Why does Jeremy Lin’s story matter? For the past week, this is the question I’ve been trying to answer. I haven’t asked myself if it should matter, because that’s never been in doubt and anyone who disagrees at this point is simply a hater. But I’ve absorbed a number of different theories about why it matters and I’ve come to the conclusion that it has very little to do with the 29 NBA teams who overlooked his potential for greatness.

Well, it has little to do with the oversights of those teams unless we’re prepared to accuse some of the brightest basketball minds in the sport of being blind to Lin’s potential due to cultural bias — and that’s not an accusation I’m willing to make. However, I am quite comfortable with pointing out that fans of certain sports are inclined to believe that people of particular races and backgrounds are more likely to succeed at those sports than others — and that’s what I think really matters about this story.

There are details about Lin’s story that you could tweak that would make it less culturally significant. If he was seven feet tall, the fact that he was an Asian who went to Harvard wouldn’t matter as much because of the widely-held (and extremely ignorant) belief that it’s easy to make the NBA when you’re that tall. If he was one of those hard Asian kids from Chinatown who drop N-bombs not as a racist term but as a cultural identifier, the diehard hoopheads would shrug and say, “Well, he’s pretty much black, anyway.”

But what Jeremy Lin is, is a six-foot-three Asian-American from Palo Alto, California who is devoutly Christian and does not remotely resemble any of the stereotypes we assign to star point guards. His story isn’t simply paradigm-shifting, it’s paradigm-destroying.

There’s a strong likelihood that these words will seem ridiculously over-the-top in the not-too-distant-future — not to mention right now — but as I write this, Jeremy Lin has led the New York Knicks to a four-game winning streak. One of those wins was over the Lakers in Madison Square Garden. Nothing that happens after this point will diminish the significance of this storyline at the end of the season.

Sports fans and commentators can’t resist making comparisons any time an athlete dominates the media landscape like Lin has. He’s been compared to Tim Tebow because of his Christianity, to Yao Ming because he’s Asian, and his Harvard education has encouraged comparisons to… nobody. Harvard doesn’t have a strong NBA pedigree. I’ve struggled with this all week, but I think the comparisons that make the most sense to me are Tiger Woods and Serena and Venus Williams.

Twenty years ago, how many golf and tennis fans do you think would have believed that people like Tiger, Serena and Venus would end up dominating their sports the way they did? It’s not just that they achieved success at their sports, it’s the way they ruled their disciplines in their prime. In no way am I predicting that Jeremy Lin will dominate the NBA the way Tiger and the Williams sisters conquered their sports, but Lin’s impact on American youth could definitely rival theirs.

For better and for worse, the communications infrastructure of today means that Lin’s emergence has already been blown up to massive proportions. His story resonates far beyond the Knicks, Madison Square Garden, New York City and the NBA. Its much-needed message is that preconceived notions can distort the truth, but ball don’t lie.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Jeremy Lin is a flash in the pan and proves to be nothing more than a middling NBA backup who had a hot streak until the rest of the league figured him out. In 2012, when stories like his reach critical mass in a matter of days, Lin’s indelible impact on the next generation of ballers has already been made.

Comments (47)

  1. Wtf is an “Asian American”? If he’s Chinese, Japanese, Korean whatever, give him the respect and don’t call him “Asian”.

    • What? As an “Asian Canadian”, I wouldn’t feel disrespected if I was referred to as an Asian…that’s what we are.

    • stupid comment, ur a shmeezer

    • Asian American is someone with roots in Asia who has been raised in America. I am one of them. It’s an accepted term, we kind of band together anyway…

    • Rick, same.As African-American?

    • As Chinese/Taiwanese American I don’t mind that he used Asian American. Its really not that big a deal. Why do people always want to make a big deal out of something so minor? A Chinese/Taiwanese American is Asian American.

    • Rick – We don’t need you telling us what’s offensive towards Asians. Please don’t feel the need to defend us… we can do it ourselves when needed.

    • ….Then that should go for all things…why are “Blacks” referred to collectively as black or African American if the person is from Jamaica or Nigeria..etc.. they should be given the same respect as well…Just a thought….We are not a post-racial society irregardless of what people say.

    • Rick and Kamille are right on the money. When was the last time you heard any white person called European?

      • Kamille, they’re called black because they are black (they shouldn’t really be called african american if they are form jamaica etc) and whites are not called european because we are the majority in the united states.

    • Just my opinion.

      There have been other Asian players in the NBA before. Of course Yao, Yi, Wang Zhi Zhi, Sun Yue and Batur who played briefly for Toronto. All 6’8″ and taller. Even if you didn’t know who they were you’d assume that they were ball players or some sort of athlete.

