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.