Jeremy Lin and Linsanity: Followup thoughts on race and Asian America

Jeremy Lin leads the Knicks over the Kings

I’ve been adding updates to the bottom of my previous post on Jeremy Lin, but there’s simply too much still flying across the Internet radar, and that post is already too long. So I thought I’d comment separately about the issue of Asian American identity and our embrace of the Jeremy Lin phenomenon.

As I write this, the New York Knicks have won seven straight games since putting Lin in the game as the starting point guard. For the first six, he shot for more than 20 points per game (38 against the Lakers!). Last night against Sacramento, he had only 10 points, but that’s because he was allowed to rest and only played 26 minutes. He still racked up a career-high 13 assists, and Linsanity continues in New York. He’s goosed the spirits of basketball fans in Gotham — and around the world — and taken over headlines on the news pages.

Let’s face it, he’s a great story: The American-born son of immigrants from Taiwan who led his high school team in Palo Alto to the state title but didn’t get even a sniff of a b-ball scholarship from the Cali schools he wanted to play for. So he attended Harvard, the stereotypical jackpot destination for children of Asian parents, and got good grades and earned a degree in Econ … while playing great basketball.

Cambridge isn’t exactly known as a breeding ground for NBA stars, but the guy left a trail of tattered records and dominated the Ivy League and earned some national attention, all to no avail. No NBA franchise noticed him. So he signed with Golden State Warriors but spent an uneventful year, and was cut in December right after the end of the NBA’s lockout. He was picked up by the Houston Rockets, but let go within a couple of weeks to make room for more famous players with higher price tags. He was then signed by New York but put on the bench as the fourth-string point guard, and even sent down to the development leagues. He was put into the game out of desperation.

That was two weeks and a whole lot of Linsanity ago.

The kicker for this made-for-a-movie Linderella story (yeah, I had to use it) is that until his contract with the Knicks was signed just a few days ago, Lin slept on the couches of his brother (an NYU dental student) and a teammate, even as his fame exploded like fireworks over the NBA. I could imagine the kid taking the F-train to Madison Square Garden to play.

He got his papers signed, and moved into a White Plains condo this week. His team’s doing pretty good financially too. The Knicks’ online shop jumped 3,000% in sales for Lin’s #17 jersey, which has been the best-selling jersey in the NBA since Feb. 4, when Lin first played more than 30 minutes in a game. The jersey at one point sold out. Lin has taken over social media, with more than 2.5 million mentions him in the week after his NBA debut, more than anyone else in the NBA and more than President Obama.

But even with all the hype and excitement he’s brought to basketball fans everywhere, he’s being discussed and celebrated most intensely within Asian American communities across the country, because he’s simply one of us, earning the spotlight with his terrific playing and smashing stereotypes about Asian Americans along the way.

His highlight reels are emotional for me to watch because they bring a specific feeling of joy — a sense that anything is possible, even though Asian Americans have been told they’re not able to do things like play professional level basketball. Yet there Lin goes, playing like the big dogs and getting the jumping shoulder bumps from his teammates. In those first games including the sensational win over the Lakers, Lin’s teammates were as surprised as the fans and media, leaping off the bench after every amazing play. When he’s playing, his ethnicity doesn’t matter. And that’s what’s so cool about his success.

But race has been part of his story, as has his Harvard pedigree and his Christian faith.

Ivy League nerds are all a-twitter about Lin like Asian Americans are, because there just hasn’t been a lot of Harvard grads making the big bucks on the NBA courts over the years. And although there are a lot of Christians in pro sports, few are as vocal — or high profile — as Lin. Thankfully, Lin is a little less vocal about his beliefs than, say Tim Tebow, who sometimes seemed to make his faith his main identifier. And, for you lazy-ass sports writers and wannabe social commentators who want to compare Lin to Tebow, stop it. Yeah, they were both good in college and both are Christians, but that’s about where the comparison ends.

The race stuff may just be ramping up, and that’s why Asian America identifies so strongly, and emotionally, with Lin. He’s the new lightning rod for Americans’ sometimes uneasy, sometime ugly and ever-evolving feelings about Asia, Asians and Asian Americans.

When Lin was at Harvard, he used to get racist taunts from opposing teams’ fans (not so much from the players): for us, the familiar sounds of low-brow hate speech like “chink” and the oft-related anecdote that when he showed up at a tournament, he was told by a security guard that there was no volleyball being played that day, are part of the soundtrack of our lives. I’ve been told to “go home” like Lin. I’ve been called a chink. A lot of us have. Maybe most of us. Maybe all of us.

Race has bubbled in the media’s Lin coverage too, as this article from USA Today reports. I love this passage:

The New York Post also took criticism for using the headline, “Amasian,” after Lin drilled a game-clinching three-pointer for the win against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday.

During CBS’ The Late Show with David Letterman on Wednesday, Jon Stewart of Comedy Central mocked the headline, according to SportsBusiness Daily.

Stewart told Letterman: “It’d be like when Sandy Koufax threw a perfect game, you just wrote on there ‘JEWTIFUL!’ … I feel like it’s very ‘Lin-sensitive.'”

