Seventeen Guesses about Jeremy Lin

On the appeal and future of Jeremy Lin.

This past summer, I vaguely remember watching an NBA TV special about undrafted players that touched on the now ubiquitous Jeremy Lin. At the time he seemed vastly less pitiable than the other aspiring pros featured—his Harvard degree guaranteed that he would not be banished to Slovakian league if he didn’t make it in the majors.

Lin has since become Linsanity, a subject for Saturday Night Live skits, or 林书豪 in your Tudou search. He is the current, brief king of New York City, whose Giants just won the Super Bowl and whose favorite basketball team features two high-paid All-Stars in Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. Less than a year ago the Knicks made the splashy signing of Anthony on the belief that he would become king of NYC if able to deliver a championship after years of disappointment. Basketball remains the only big four sport (basketball, baseball, hockey, football) in which a major New York team has not won a title over the past twenty years.

In a metro area holding seven major franchises, Lin may have the largest dedicated cheering section between Chinatown residents and the usual Knicks fans. Until recently, fans were mordant about the home team’s chances. After injuries and a slumping start, Madison Square Garden’s reception to a winning streak was understandably joyous, especially one led by their undrafted point guard.

During his coming out party this past week, television cameras kept turning to the MSG crowds. The cameras paid particular attention to Asians in the audience. Nothing has been said, probably because nothing needs saying. Asian-Americans should be joyous to have a player to call their own, and they certainly look that way on ESPN. Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian were nice, and, in Yao’s case, transformative in some respects, but they were not of the Chinese-American community and certainly not of the broader Asian-American community in the United States.

Another reason Lin’s Asian-ness and its relationship to the crowd has not figured more prominently in the discussion are the overlaps within his underdog identity, split in some way between a) going undrafted, b) his Harvard degree, and c) being Chinese-American. Figuring out what goes where is difficult in this case. The second and maybe bigger reason is that his wide embrace by fans and players highlights that pro basketball’s racial sensitivities have not moved much beyond black/white.

Yao Ming did face real racial discrimination when he entered the league, most notably from fellow big man Shaquille O’Neal. But O’Neal’s foolish comments were more akin to a childlike encounter with foreignness and not indicative of a sharply racial divide like the Palace of Auburn Hills brawl. How the NBA chooses to market Lin, and how he markets himself, will depend on a discussion of race the likes of which the league has previously only undergone regarding African-American stars.

Yao Ming was generally liked during his NBA tenure and popular enough to be a long-time All-Star and spokesperson for Apple and McDonalds. But there was little difference between his initial role as Imposing Chinese Giant and the career arc that followed. Yao was foreign and big, but he was also a consistently good player. If Lin can keep this level of play going game in and game out, he might be able to do what Yao never did: make a legitimate imprint on American sports and pop culture. 林疯狂 could be here to stay.

Some trends to watch for in Jeremy Lin’s new life:

  • No one likes the shooter; will Lin’s superstar and super-rich teammates like Anthony, Stoudemire, and the hobbled Baron Davis continue to cheer him on when they return and find that some of their shots are in Lin’s stat column? I have heard comparisons made between Lin and Jason Williams’ rookie year with the Sacramento Kings, but keep in mind Williams wasn’t taking shots but primarily creating them. The announcers were practically egging Lin to shoot, but a few awful halves and that may change.
  • Lin’s appeal split amongst the various Chinese communities in the U.S., Taiwan, and mainland China. Let the tug of war for Jeremy’s love and self-identity begin!
  • Linning: to the delight of headline writers everywhere, Lin rhymes with everything.

Until answers (and more “-in” headlines) arrive, we here at The Hypermodern look forward to Jeremy Lin’s next twisting layup.