      The appeal with Jeremy Lin is much like John Stockton’s and Steve Nash’s. Regular guys that look more like you and me. Unassuming athletes that we can relate to physically and also with the position they play in the game. Because of genetics most of us Asian men barely break the 5foot mark and are relegated to play the guard spots. Lin’s style of play, Asian decent and North American upbringing is easier for me to relate to than of Yao who is 7’6″ and who grew up in main land China,

      Jeremy Lin’s underdog story, his Harvard education, his Asian American appeal, his humbleness not to mention his GAME mixed together is what makes Linsanity.

      • While I agree that there have been other Asians in the NBA this is first time an AMERICAN Asian made it to the NBA which makes it easier for the Asian community in America to connect or relate. We can relate to him more then we could relate to the Asians born overseas.

    • Asian American is someone with an Asian heritage douchetard.

  2. great article. the shmee under me made a stupid comment. couldnt agree more with TBJ

  3. Basketball, Jeremy Lin, and being an Asian American: Why does it matter? tiny.cc/Lin

  4. Solid piece Scott.

    I completely agree that the J-Lin story is much greater than some people realize or are willing to admit. It goes beyond the court for all of the reasons you pointed out. The one reason I believe matters most is that Jeremy Lin’s story is helping to further erradicate people’s perceptions of what someone can or can’t do because of their race. (Stereotyping at it’s best…subconsciously most of us are probably guilty of it in one way or another, even if it’s small.)

    The NBA, moreso than any of the other major sports truly embraces & promotes diversity & international inclusion. Basketball is a sport that is played world wide. Given the constant racial issues that occur in the top soccer (football) leagues in Europe, I think the NBA is definitely well ahead in that game. It also helps that attitudes seem to be better for race relations in North America than they are elsewhere in the world, specifically Europe. I believe that helps Lin’s story get the exposure it deserves because of those tenants the NBA is built upon.

    All that said, this man can play basketball! There is A LOT of the season left…Carmelo, and Amare have to return still…That’s the next part of this chapter I’m waiting for!

    • “It’s the subtle racism of lowered expectations”…

      I don’t think you can actually evaluate race issues based on sports, as in Europe soccer stadium are one of the few lowly regulated places that serves as an outlet to racist people (as there are anti-racism laws in a lot of European countries, it’s illegal to express racism in every day situation, contrary to the US)…

      I’m just saying : sports fans in Europe are an outlet to racism that the US don’t “need” (nobody should need it, but, wtv) because racism in the US is expressed in other manners…

      You can also use Ty Lawson’s story in Lithuania to illustrate another point : most people in Eastern or Southern Europe see very few black people except for the athletes on their teams… Racism often comes from lack of (direct) knowledge.


      • Breyzh,

        You’re entitled to your opinion, but there are some flaws in what you’re saying.

        First of all, I wasn’t strictly talking about racism by fans – look at Luis Suarez. There have been MANY examples of racism in European soccer (football) by players & fans alike. The fact that FIFA & Nike have to run ‘End racism’ campaigns says a whole lot all on it’s own.

        Southern Europe (Southern France, Spain, & Portugal as prime examples) have plenty of African immigrants with countries like Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia being so close geographically. They DEFINITELY have people of African descent who live in their communities , NOT JUST athletes on their pro sports teams from abroad. You’re dead wrong on that one.

        Is there racism in North America? Sadly, yes. (See incidents directed towards Wayne Simmonds, PK Subban, and Kevin Weekes in the past as examples). The man who commited the indicent against Simmonds WAS charged! (And rightfully so!) Is it as prevalent in North America as it is in Europe? It certainly doesn’t seem to be. The incidents in Europe seem to occur at a unbelieveable rate for this day & age.

        You’ve also stated that many European countries have anti-racism laws, North America (especially Canada) has had various laws, regulations, and human rights for decades; that stand up against discrimination, racism, hate crimes, etc.. Certainly regulations across countries are different, but those activities are not tolorated in North America either – legally speaking.

        Your example of what Ty Lawson experienced overseas is still ignorant by any standard, and can’t be justified. People with those mentalities/attitudes need to be educated.

        • It’s not that easy… You can tell people 100 times that they are all the same, if they don’t experience it, they won’t believe you… In the trips I took in Spain, I don’t remember seeing a single black man (altough I certainly wasn’t particularly looking for them), when I went in Italy, the ony black people were illegal street vendors… Southern France is different, as there are a lot more black immigrants (or French black people from overseas territories) there, and France’s foremost football club (Olympique de Marseille) was managed by an African (Pape Diouf) for most of the 00s… There are also a lot of black people on the French national team, which is still rare in Italy or Spain.
          I think (altough I don’t have any data on this) that most immigants in Spain and Italy are from Northern Africa, and therefore are considered arabic, and not black…

          The anti-racism laws are different not in their prevention of discrimination or racist actions,. but reguarding to freedom of speech : if you say something racist in France or Switzerland for instance (even if it doesn’t affect anyone directly), it’s a penal offense ; if you say something racist in the US, it’s freedom of speech.
          I actually studied this briefly, so I should know what I’m talking about.

