As the Basketball and Asian American community stares in wonderment at the story of Jeremy Lin, one has to ask themselves what is truly the appeal of such a player.
Some have surmised that he is the NBA’s Tim Tebow, a player with unconventional skills (bad at passing, good at running), but an exceptional knack for winning. Others have said he’s the epitome of the American Dream, work hard and eventually you’ll make it. My own opinion is very unlike both these, yet sadly inter-twined. That Jeremy Lin’s incredible run is mesmerizing because it is one of an underdog; an underdog not because of his lack of skill or hard work, but because of cultural and societal oppression that still permeates the country, perhaps not as individuals, but as a whole.
As Tim Tebow’s story emerged, criticisms of his ability to pass were prevalent, but no one questioned his drive for winning. Using the tools given to him, of an impressive ability to run the ball, Tebow managed to win consistently. Many Christians saw Tebow as a role model, someone with very strong faith that made it to the NFL. A curious thing, since many players black and white are very out spoken in their belief in God, often thanking God in post game interviews. In fact 60-75% of Americans identify themselves as Christian. So in my estimation, Tebow’s popularity is in one part his success, combined with his extreme devotion, and in some part because being white makes the general population of white Christians identify with him.
Jeremy Lin’s emergence and popularity is in some way similar to Tebow’s, however, unlike Tebow’s background, Lin is an outlier statistically. Lin is the only Asian American on any roster of the 450 NBA players. In his college career fewer than .5% of Division 1 basketball players were Asian-American. These two statistics may show why Lin has struggled throughout his career to get noticed.
A consensus Norther California D2 Player of the year, Lin didn’t even manage to get a scholarship offer. Even Lin’s career at Harvard was nothing short of stellar, ranking top ten in points (17.8ppg), rebounding(5.5), assists(4.3), steals(2.4), blocks(.6), FG%(.502), FT%(.744), and 3pt%(.400). Such an incredible line of stats would normally get players noticed. And yet Lin was not noticed by the NBA, going un-drafted and receiving only one invitation from the Dallas Mavericks to play in the summer league. After averaging again solid stats in summer league, out dueling John Wall, and averaging 9.8/3.2reb/1.8assists/1.2 steals in 18.6 mpg, Lin finally began to receive offers from NBA teams.
In the NBA Lin failed to get significant playing time, eventually being waived by Golden State, claimed by the Rockets, waived again, and eventually claimed by the Knicks. Lin played nothing but garbage time minutes for the majority of the season, but in garbage time averaged incredibly impressive stats 5.6pts/3assists/1.4rebs in 8 min of play per game. Still it took a stroke of unfortunate luck with injuries to Iman Shumpert and Baron Davis, combined with Toney Douglas playing like complete shit, for Jeremy Lin to get his shot.
Truthfully Lin’s career could have been over at so many points. Had he not played a summer league game, or not been picked up off waivers by a desperate Knicks team looking for pg depth, Lin’s career may have simply ended. The question becomes how could a player with so much potential be ignored for so long? Lin’s story of success is not one of simply hard work and talent, but one of luck and breaking a stereotype of Asians in the NBA. His critics still believe he lacks athleticism, despite showing off his quick first step and ability to finish at the rim. Many believe he can’t keep up this kind of production, 25+ppg/7+apg, which would be all-star caliber, and in Derrick Rose’s case MVP type statistics, I am personally in this camp. But one has to wonder, if a black player performed similarly, would he have been ignored for so long?
It’s this kind of systematic and cultural racism that is still commonplace today. While individual racism may be largely eradicated, for example using racial slurs, this kind of cultural racism is often just as impeding towards the success of otherwise qualified individuals. The idea that Asians are not basketball players has likely held Lin’s career back, and his success is a triumph that makes this story so great.
But his success brings a forward an issue that must be considered by everyone. The amount of luck such a talented player needed to make it, should elicit the thought that perhaps programs like equal opportunity in universities and other diversity encouraging programs are necessary to balance out our own underlying cultural biases.
Lin’s story is an inspirational breaking of the mold for Asian-Americans across the country. The general population may find an appeal in the way he has broken from the cultural norm held for him. His story is a great example that racism is not simply white on black and that our culture carries stereotypes of every race that subconsciously bias us for or against those races; identifying these biases is critical in moving towards a more equitable future.