I have been staring at my computer screen for 10 minutes. I have 22 e-mails in my inbox from the last hour. I’ve sent text messages to over a dozen people. I can’t concentrate. I keep on trying to come up with a series of complex sentences and metaphors to describe what I’ve just seen and how I’m feeling and nothing’s coming to mind. I write thousands of words a week, and somehow I can’t find the words to adequately describe the one sports story that I’ve had the biggest emotional response to.
Jeremy Lin just dropped 38 points on Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Lin was an undrafted free agent in the 2010 rookie class coming out of the very prestigious academic heavyweight Harvard University. There’s almost no need to say it, but as one of the finest institutions of higher learning on the entire planet, Harvard isn’t exactly renowned for its athletic programs. Before Lin, only 3 other varsity basketball student-athletes had ever made to the big leagues. In fact, the Harvard pedigree has produced twice as many United States Presidents (8) as they have NBA players (4).
Despite taking his high school team to the California State Championship his senior year, Lin was only offered a basketball scholarship by 2 schools; Harvard, of course, and Brown University. Lin chose Harvard, only to see the program flourish underneath his skilled handle. The Crimson went on to their winningest season ever, and along the way, defeating the #17th ranked Boston College Eagles in 2009, and then again the following year (not to mention the next two years WITHOUT Lin – so maybe this speaks more to the inferiority of a supposed ACC-caliber team in the Eagles than the upstart Crimson).
Jeremy went unselected in the NBA Draft, as few scouts and critics saw him as anything more than a somewhat athletic Ivy League player whose collegiate dominance was supremely tied into the substandard competition he faced. Lin, as many undrafted free agents do, went on to play in the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League, hoping to catch on as an invitee to any training camp, or at best, sign a non-guaranteed contract with one of the 30 teams. To the surprise of everyone (except for perhaps those who saw his skill firsthand in high school or college), Lin was one of the most effective players in Vegas, dropping nearly 10 points in 18 minutes on 54% shooting. Scouts were stunned by Lin’s confidence with the ball, his decision-making ability and fearlessness in the face of more polished prospects. He was soon signed by his hometown Golden State Warriors.
Right there, in signing a two-year non-guaranteed deal, Lin’s story was already an incredible one. He had overcome college scouts and coaches that didn’t think he was anything but a limited player that won at the high school level. Those same people didn’t think he could play well enough to warrant a scholarship to a 4-year college. He erased the stigma attached to playing in the Ivy League, a league known more for its scholastic achievements than any athletic endeavor. Even after overcoming all of those obstacles, he still managed to fight through the ignominious distinction of being undrafted, ignoring all the professional scouts and taking the hardest road to the NBA. Anything that he had achieved, right in that moment of being signed to a professional basketball contract, should have been enough.
Lin averaged only 2.6 points in 29 games as a Warrior. He was cut as soon as the NBA lockout was lifted last December, only to be signed and waived 12 days later (on Christmas Eve, no less), by the Houston Rockets. Then, on December 27th, he was claimed by the guard-desperate New York Knicks. All the previous events had been dissapointing, but yet in a serendipitous turn of fate, Lin somehow landed on the team and situation for his talents to best thrive.
That’s how we got here. From 6 years ago when Lin was wondering if the end of his high school basketball season would be the end of his competitive basketball career, to today, when he threw down 38 points against the Lakers and led the Knicks to victory, Jeremy Lin has overcome every single hurdle that’s come his way.
I have not once yet mentioned that he’s Chinese-American.
The storylines emerging from the Knicks-Lakers game are numerous, but two in particular are most noteworthy. Yes, this story is incredible not just because of his ethnic heritage. Just looking at Lin’s face, that’s the most obvious tale to come out of this fascinating narrative. But that’s only a small part – as I’ll get to, that’s relevant to me personally, but that’s not the overriding reason why his journey is of any note.
His story is astonishing because of the drive he’s had to succeed, and how he’s emerged from relative obscurity to averaging the most points in any man’s first three starts since 1976. Tonight, ESPN’s Marc Stein reported that before Tuesday’s deadline, when unguaranteed contracts become fully guaranteed, Lin was perilously close to being cut by the Knicks. To go from the doomed two-word phrase that is the waiver wire to not only being a starter on one of the NBA’s most important franchises, but also looking like he belonged there — that’s the main story. The national story is that in a time in our shared American history when unemployment is high and fanciful dreams of careers like being a professional athlete are extinguished faster and harsher than usual, this kid was able to snatch his career from the edge of termination and turn it around completely. Lin was almost like 8.5% of our labor force a few days ago. And now he’s on the front page of every sports news site in America, and on the lips of anyone that turned on the TV tonight. That is the story.
The story isn’t about how he’s overcome subtle racism against the overtly discriminated Asian-American community. It’s not how the negation of Asian masculinity in American media played a part in coaches from national universities not taking a second look at him. The story isn’t how, as I heard one refined and articulate bar patron say behind my back tonight, “all these Asians who don’t even like basketball are coming out of the woodwork to watch this guy play”.
This isn’t a story about any of that. I can’t say that those threads aren’t a part of the intricate tapestry of this entire tale. That would be untrue. I feel those things in my experience as an Asian-American wading in the waters of a largely white social scene. I feel sometimes inadequate next to the strong jawlines and 6 foot 3 frames standing around me at the bar. I know how it feels for a girl’s family to dismiss me as any sort of threat because I am a little Asian man. I am wholly aware that these are undercurrents in our politically correct society that passively refuses to address what is an ongoing affront to a segment of the population who has had the fortune of not having a completely tortured cultural back story in this country. But what I know and what I saw tonight are entirely different stories.
