Jeremy Lin is the new face of Asian overachievement

February 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Harvard economics graduate and basketball star, Jeremy Lin is blazing a new chapter in Asian American achievement. While we in New Zealand are still waiting for the first Asian All Black, Lin has become an almost overnight sensation in the NBA for his electrifying performances for the New York Knicks over the past few weeks.

This Taiwanese Chinese American (Taiwanese because his parents came from Taiwan, Chinese because of his ethnicity and American because the United States is his birthplace) story is one of those against the odds stories that become part of the folklore of any sport. But for millions of Asian Americans, he has even greater value for being, like them, of an ethnic background that breaks the usual tropes of what it takes to be a successful NBA player.

Until Lin appeared to burst on the NBA stage this month, there were no Asian American professionals in the top rank of US professional basketball. Many of us know Yao Ming (now retired) but he was a Chinese national and had the massive advantage of being two metres 29 centimetres tall. That’s seven feet six inches in old money.

Jeremy Lin is a less statuesque one metre 92 centimetres or six foot three inches. To put his recent exploits in perspective, Lin had only played 55 minutes in total for his New York Knicks team’s first 23 games of the current season. He was a virtually forgotten man on the bench until he got his first start. He was even on loan to another team in a lower league when he was recalled by Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni who candidly admitted Lin “got lucky because we were playing so bad”.

But he seized his chance like a glutton at a banquet. Against the Jersey Nets on February 4, Lin scored 25 points, helping his team to 99-92 win. He scored an astonishing 38 points against the Los Angeles Lakers and he made this astonishing play against the Toronto Raptors with seconds on the clock and the scores tied.

It’s been ‘Linsanity’ ever since. After he began starting for the Knicks, Lin led the previously struggling team on a seven match winning streak. He has been unstoppable, scoring freely and been integral to bringing winning NBA excitement to the Knicks home games at Madison Square Garden.

The trick about Jeremy Lin’s stratospheric rise in basketball folklore is very much about how he is absolutely dominating games and has become the team leader. He plays with no fear (something he attributes to his faith as a Christian) and shows incredible composure for a young player who has only just made it onto the NBA stage and is now playing among the NBA elite.

That is not to say he is without a weakness. He can turn the ball over to the opposition too often as he did against the Hornets, a defeat that brought the flying Knicks back down to earth and reminded everyone that Lin is human after all.

An undeniable factor in the appeal of Lin’s story has been his ethnicity as a Chinese American. He has become an iconic figure to the huge East Asian diaspora communities in the United States and Canada and he has also come to ‘represent’ Chinese in Taiwan and in the People’s Republic.

This excellent USA Today article explores the flukey quality of Lin’s emergence in a sport dominated by African Americans and what it means to local Chinese.

“We’re here for Jeremy Lin,” said Samuel Li, 21, a Chinese Canadian from Markham, Ontario, who attended the (Raptors) game. “He is the first of his kind. We’re Yao Ming fans, but he’s seven feet and from China. Jeremy is my size and from America. We can identify with him.”

The excitement translating into Lin’s growing popularity is naturally captured on social media. He has amassed almost 450,000 Twitter followers (he is @JLin7) and on China’s Sina weibo, he has nearly 900,000 followers. Lin was also reportedly the most common searched item on the Baidu search engine in China between February 2 and February 14 and he has become a feature in the Chinese language mainstream media. His number 17 jersey is the top selling shirt at NBAstore.com with Hong Kong and Taiwan being the third and fourth destinations behind the US and Canada.

There’s also been a lot of unintended comedy around the Lin story. ESPN had to apologise for its ‘Chink in the armour’ headline while Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock had to say sorry for his ‘two inches of pain’ tweet – a reference to the smaller than average penis size stereotype of Asian men!

Chinese netizens also ridiculed a Xinhua news agency article that explored the possibility of Lin, who is known by his Chinese name Lin Shuhao (林書豪), giving up his US citizenship so he could play for China at the upcoming Olympics.

This video of Lin’s heavily American accented and fairly elementary level Mandarin has been garnering views on YouTube.

Here’s another clip from the same interview, which won him plenty more admirers in China because he said he was Chinese. It’s a sensitive issue for many mainland Chinese because they resent the way people from Taiwan differentiate themselves by saying they are Taiwanese.

Meanwhile, the Jeremy Lin bandwagon rolls on. The Knicks won again after their loss to the Hornets and Lin was again instrumental.

There are so many arresting elements to this unfolding story.  Lin gets his chance and grabs it. He beats the odds and becomes a winner and a star. He triumphs over racial discrimination and ethnic profiling. He is a role model for Christian fans because he plays for his faith. He embodies the hopes and pride of millions of Asian North Americans. He makes millions more fans in China and Taiwan and inadvertently gets caught up in cross strait rivalry between the two. He becomes a household name to all Americans. Finally, he leads the Knicks to the NBA championship. Well, that bit is yet to come but what an exclamation mark that would be.

It could be a Hollywood movie, except if Hollywood had made it, the leading man would not have been Asian. That’s what, in the case of Jeremy Lin, makes real life better than fiction.

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