Sitting on my parents’ couch outside San Francisco in 2006, flipping channels, I happened across a replay of that year’s high-school state championship game. I was quickly riveted by a skinny Taiwanese kid from Palo Alto, who repeatedly herked and jerked his way into the paint for points, leading his undersized team to a dramatic victory over heavily favored Mater Dei. Even then, Jeremy Lin’s game couldn’t exactly be described as pretty. But he refused to shy away from either pressure or contact in the biggest game—against the biggest dudes—he had probably played in his life. I’ve never been accused of having too much “Asian pride,” but I had no compunction about grabbing a fistful of Jeremy Lin stock early. I was getting in on the ground floor.
It wasn’t difficult for me to root for him. Like Lin, I am Asian-American, born and raised in the Bay Area to immigrant parents from China. Like Lin, I was once a 5-foot-3 high-school freshman whose late growth spurt saved my basketball career (such as it was). I played the same position as Lin, and, like him, captained my varsity squad. After receiving no Division I scholarships, Lin “settled” for Harvard, where he studied economics and, as a senior, led his overachieving team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and racial slurs endured. Despite a highly decorated Ivy League career, no NBA team selected him in the draft. As a senior at Berkeley, I also studied economics and—this is where the comparison starts to break down—led my second-tier intramural team in turnovers, elbows, and minutes logged under the influence of drugs. I, too, went undrafted.
As Lin’s college career progressed, I tracked the slow trickle of highlights and box scores from afar. After I moved to New York, I saw him in person for the first time, in a game against Columbia his senior year. That summer, I flew to Las Vegas for the NBA Summer League and watched from the front row as Lin won over a packed crowd that had shown up only for John Wall, that year’s No. 1 pick. I could almost begin to perceive the hazy outline of a modest professional career. Lin’s fearlessness in the paint, his savvy defense against quicker opponents, and his pretty backdoor passes could easily translate into valuable minutes off the bench. But there were also signs of weakness, ones that would later appear during his unexceptional rookie campaign with his (and my) hometown Golden State Warriors: the tentativeness, the lack of elite athleticism, the shaky jump shot.
That was a year ago. In the last week, you may have heard something about Lin’s scarcely believable rise to worldwide fame. The bare numbers don’t do his performances justice; the highlights from the past five games could fill the reel of an average player’s career. And no one saw this coming. Against the New Jersey Nets on Jan. 4, New York Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni—faced with a threadbare roster and public calls for his head—turned to little-used Lin, who was reportedly on the verge of being cut. One magnificent game at Madison Square Garden became two. And, playing on basketball’s grandest stage, that’s all it took to set the social media networks ablaze. A week later, with a demolition of Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers under his belt, Jeremy Lin had grown into a legitimate global phenomenon, one with a catchy, punning name: “Linsanity.”
The giddy e-mails and texts from friends poured in from both coasts. I had never seen so many exclamation points, such flagrant abuse of all caps. We cycled through the silly puns, the elaborate hashtags, the hyperbolic nicknames. (“Asian Tebow!” “Yellow Jesus!” We settled for “JLin.”) And while I shared in the mounting excitement over his exploits, the inner indie music fan in me resented some of the less-knowledgeable fans who rushed to adopt Lin as their own. And this sudden surge of company led me to scrutinize my attachment to Lin for the first time. I had known him first and foremost as an athlete, but the narrative I saw being constructed around his unlikely ascent—the parental grooming, the singular determination, the Harvard education, the religious faith—reminded me more of old Asian-American friends with whom I’ve lost touch, the ones who, to be honest, I just don’t have much in common with anymore.
Is that Jeremy Lin narrative accurate? Maybe. But I worry that his success will validate and reinforce familiar stereotypes of “Asian-ness”: the hard work, the humility, the studiousness, even the Christian faith. Last Wednesday, taking my seat at a bar to watch Lin face the Wizards, I actually became self-conscious—Lin-secure?—about openly cheering for him in public. Would my skin, my features, my identification with Lin now mark me as just another workhorse who puts his head down and does what he’s told? Perhaps that sounds overly sensitive or paranoid to you. But then perhaps you’ve never suspected that others look at you and see, as Wesley Yang wrote in New York Magazine, “an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it.” What I fear, I’m beginning to realize now, is that beneath this Linsanity is an invitation for others to preserve these safe archetypes, confirmed as they are in such a novel and visible and accommodating source.
On the court, there are also Lin’s occasional goofy grins—the blue-Gatorade smile that betrays, at least to me, an underlying happy-to-be-here modesty. Sure, he’s thrown a few mannered fist pumps and indulged some comradely hip checks—plus the nerdiest pregame handshake ever—but he hasn’t exhibited that top-shelf swagger you see from players at the peak of their games—Jordan’s tongue wag, Nowitzki’s sneer, Dwyane Wade’s gaze at his unstoppable hand.
Certain athletes tantalize us with visions of our ideal selves. “If only I were a few inches taller,” we think. But, in a selfish reversal, I began to craft a more ideal Jeremy Lin in my mind. I was jealous that he could be so easily swiped by these late-comers, the overachievers, the do-gooders, those who didn’t need or deserve him. I wanted to reclaim him for us failures, the nobodies, we who disappointed our parents with our low-paying jobs, who were relegated to pickup games at old middle-school gyms, who drank to excess, who feared no God. For us Asian-American males, in particular, it seemed that an opportunity to stifle the attacks on our masculinity was passing us by; Lin was always going to be more Harold Lee than Bruce. I didn’t need Lin to be an outright villain—I would have been fine with a scandalous headline or two (“Lin: ‘High on Cocaine When I Dropped 38’ ”). I guess I just wanted him to make us look cool.
We ask a lot of our athletes and heroes. The best of them always find ways to give more. On Saturday, I took in Lin’s first really human performance of the week (“just” 20 points, on 8-for-24 shooting from the field, with six turnovers). Yet you could make a decent case that this was his most impressive game. Clearly exhausted on the second night of a back-to-back and given no second-half rest while playing catch-up against something resembling an actual NBA defense, Lin was still at the very heart of an improbable comeback, his late assist and free throw turning a three-point deficit into a road win over the Timberwolves they had no business getting. Amid the cheers and exultant cries cresting in the bar as time expired, I felt my self-consciousness slip completely away.
For the first time in a week, I didn’t wish for Lin to be anything other than what he was—an utterly unique and galvanizing basketball force. I raised my arms in victory with everyone else in the packed bar and tried in vain to hold back a wide, beery smile. I don’t even like the Knicks.
How could anyone begrudge Lin his naked joy, his infectious effort? How could you not appreciate his poise in the face of this scrutiny, these expectations, the whole mass of us clawing at him across two continents? How could I ask any more from this 23-year-old kid? He had transported me back to that first game I ever watched him play, before I knew who he was or what he believed. I saw only a basketball player capable of dragging a bunch of scrubs to new heights, a point guard, a leader—one who happened to look just a little bit like me.