, but his game is based on submissiveness and making everyone else stars. To an extent, it’s every point guard’s job to make everyone else better, but most new point guards primary asset is their ability to take over a game with their athletic scoring ability. Lin most certainly has NBA athleticism. He is definitely not Russell Westbrook, but he’s also definitely more athletic than, say, Steph Curry. Most of his buckets come not from the outside shot, but from creative penetration. In fact, thus far he’s shooting something like 10% from three. He’s pretty nice on the handle too, and thus far we’ve seen some traces of swag in his game.
It’s not fair, but these things are very un-Asian. The way that Lin plays is downright Negro, and in this country, that validates you as an athlete. It will be interesting to see how the country responds to the dissonance of this reality. Early indications would suggest that the response is overwhelmingly positive, probably because Lin’s Asian-ness leads us to inflate his underdog status. On the not so low, he’s just about as overtly Christian as Tim Tebow, but as a foreigner (Lin is born and raised in the US, but asking Americans to be not ignorant
about Asians is a tall task) who is actually good at his job, he probably won’t get the deity treatment that fuels the quarterback’s long-term popularity. While the shine might wear off eventually, his mere existence in the public view could subtly chip away at the problematic Asian-not-athlete perception. I, for one, as a fundamental opponent of oppressive racial narratives, will be cheering for the dude for as long as this keeps up. Even if it’s more reasons than everyone else.