It would seem that Linsanity, in its early fervor, has passed. Two months after Jeremy Lin’s headlong surge to NBA superstardom, the overwhelming buzz that initially spread across campus, as it spread across the world, has quieted down. After the Harvard alum joined the Knicks’ starting lineup and began his career in earnest with one of the most remarkable streaks in the history of the league, his numbers dropped. His proclivity for turnovers emerged like an elephant in the Garden. The Knicks lost six games in a row and saw head coach Mike D’Antoni resign before returning to their winning ways, followed closely by the announcement that Lin will miss the remainder of the season with a torn meniscus. Commentators, all the while, have begun to wonder whether Lin, in this Cinderella story, was handed his crown too soon.
Boxing champion Floyd Mayweather, Jr., for one, ex- pressed his skepticism through Twitter, writing, “Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise” — and he was (mostly) right. Others have asked, why does Jeremy Lin have to be the Asian basket- ball player? Why can’t he just be a good player who hap- pens to be Asian? Anyone can relate to an underdog story. Everyone here at Yale can root for a fellow Ivy Leaguer. On a basic level, they’re simply calling for equality.
But when you try to be politically correct, it can be easy to miss the point.
I asked senior swimming captain Chris Luu, whose parents migrated to California from Taiwan and Vietnam, if he had any Asian sporting heroes growing up. After a pause he said, “No — I know that there was a pretty good Asian tennis player named Michael Chang, who, I don’t know ….” He clicked his cheeks, as you might when you realize at the bottom of the stairs that you’ve forgotten your wallet on your desk. “You know, none of the sports that I really followed, so … no.”
Jeremy Lin is one of only a handful of Asian-American players to make it to the professional ranks in any major American sport. The first was Japanese-American player Wataru Misaka, who in 1947 suited up for the New York Knicks of the Basketball Association of America to become the first non-white player to reach the game’s highest level. In the same city and year in which Jackie Robinson became baseball’s first non-white professional, Misaka did the same for basketball. But unlike African- Americans in the major leagues, very few Asian-American players have followed suit and made it to the NBA since then. Overshadowed by the Knicks’ other guards, Misaka played only three games before he was cut.
Lin, too, was nearly cut by the Knicks before his last- minute emergence in February. He was cut twice before, in fact (by the Warriors and then by the Rockets), after going undrafted out of college (despite leading Harvard to an NCAA tournament berth) and receiving no scholarship offers out of high school (despite leading Palo Alto to a California state championship). He was overlooked — in no small part because of his ethnicity.
“I’ve come across stereotypes,” said Nick Okano, a Yale freshman football player of Japanese and Russian descent. “I would say more so in the recruiting process. Junior year and summer going into senior year, I went to a bunch of college camps, and I would just say I feel like I kind of have to prove myself a little more.”
The job of a scout is to discover athletes capable of competing at the next level, but in sports where talent is largely subjective — unlike in swimming or track and field, where times tend to speak for themselves — Asian athletes can be overlooked. Their success, in the eyes of recruiters, results from first-rate skill, but they lack the basic athleticism necessary to compete at the highest level (except, perhaps, in sports that require a different kind of athleticism, as in table tennis or gymnastics). Lin, for ex- ample, has frequently been praised as “deceptively quick” because, as common knowledge tells us, Asians aren’t fast. “Not many Asians play at a high level,” Okano continued. “Not a lot of Asians, I would say, even play to begin with.”
One of the reasons for the relatively small representation of Asian-American athletes at the college level, in- cluding Yale, Luu suggested, may be “that Asian-American parents tend to have their kids focus more on academics than anything because there has been a stereotype that Asian-Americans cannot — or, are inferior to other races when it comes to physical ability.” Lin is important, of course, because he’s begun to challenge those claims.
But it remains that most Asian-Americans can’t, won’t, and, in fact, don’t want to be the next Jeremy Lin. Be- yond the most manifest declarations of physical inferiority, though, Lin dispels stereotypes that affect all Asian- Americans — not just those that are exclusive to Asian athletes and not just the instances of plain racism that have emerged over the last two months and would have been condemned anyway. Rather, he defies several less evident manifestations of prejudice, those subtle stereo- types that operate not through overt hostility but through conditioning — not through bigots but through friends — to the point where even those whom they affect begin to believe them.
It’s easy to deny stereotypes; it’s more difficult to dismiss them entirely and believe in yourself fully when no one has been able to succeed before. It’s not that Lin is a better player than everyone else. (He’s not.) Rather, it’s that he’s Asian and fully capable of competing with those to whom he was just months ago deemed second-rate; that he was born and raised in the United States and is not treated as some perpetual foreigner; that he plays point guard, actively directing his team’s offense with the ball in his hands, and that he’s not too quiet or acquiescent to make a good leader; that he competes with a Band-Aid hanging off his chin or a wad of gauze plugged up his bleeding nose; that he can sink a game-winning shot and then celebrate, the thrill unmistakable on his face; and that he’s more than just a smart, diligent machine lacking the same passion or heart as everyone else. He can’t be just a good player who happens to be Asian. He can’t be an exception rather than our example.
When I was in high school, my co-captain, training partner, and best friend on the cross country team was white — technically Argentinian and Jewish, but white in most people’s eyes. He frequently got sick and occasion- ally missed workouts for a week at a time. I sometimes broke down with injuries but didn’t miss practice otherwise. We’d go back and forth in races. A couple of times, he ran so hard he collapsed at the line. His eyes rolled back in his head, and an ambulance took him away until his temperature dropped and he was rehydrated.
Sometimes when I did a workout alone, on one of those days when I felt light and strong and was hitting my assigned times to the second, my coach would call out, “You’re a machine!” It’s a compliment in our sport. It was the best thing he could have yelled in that hurried moment as he glanced at his watch and I darted past. I heard it a lot.
After one of those workouts, another teammate re- peated after him: “You’re a machine.” My co-captain, though — “He just has heart.” My teammate didn’t mean anything by it, of course, but that essential sort of misun- derstanding from a friend has a way of hitting harder than a stranger’s hate is capable of. Whenever a race didn’t go as planned, the questions came: did I really push as hard as I could have? Do I just lack something that everyone else has? There was doubt. It’s still there, but it’s begun to quiet down. I’ve found some Linspiration.