Filmmaker and uber-Knicks fan Spike Lee came to Lin’s defense over boxer Floyd Mayweather’s tweet last week that Lin was only getting all the media attention because he’s Asian. Lee shot back, “Floyd Mayweather I Hope You Watched Jeremy Hit The Gamewinning 3 Pointer With .005 Seconds Left. Our Guy Can BALL PLAIN AND SIMPLE. RECOGNIZE.”

The OCA also jumped in the fray today, releasing this condemnation of Mayweather’s tweet and warning that such a mentality can damage black-Asian relations:

The irony lost to Mr. Mayweather is that his dismissive statements perpetuate criticisms that are similar to the racial scrutiny that Jackie Robinson faced when he entered the Major Leagues.

In recent weeks, Jeremy Lin has risen to national attention through his impressive athletic performance as point guard for the New York Knicks. Unfortunately, Mr. Mayweather’s tweet is extremely problematic, stating that, “Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.” Such an unfounded, divisive opinion has the potential to pit one community of color against another on and off the court. It is simply disrespectful to the on-going efforts to improve race relations in this country.

Tim Yu, a professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison wrote “Jeremy Lin, Ping Pong Playa, and Asian American Dreams,” a terrific and thoughtful blog post about why Jeremy Lin matters to Asian Americans. He compares Lin’s rise to the 2007 comedy, “Ping Pong Playa,” a funny film by Jessica Yu that I’d forgotten all about.

“Playa” is about an Asian American basketball fanatic who calls himself “C-Dub” instead of Chris and dreams of playing in the NBA, which of course (in the pre-Linsane days) is an unattainable fantasy, so he settles for playing in his brother’s place in a ping pong tournament.

For C-Dub, becoming a ping-pong player is at first a humiliating capitulation to stereotype–right down to the embarrassing short-shorts his father gives him to wear–but he eventually infuses his game with his own style, making his entrance for the championship round in a basketball jersey and to a hip-hop beat on the soundtrack.

What Ping Pong Playa shows us is that the basketball court is a proving ground for a certain kind of American masculinity–one that is pretty much owned by African American men. And in its clever, lighthearted way, it tells us that Asian Americans can’t compete there–that they best find more appropriate avenues for proving their manhood. It’s probably no accident that another contemporary film of Asian American youthful angst–the drama Better Luck Tomorrow–also features basketball frustration, as the high-school protagonist turns to a life of crime after being denied in his basketball aspirations.

So what does all this tell us about Jeremy Lin and why Asian Americans are obsessed with him?

Then professor Yu nails the reason why I get emotional following the Jeremy Lin Story:

I think what many Asian Americans respond to in watching Jeremy Lin is not the stellar numbers or the winning streak. It’s the body language, the way he moves and carries himself on the court. He doesn’t just defer to others, hang back waiting for a shot or pass the ball around. He attacks the basket, directs the offense, gets in opponents’ faces. He’s fearless. And he celebrates with his whole body, without restraint or self-consciousness, and with a touch of mischief.

Lin is electrifying Asian Americans because he’s telling us that Ping Pong Playa is wrong. In a culture where Asian American masculinity has been deemed nonexistent, Lin is rewriting the script.

It’s been striking to me that in recent days I’ve spoken to Asian and non-Asian friends who follow basketball and who don’t follow basketball, and all the Asians (by which I include Asian American Pacific Islanders) without fail light up when I mention Jeremy Lin. The Non-Asians know who I’m talking about if they follow basketball but even then, one of my closest friends said last night, “Yeah, I’ve seen his name everywhere. What the hell is going on?” I told him to watch a couple of YouTube videos (or read my damn blog post, hellooo). If they don’t care about basketball, they see the name in their Facebook feeds but seem puzzled that I’m so excited about this guy.

Jeremy Lin’s career is just starting. He can’t keep up this torrid, amazing pace forever (can he?). He’ll lose. He’ll have some crap games.

It’ll be interesting to see how non-Asians — Knicks fans — react. It’ll be interesting to see how he fits into the team dynamic once Melo, a notorious ego and ball-hogger, is back with the Knicks. It’ll be interesting to see if this is the start of a long and fruitful career for Lin, and if he serves not just as a lightning rod for hype and attention (and a boatload of terrible puns) but as a beacon for other young Asian Americans who are just as crazed about basketball, to follow.

That’s when we might be able to look back and see in the dark mists of the past that Jeremy Lin is the Jackie Robinson, the Joe Louis, of Asian America — the guy that wore the stereotype of the Harvard-educated good son, the humble and somewhat self-effacing young man, AND, like professor Yu points out, was the equal of the super-masculine stars on the court, shoulder-bumping and strutting and making effortless three-point shots with half-a-second left in the game.

That’s when we might have the perspective, after the hype’s deflated, to see that Lin was able to balance these two parts of himself and be both. At the same time.

I hope so. How cool would that be?