          If you want to talk about racist athletes, you should also remember Jason Williams’ (White Chocolate) alleged racism towards asians…

          The situation in Europe and the US are different if only because racism in Europe is also related to immigration and xenophobia (most black people in Europe don’t have 400 years of family history there, contrary to the US). For instance in Switzerland the people being blamed for most bad things (unnemployement, crime rates) are from ex-Yugoslavia : is it racism or xenophobia ? Another example that comes to mind is racism/xenophobia faced by Eastern Europeans in Russia…

          And again, a lot of people in Europe are unneducated, and you are right in that regard. I just don’t know if telling them they’re wrong is really a useful solution.

          I guess, what I’m trying to say is : you can’t judge racism in football in Europe using American “goggles”, the same way we Europeans can’t judge the fact that the Ku Klux Klan is still alive and well using our European “goggles”. Don’t be preachy about something you don’t know…

          Of course Europe is racist, but using football/soccer to judge it is pretty retarded…

    • I think you mean “tenets.”

  5. Great article

    Lin will make a cultural impact, mainly because he is American, and not an import like Yao.

    He destroys whatever stereotypical ideas you might already think you you know about him, or someone who looks like him.

    I love stories like this, because it gives hope that one day we can be judged not by our skin, but by the content of our character… Or rather our skill sets.

    Whoever jumped off the Knicks bandwagon is hopping back on again, that’s for sure…

  6. The one thing that doesn’t quite work with the Tiger/Serena/Venus comparisons is that basketball is already incredibly popular with Asian-Americans.

  7. Is it really any stranger than a caucasian South African born soccer player winning league MVP twice?

  8. The racial element of basketball is stronger than anyone has the guts to say. And also, it’s not really caustic, it’s rational. If a white guy were to go to any primarily black pick-up court, it’s %100 chance that in the first game he will be guarded by the other white guy, or the worst black guy – and that guy will be pissed off with a whole “why do I gotta cover the white dude all the time?”

    Likewise, if a black guy comes in to a white gym, he’ll get respect and be covered by the best guy. that’s a 90%er.

    any Asian pick-up ballers have an insight as to what it’s like to be an asian at various courts?

    Lin is also important, more than race, because he upsets the current odious star structure. I’m a knick fan, and watching Carmelo and A’mare come here and take front row seats at Fashion Week, doing magazine covers, and acting like rock stars? Man, that’s LA. NYC is for ballers, and Lin plays the game with a real ballers joy.

    I’ve been down on the NBA for a long time, because the game was going to shit. All ego, and deferral to stars and Chosen One’s and who’s #1 and #2 etc. Lin, Durant – these guys play the GAME. And that’s what I like to see. Jeremy Lin in the Year of the Dragon!

    • “Carmelo and A’mare come here and take front row seats at Fashion Week, doing magazine covers, and acting like rock stars? Man, that’s LA. NYC is for ballers.”

      Around the office, that’s how I’ve explained Amare’s terrible play the first few weeks of the season. He got very comfortable being in the bright lights of NYC, enjoying he and Carmelo’s big name brands and forgot there was a game to play as well.

      That will change going forward. Amare and Melo want in on the fun. Plus the craziness of the Garden, right now? It has to remind them the real reason they wanted to come to NYC in the first place.

      That’s a great thing.

    • i used to play some pickup ball at a local gym. the crowd was mixed – blacks, whites, a couple of asians, my indian friend (south asian, not native american).

      it was hard to get in the game – most guys wouldn’t want to play with a 5’9″ asian kid with glasses. when i finally got some burn, i played pretty decently. i took a few of the bigger guys by surprise by posting them up, and i knocked down a couple of threes. same thing with the indian dude – smaller than me but athletic with great range on his jumper. he made a few baskets as well, and we were competitive. you could tell that the regulars at the gym didn’t take us seriously, and it was a huge surprise that we could play.

      of course, we didn’t dominate any games – we were just competitive enough to earn the guys’ respect. there was never any trash talk about our ethnicity, but you could tell that we weren’t expected to play as well as we did.

      • Is this about race, or respect? If you were a ‘regular,’ then the other regulars would know you could play already and it probably wouldn’t be an issue. If you’re the ‘new guy’ then you have to prove yourself as worthy to play in the game, regardless of the colour of your skin.

