I watched the Knicks play the "world champion" Dallas Mavericks this past Sunday primarily because I was curious to see Jeremy Lin. I wanted to get a sense of how this young man plays and gauge what all the noise is about.
Lin, 23, the first Taiwanese-American to play in the NBA, is the supernova of sports right now. His story is compelling: Harvard graduate, undrafted, cut from the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, sleeping on his brother's couch, toiling in the NBA's Development League, riding the bench as the fifth-string point guard and almost cut from the Knicks.
Then he sailed into a perfect storm: Injuries to key people who play ahead of him like Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony; a coach who relishes up-tempo play and ball movement; and perhaps most importantly, Lin grabbing this stellar opportunity and running with it.
The 6-foot 3-inch, 200 pound Lin can ball. He is an energetic, instinctive player who possesses the "fiery confidence" to drain a three or rattle the basket with a thunderous dunk. He has so far befuddled most defenders he's come up against. The sport world is abuzz with the fact that the Knicks, which for the last few years has been a mediocre, sometimes terrible team, has come alive with the infusion of Lin's energy.
Against the Washington Wizards, Lin poured in 23 points, outplayed John Wall and led the Knicks to victory. He followed that with a 38-point performance against the Los Angeles Lakers. Lin led the team to seven straight wins and in his first five career starts, he eclipsed Shaquille O'Neal and Dan Issel's 129 points with 136.
Everybody is falling over themselves trying to explain the Lin phenomenon. I don't know why him and why now. Such questions are, in my mind, almost impossible to explain but I'm guessing David Stern and the NBA brass are strutting around with broad smiles because of the Lin juggernaut. They relish the positive spin that the NBA surely needs and welcomes, particularly after the lockout last year and the often rancorous negotiations and name-calling that followed. And the dollars rolling into the NBA's coffers don't hurt either.
It is amusing to hear the hyperbole used by sport writers, pundits, and reporters as they try to capture the mania that bubbles around Lin. One of the first terms to pop up was Linsanity. And in the days and weeks since Lin's explosion onto the sports stage, I have cringed at the many lame attempts to capitalize on Lin's popularity. There is "Lin-credible", "thril-Lin", "Lin-sational", to name a few.
More than anything, the iconoclast in me revels in the many ways the Lin saga shatters the tired stereotypes posited as truth when referring to Asians and other non-whites. Asians are often portrayed as two-dimensional cardboard cutouts whose faces stay buried in books all the time, who manhandle exams and all become doctors and lawyers. By this model, Asians aren't supposed to play ball this well. But Lin does.
He isn't a pointy-headed nerd who stumbles over his feet and looks clumsy on the ball. He has moves, as Wall, Kobe Bryant and a host of other defenders can attest. Lin has so far dismantled the notion that he lacks the pedigree to excel in the NBA, as he overcomes ethnic stereotypes. He is generating an enormous outpouring of racial pride for millions of Asian Americans who identify with him and he has scaled the heights of the NBA, doing what no one else of his particular ethnicity has done to this point.
As one writer put it, Lin is "... Yao Ming with a crossover, who just happens to speak perfect English."
Lin, however, a devout Christian, attributes his success to God.
As sportscasters try to describe Lin, I am reminded of how blacks were regarded in the National Football League for many decades. It was thought that African Americans lacked "the essentials" to play in thinking positions such as quarterback, safety and linebacker. Instead, they were routinely shunted to positions more suited to their athleticism and natural prowess. Doug Williams and many of his peers took care of that idiocy.
It is no different with Lin. Folks conjure up generalizations about his high basketball IQ and his mental acuity, while often overlooking the reality that the dude is a skilled athlete who is playing some serious ball at the highest levels.
The issue of race in America may always be this country's bugaboo, especially with a black man in the White House. If nothing else, Americans have learned that rather than the election ushering an era of post-racial harmony and acceptance, we have instead, witnessed a deepening divide and a greater polarization of Americans along racial lines.
To be sure, racism has emerged from the shadows as evidenced by the racial slurs on Twitter and other social media, and an ESPN editor losing his job and an anchor suspended for 30 days for using a racially offensive word in reference to Lin. Boxing great Floyd Mayweather raised eyebrows and stimulated red-hot discussions and arguments when he tweeted that "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."
While Mayweather may have a valid point, he erred by focusing solely on race.
Lin's story is the archetypal American rags-to-riches story. As Bob Marley recounted in his song Ride Natty Ride, Lin is the stone that the builder refused who is now the head cornerstone.
Americans have naturally gravitated to this story because of those redemptive elements and they are loudly cheering Lin's success. And as Lin passes, soars, scores and stutter-steps, he will continue to cement his place in the NBA. But only time will tell if he is a flash-in-the-pan or a bona fide star.