Tonight, Friday, I saw a man that on Tuesday was nearly fired from his job, go minute for minute with another athlete who many consider to be one of the best at this particular job, ever. I saw Jeremy Lin take the ball for a completely overmatched and undermanned Knicks team, and transform the whole contest with every action he decided to make. Lin took the ball strong to the rack, moving around a vaunted Lakers defense that is not just statistically, but practically feared all around the league as being one of its most tough and physical, especially in the paint. He made back-handed, twisting lay-ups with defenders in his face — the same defenders who, when they stepped out on him beyond the arc, watched helplessly as he drained another of his three pointers for the night. Lin stared down Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Matt Barnes and Steve Blake — 4 veterans that have combined for over 45 seasons and 10 titles — and took each one of them to school. He ran the pick and roll to deadly efficiency, not afraid to make a tight pass in traffic or a long dish to the corner. Lin trusted his teammates to help him win the game, and they in turn trusted him to take them there, despite logging nearly half as many minutes in the past 4 games as he played all of last season. In the sincerest and most flattering way possible, Jeremy Lin looked like a poor-man’s Steve Nash tonight. It wasn’t just the passing, the weaving in and out of lanes or that every one of his shots had the conviction that they were going in. It was the leadership, the fire and the swagger that showed that he was the best player on the court tonight – better than Kobe – and that he was going to do whatever he had to do to win that game.
I was never very good at basketball. I loved watching it, I liked playing it, but I was never good. In fact, I’m still not good. When I play pick-up these days, my three rules are 1) hustle, 2) play some tough defense and 3) foul the shit out of someone – foul hard, and then throw yourself on the ground, so it looks like you might not have meant to make contact.
When I was a kid, I always knew that this is what my basketball “career”, as it were, would amount to; being 27 and throwing my body on the ground so someone might mistake my blatant fouling as hustle and grit. To some degree or another, I thought that’s where all my Asian-American peers would land too. Somewhere in the wide valley of amateur skill, between being a halfway decent pick-up player, to an abomination on the hardwood (KOBEsh special), to walking on to a squad at a D-III college. Nothing more, nothing less. No one had any dreams of playing in the NBA.
I didn’t grow up in urban black America, nor am I an urban black American, but I’ve seen enough NBA interviews where I know that there are a lot of black basketball players who dreamed of becoming professionals. They thought about it while dominating their AAU leagues, playing in highly publicized high school state title games and while in front of Digger, Jay and crew in Chapel Hill. Some of them had fathers that played in the great L, to varying degrees of success. And regardless of whether or not they made it or they didn’t, the dream was there. People actively hoped and wished and thought that if only the right people could see them and they could catch the right breaks, maybe they’d be on the Sportscenter Top 10 one day.
The fathers and mothers that I knew were lawyers, doctors, advertising executives, engineers, pharmacists, postmen, the list goes on. No one looked at their parents and thought “nah..I’m gonna go pro in something else. In basketball”. Even the most skilled Asian kids I knew never even mentioned a dream of playing in the NBA. That was so far removed from reality. The notion of someone like us being able to run, jump and fly with these gigantic black and white athletes didn’t seem like anything that could ever feasibly happen. Playing in the NBA is a dream to everyone, even those with the God-given gifts from childhood. But to us, we didn’t even dare dream about it – that would be a waste of time. I can’t emphasize enough how entirely far-fetched the idea of becoming a professional basketball player was to anyone I grew up with — you might as well have said to me that you were going to be a velociraptor when you grew up. It was just plain silly.
To see what is happening with Jeremy Lin puts me into a place that I can’t describe. I said “What is happening?” at least 17 times tonight. Staring at BockerKnocker’s gloriously Asian face, I kept on yelling “There is a Chinese guy in Madison Square Garden…dropping 30 plus….on the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s OUT-DUELING Kobe Bryant!” Even typing those words at 2 in the morning, I have a wry smile on my face, with my head slowly moving from side to side, as if the disbelief will dissipate with an east to west motion. To see what Jeremy Lin has done tonight, whose face looks more like mine than any NBA player before him, in front of a rabid and adoring Knicks crowd in the biggest city in the country, is mind-blowing. Everything in basketball that I previously perceived as impossible in regards to the Asian-American community has been thrown towards the wayside, like a discarded Shumpert jersey.
Tomorrow there are going to be hundreds, if not thousands, of Asian-American kids who hit the gym thinking “well, if one of us did it…” That’s exactly what this is. For the first time in a long time, I feel the notion that “we” did something. The Asian-American community so rarely has a cultural breakthrough in American society to make because, quite frankly, we haven’t had that much to overcome relative to our persecuted brethren in the American minority. Jeremy Lin’s extraordinary play is going to have an effect like Jackie Robinson did in 1946, Roberto Clemente had in 1970 and Tiger Woods had in 1997. This is that monumental. The barriers that halted us from even daring to dream have begun to fall as gracefully as a Jeremy Lin corner jumper. Just like Jackie Robinson hitting a home run off of Bob Feller, or Roberto Clemente taking Sandy Koufax to task, Jeremy Lin just showed me that an Asian-American is just as well-equipped to face down the best players in the NBA as LeBron James is. Or Kevin Love. Or J.J. Barea. I can’t stress this enough — I never thought that this would ever even be possible. Under no circumstances, could I have ever fathomed any of us ever hanging with the greats of the NBA.