I have a confession to make: I am a basketball fan. When I was growing up, many years before the realities of race entered my mind, my father bought season tickets to the New York Knicks, and I attended many games at Madison Square Garden for about seven years straight. Like most fans, I have been closely following the rapid ascendance of New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin.
Mr. Lin is a 23-year-old Harvard graduate who was passed over by all 30 NBA teams in the 2010 draft. After seeing only a few minutes of playing time in 29 games for the Golden State Warriors last season, Mr. Lin was booted from the Oakland-based squad. He was then picked up by the Houston Rockets, who cut him just days later. Afterward, Mr. Lin joined the New York Knicks, making the team only because so many Knicks players were injured. Mr. Lin was used sparingly in nine of the Knicks’ first 23 games this season. He was also sent to the NBA Developmental League for one game, but was called back after a good performance. Mr. Lin’s first meaningful minutes were played against the Boston Celtics on Friday, February 3rd. The following night in a game against New Jersey, “Linsanity” began.
Mr. Lin came off the bench that night to score 25 points, hand out seven assists, and grab five rebounds, leading the Knicks to victory. Two days later, he got his first NBA start, and paired 28 points of his own with 8 assists for another Knicks win. In the next four games—all W’s for the Knicks—Mr. Lin put up scoring totals of 23, 38, 20, and 27, while averaging 9 assists per game. In one game, he hit the winning shot with 0.9 seconds left on the clock. This Wednesday, Mr. Lin scored 10 points and registered a career-high 13 assists, as the Knicks romped Sacramento.
“Linsanity” has truly swept America. Jeremy Lin has certainly been the biggest non-Tebow sports story in years, and arguably the biggest professional basketball story in decades. He has single-handedly resurrected an underachieving Knicks team, filled Madison Square Garden, and reignited the interest of many apathetic NBA fans. “Linsanity” has accurately been compared to the “Tebowmania” of the past NFL season, though Mr. Lin’s feats may be even more impressive.
What does race have to do with this? Mr. Lin is an American-born Asian. In fact, he is the first American-born player of Taiwanese or Chinese descent in the 65-year history of the NBA. And because Asians are so rare in basketball, race has been a common theme in Mr. Lin’s career, even before he got to Harvard. Mr. Lin himself suggested that some colleges refused to recruit him because of his race: “I do think (my ethnicity) did affect the way coaches recruited me. I think if I were a different race, I would’ve been treated differently.” Mr. Lin also called basketball, “a sport for white and black people.” He is not the only ethnic Asian who recognizes racial stereotypes in hoops. Former NBA player Rex Walters, a Japanese-American, says this: “It’s an Asian thing. People who don’t think stereotypes exist are crazy. If he’s white, he’s either a good shooter or heady. If he’s Asian, he’s good at math. We’re not taking him.”
Mr. Lin has faced frequent racial scorn during his young career—from opponents, fans, the news media, and even athletes from different sports. He has been jeered with taunts of “go back to China,” “open your eyes,” and “orchestra is on the other side of campus.” He has been referred to as “wonton soup” and “sweet and sour pork.” An opponent in the Ivy League once called him a chink, and when he showed up at a Pro-Am basketball game in San Francisco, Mr. Lin was reportedly told, “Sorry sir, there’s no volleyball here tonight.” Even the New York Knicks home TV station, MSG Network, got in on the act by airing an image of Lin with a broken fortune cookie that read “The Knicks Good Fortune.” MSG later claimed the image was of a sign that a fan had brought to the arena.
In just the past week, Mr. Lin has received two racial taunts. The first was from black Fox Sports writer Jason Whitlock. While Mr. Lin was torching Kobe Bryant and the L.A. Lakers for 38 points last Friday, Mr. Whitlock tweeted “some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight,” and was roundly condemned by the Asian American Journalists Association. Three nights later, black professional boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. tweeted, “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.”
The second sentence in Mr. Mayweather’s tweet is simply wrong. Black players do not do what Mr. Lin has done “every night.” In fact, Mr. Lin scored more points in his first five games as a starter than any player since the NBA merged with the American Basketball Association back in 1976. Furthermore, the fact that Mr. Lin went undrafted and was cut by two teams in a span of two weeks makes his feats all the more remarkable.
Although Mr. Mayweather is wrong when he says, “all the hype is because [Lin] is Asian,” Mr. Lin’s ethnicity is certainly a big part of what attracts fans. It would be the same if an unknown black hockey player suddenly went on a scoring spree. Any time a player does something racially unexpected, race will be part of the reaction.
But there is more to “Linsanity” than point totals and race. Mr. Lin is admired because he is such a pleasant change from the black-dominated thuggery that prevails in the NBA. Two years ago, black NBA players Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenden brought loaded guns into a locker room at the Verizon Center in D.C. In October, 2006, Indiana Pacers guard Stephen Jackson fired 9-millimeter rounds from his handgun in a dispute outside an Indianapolis strip club. And many will remember the ugly Pacers-Pistons brawl in Detroit’s home arena in 2004, which resulted in Stephen Jackson, Ron Artest, and Jermaine O’Neal punching several fans, on the court and in the stands.
During the last few decades, many black NBA players have gotten into trouble with the law. On-court fights and brawls happen fairly often, and foul language is commonplace. Mr. Lin, with his Asian roots and tattoo-less arms, is the antithesis of the NBA thug life. He is well-spoken, well-educated, and selflessly showers his teammates with praise. Like Mr. Tebow, Mr. Lin’s open religious devotion increases and intensifies his fan base. At the same time, black players, sportswriters, and media commentators recognize what Mr. Lin represents, and this is why many of them cannot stand him. Jeremy Lin calls attention to the poor behavior, poor English, and boorishness of black athletes and much of the larger black community.