        Whenever I play someone I’ve never seen before, pickup or reffed game, I won’t play D as hard as I can against them until I see what they can do. If they can ball, then I step my game up. If not, then I don’t waste my energy. Perhaps this is what you were facing.

        I do this, and am certain that I’ve been on the other end of it as well.

  9. I’ve heard a few people make the point Scott makes. I’m skeptical that expectations about Asians or Asian-Americans in basket-ball is much different from expectations about white players, but I’m not really sure. Whenever a non-black player emerges and can impact the game in ways other than getting assists and shooting spot-up threes, it will be a slightly bigger deal.

    I find the Lin story exciting for the same reasons as Billy–It “upsets the star structure”. Melo and Stat took the Knicks nowhere, now the team is winning without them, thanks to a guy who orchestrates a team-based offense.

    Also, Lin has got to be the most extreme underdog story in the history of the league. He was a nobody, a D-leaguer and a fourth string PG on a team that wasn’t deep at the position. Suddenly, he’s statistically had the best start of his career in NBA history. AND the stats have turned a major market team from losers into winners (including wins against the Lakers). AND they got the wins without Melo.

    I find those things more exciting than the race aspect.

    • I’m sorry, but I think Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki can “impact the game in ways other than getting assists and shooting spot-up threes”…

      It’s not because they don’t dunk that all they do is shoot 3s….

      But I agree that the underdog story is more interesting.

      • That’s obviously true about Dirk and Nash, and a few others as well (Manu, eg). My claim is that when a non-black star emerges, they get a little more attention than an emerging black star with a similar skill set would (I recognize that I’m being VERY speculative). I didn’t mean to say that every non-black player can only shoot spot-up threes or get assists.

        Also, after reading some more stuff, I’m starting to change my mind and agree more with Scott. I do get the sense Asian-American are really excited about Lin and that that’s part of why this is a big story.

        I have to say… I hear a lot of commentators saying it’s ok to identify with your own group when you watch sports, and I agree. But shouldn’t we be a little more delicate with our preference for our own race? Maybe I’m a product of the politically correct 90′s, but I feel like that stuff could be kept a little more on the dl.

  10. I don’t get what the big deal is. I get owned by Asian Americans at the John Wooden Center here at UCLA pretty much every time I go play ball.

  11. I love the fact there’s a guy that my children can look up to and say, “Hey this guy looks like me, and is a baller”. They can be proud of that and although I don’t expect them to stop worshiping Kobe Bryant, KD, or CP3, they can now point to their “own” NBA player. Yao wasn’t it, he was big, he was from China. He wasn’t like my kids who were born here. There was a lot of respect, but he didn’t play basketball the way kids do now.

    Lin? Hell yeah, he’s an athletic guard with skill that takes it to the rack. This has been great, not just for asian americans (or Hong Kong transplants with American born children in our case), but also for the global game of basketball.

  12. Great match from Lin. I wonder how long he will maintain this efficiency. Maybe NYK should trade Amar’e and Melo because there was some D-fence actually. When “stars” will return it may not be so good.

    Another case is D-League. NBA clubs should pay more attention to players in there, it is possible that there are more “Lins” over there.

  13. Nice article. Tiger and Williams is a thought-provoking comparison. When I compare him to Tebow, I base the comparison not on faith parallels necessarily, but on his career arc, charisma, and the way his cerebral gifts and attitude seem to overshadow his athleticism. Both were sort of dormant backups initially, arrived as starters via injury, and then, most notably, enjoy this same peculiar wave of national fan support. The popularity of these two athletes seems unique and unprecedented, although I can’t articulate how their fame is different from that of fan favorites of the past.

  14. I remember Lin last year when he was on Texas longhorns in the summer circuit and he played better than Wall i thought he was going to be a good player but he barely played last year I am happy he got his chance to shine. Also mavericks and Lakers tried signing him last year but he decided to play for GS.

  15. Kamille, “irregardless”? Really?

  16. Was Tyrone Lu not the first asian-american player? He was asian wasn’t he?

  17. All I see is paragraphs.. -__-

  18. i already hate jeremy lin and the hype surrounding him. i couldn’t care less about where he comes from or what he represents or what he looks like or whatnot – he doesn’t seem to have any characteristics as a player and i’m already tired of reading about him. hope this fades away quickly. sorry to be so negative.

    • haters going to hate….plus the media built him up not his fault…if you bothered to listen to any of his interview he is 1 of the most well-spoken and humble NBA player. Did you watch his games? He drove to the basket with impunity…pretty sure thats a characteristic!

  19. This was a good article. I hope they dont put him on the bench, or give him a back up roll when amare and melo come back. if they do, COME TO TORONTO LIN, and Feel Alright!

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