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.