On the lighter side, there’s been some great humor expressed online with a Lin twist:

Moye Ishimoto Otto, one of the wonderful voices on 8Asians, blogs handy tips for “How To Overcome Jeremy Lin Fatigue.” Me, I ain’t tired of Lin just yet.

David Letterman riffed on the Lin puns that have proliferated online and off:

There’s a new hit Tumblr, “Hey Girl, It’s Jeremy Lin” that the New York Daily News reported on.

The Onion, ever the mature outlet for subtle satire, featured Lin in its sports show (uh, NSFW language and screaming sportscaster dudes):

Knicks Trade Jeremy Lin For Selfish Asshole Who Plays Knicks-Style Basketball

The blog that actually noticed his ability and predicted Lin’s success in the NBA crashed from too much traffic, but it’s back online now.

The BBC reported on how Taiwan has taken Lin to heart in the past week.

For the stat nerds among us, here’s an interesting post, “The Jeremy Lin Effect,” from NM Incite, a media tracking company, that points out among other facts that viewership of Knicks games in the New York are has jumped 73% — man, think how much money Lin is generating for everyone involved in the team, the networks, and in advertising.

Furthermore, “Online mentions of Lin went from zero prior to February 4 to 0.32 percent of all online conversation on February 15—more than the Knicks, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant combined. Half of the conversation about Lin has been positive, with associated topics including humor (23% of Lin’s buzz), “LinSanity” (22%) and comparisons to veteran NBA players Kobe Bryant and LeBron James (17%).”

Matt Kawahara of the Sacramento Bee wrote a solid and piece about Lin and Asian America, which ends with words from Rex Walters, head basketball coach at the University of San Francisco the last Asian American to play in the NBA (he’s hapa Japanese American), from 1993-2000.

Forbes reports Jeremy Lin has an agent and he’s shopping his memoir. How long can a 23-year-old’s memoir be?

From Gawker: The Non Sports Fan’s Guide To Jeremy Lin

MetroDad writes in “Hoop Dreams: The Rise of the Asian-American Baller” about how, as an Asian American man who loved playing sports when he was younger, he identifies with Lin, and urges Lin to represent… until it’s no longer a big deal for an Asian American athlete to dominate the NBA.

The nice side-effect of Lin’s meteoric rise is that the glow of his success is shining some light on the pioneering career of Wat Misaka, the Japanese American baller who was drafted by the Knicks in 1947 — the first player of color in professional basketball. NPR talked with Misaka, who still lives in Salt Lake City (he led Utah to the NIT title ) and produced this report. And Karie Meltzer on Yahoo Sports also tracked Misaka down for a story, “Pre-Lin: Wataru Misaka Was The First Asian-American And Non-Caucasian To Play In The NBA.”

Conan O’Brien spoofs the offensive fortune cookie sign shown on MSG, the Knicks’ network:


Ky-Phong Tran in New American Media on “Why Jeremy Lin Matters: Asian Male Image in the Media,” a pretty great piece that recalls the offensive character Long Duk Dong from the ’80s “brat pack” film by writer-director John Hughes, “16 Candles.”

To truly appreciate and understand the joy of what Jeremy Lin is doing right now, to know why so many of us Asian American males are wearing his jersey and chanting his name, you had to have cringed as that gong sounded whenever Long Duk Dong came into a scene. You had to be called his name at school and pretend it didn’t hurt and then laugh along with your “friends.” You had to let that shame burn inside you until it bordered on self-loathing.

I posted a short piece about “The Donger’s legacy” in 2008.

Jon Bois of SB Nation posts a funny, insightful FAQ about Jeremy Lin and Racism.

A British take on Americans’ view of China, hooking in Jeremy Lin and Pete Pokestra’s racist Super Bowl ad.

SF Chronicle columnist Gwen Knapp writes about Yao Ming, Lin and the asexual depiction of Asian men in western pop culture.

See my separate blog post about ESPN’s use of the word “chink” in a headline about the Lin and the Knicks’ loss against the Hornets.

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3 Responses to Jeremy Lin and Linsanity: Followup thoughts on race and Asian America

  1. Kei says:

    “The race stuff may just be ramping up, and that’s why Asian America identifies so strongly, and emotionally, with Lin. He’s the new lightning rod for Americans’ sometimes uneasy, sometime ugly and ever-evolving feelings about Asia, Asians and Asian Americans.”

    Very well said.

    wrt Floyd Mayweather’s comments: the worst part about his comments is that we’ve resorted to turning to the likes of him for our social commentaries, when he’s shown himself time and again to be a complete ignoramus.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    You’re right about Mayweather — he says outrageous stuff like an idiot…

  3. Christy says:

    Errr… sorry this isn’t related to the post, but just thought you might want to know if you don’t already: is offering *free* access to two WWII Japanese-American Internment Camp databases this week (until Feb. 23rd), to mark the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066.

    The links can be found on this blog entry:

    Pass it on to anyone who might be interested!

    (My hobby is family history research and I’m currently a paying member of, and so I get their ads and things by email. It’s a great website, but pricey, so best to get the free stuff when it’s available! I usually only join for a few months at a time because of the cost.)

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