When frighteningly fickle hoops fans are chanting “MVP” after your first career start, then you know you might be something special. When you become the first player since Lebron James to have at least twenty points and eight assists in your first two NBA starts, then you know the sports world will take notice. When you provide an infectious glee to a group of teammates who look at you with naked, near tearful gratitude like you’ve dragged them from basketball purgatory, then you know you have made an impact. When you are also the first American-born player of Asian descent ever in the NBA as well as a Harvard graduate, and you play with a black-top flair that defies preconception and prejudice, then you know you’re poised to draw unbridled attention. When you do it all in New York City, then you have to know that the hyperbole will not be constrained or contained. Welcome to Lin-sanity, otherwise known as the feverish outpouring of adulation heaped upon the new starting point guard for the New York Knicks, Jeremy Lin.
Lin has become a magnet for attention. He’s, on one hand, part of a tradition of NBA players who don’t fit in stereotypical boxes and then attract eyeballs. Remember Jason “White Chocolate” Williams, the tattooed Caucasian with game courtesy of Rucker Park. Seven-foot three-point shooters like Dirk Nowitzki or diminutive players like Muggsy Bogues, Spud Webb or Earl Boykins or tall point guards from Magic Johnson to Shawn Livingston always drew initial attention just because they possessed the shock of the new. No sport is as naked as the NBA, with faces and bodies on full display for crowded fans and HD cameras and when we have someone who breaks a superficial mold, attention will always follow.
But Lin already represents something more significant. When Jack Johnson became the first African-American heavyweight champion, using a style both cerebral and severe, he defied racist conceptions of white supremacy as well as stereotypes that decreed African-Americans didn’t have the intelligence to apply strategy and smarts to sport. We can say the same about Jackie Robinson when he did more than just break baseball’s color barrier and win the Rookie of the Year in 1947. Robinson also played with a grace under pressure that challenged white—and even many black—preconceptions about mental toughness on the highest stage. In addition, he did so while playing with an energy that forever changed the game. Or consider Martina Navratilova. Yes, she blazed trails just by being an out and proud LGBT champion tennis player. But she also played with a muscled strength and swagger that changed women’s sports forever. The Williams sisters owe as much to Martina as they do to Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson.
This is the power of Jeremy Lin. It’s not just that he’s a cultural curio: “Asian-American from Harvard in the NBA!” It’s the way he plays the game. Asian-Americans, in our stereotypical lens, are supposed to be studious and reserved. We would expect nothing less than that the first Asian-American player would be robotic and fundamentally sound; their face an unsmiling mask. In sports, we haven’t moved that far from the days when we expected Jack Johnson to be a wild, undisciplined brawler in the ring or Martina to play on the baseline. Instead, we have Jeremy Lin threading no-look passes, throwing down dunks and, in the most respected mark of toughness, taking contact and finishing baskets. Before last night’s game against the Wizards, as the CBS Sports Blogger Hardwood Paroxysm wrote, Lin had played 136 minutes and had seven plays where he was fouled and scored. By comparison, Golden State Warrior star Monta Ellis played 795 minutes and had only eight. Yesterday, Lin smashed chins with the Wizards John Wall, and played the rest of the game with a Band-Aid loosely hanging from his face.
But most impressive—and transgressive—is that he plays with a flair and joy that in two games has given a dour, mopey Knicks team a sense of purpose and joy. His pre-game handshake alone with teammate Landry Fields has more intelligent soul than Donald Glover.
The Knicks have been a depressing operation all season, best exemplified by their all-star starter Carmelo Anthony, who catches the ball, holds it, holds it and holds it, as teammates slouch their shoulders, frown and do everything short of taking out their phones to make post-game plans while waiting for their star to shoot. Only with Carmelo’s injury have we seen the emergence of “Jeremy Lin’s Knicks.” They pass the ball like they’re playing hot potato and at every timeout the team is on their feet at the bench: smiling, laughing and looking like they are the luckiest people on earth because they are being paid to play hoop.
In the middle of every sideline giggling, chest bumping, mosh pit is their point guard, Jeremy Lin. This is the true heart of Lin-sanity. It’s not the Asian-American piece, although the pride he’s producing is nothing to dismiss and people of Asian descent have been breaking ankles on courts for decades. It’s not the Harvard piece. It’s not even the flair that makes you question stereotypes of how he’s “supposed” to play. It’s that when he’s doing his thing, you forget all the superficials and all the racial detritus, and just see his grin and feel the joy. Maybe it won’t last. Maybe he’s just played well against awful teams. Maybe Carmelo will play the role of Nurse Ratchett, ordering the Cukoo’s Nest to stop having fun and making Coach Mike D’Antoni give Jeremy Lin a basketball lobotomy. But for now we can relish in the Lin-sanity: a player who breaks the ultimate stereotype: making tired NBA players look like they’re having the time of their lives.
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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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