Feel the Lin-sanity: Why Jeremy Lin Is More Than a Cultural Curio

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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Wat Misaka

Please check your facts:

Wataru "Wat" Misaka was the first American-born player of Asian descent to play in the NBA, and he was drafted by the New York Knicks.

Nate is correct

Jeremy Lin is the first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwan descent to be in the league.

Yes, Misaka

was the first Asian-American player, but that was in the late 1940's. That NBA was very different from what it would become, just 10 years later, nearly unrecognizable from now.
It doesn't make Lin any less of a story, as he is still the only Asian-American player in the league right now.

As far as ethnic stereotypes go, he did not get a scholarship offer from a D1 school out of high school, despite winning a state title in California. When you think of all the schollies that could have been available in 2006 in his own state alone, all the more astonishing that nobody offered him. Did any coach subconsciously pass on him due to an odd prejudice? No way to know for sure, and I'm sure no coach would admit it.

Dave, I don't know about you, but I've seen Lin likened to Tim Tebow as a sensation. I thought it was a fine headline, and while both are Evangelical Christian types, their experiences are quite opposite. As mentioned here and elsewhere, Tebow was ballyhooed out of high school, played for the best college football program with even more fanfare, and was drafted higher than his ability merited. Then to make the most of a foolish selection by a departed coach, his team simplified the play book to minimize damage.

Lin was underrated out of high school, played exceptionally at a school not known for its basketball, went undrafted, and had to fight his way onto a roster, finally catching a break when a team. Then when he finally got playing time, his resident stars were unable to play, all the while on a team with a coach hanging onto his job by a thread. Oddly, of the two, Tebow was the one born in Asia--what??!


As a 58 year Golden State/San Francisco Warrior fan I have to ask....


Whaaaa??? First of all, WHAT do you have to ask? What are you talking about?

Second, you claim to be a 58-year SF/GS Warriors fan---58 years ago (1954), they were still in Philly. So you were a fan all the way back then? Whoa----


Dear Dave,
The celebratory coverage of Lin in the NYT did include one reference to Lin's game as "shifty." OK, that's just one odd note out of a long article. Even more interesting were Kobe's praise for Lin after the Lakers' loss to the Knicks that echoed the "model minority" myth of "hard work ethic." Ironic given that the Asian model minority myth appeared as part of the denigration of the black family as a "tangled web of pathology" in the Moynihan report.


carmelo and amare have been out this entire time (funny not a single article on lin mentions this) so if you look at the knicks roster it is pretty terrible so who else would they have score?

somebody needs to take shots and score for them and lin happens to it.

so me how good lin is after carmelo and amare have been back for a week.

Here's an article to make NightTrain even sadder...


Also missing in a lot of these stories is D'Antoni's influence on PGs. Considering Nash became a 2-time MVP under D'Antoni and Raymond "Fatty" Felton was being touted as an All-Star last season prior to his trade out of NYC, it's obvious D'Antoni -- a crappy PG himself in 4 seasons in the NBA -- had something to do with it.

And Alex, re: the Moynihan "Negro Family" report. I'm curious, but is something "denigrating" when it's factual? If you want to see a "tangled web of pathology", look no further than the subject of your comment -- Kobe Bean, Vanessa Laine, and Natalia and Gianna, who'll forever be growing up in a broken home.

Maybe if Kobe had a stronger religious upbringing like Tebow and Lin he wouldn't be be committing adultery with teenagers in hotel rooms, and thus live down to the pathologies described in Moynihan's report.

P.S. Aaron, please explain how Tebow is overrated and his draft slot un"merited" when he helped his team win 6 games in a row plus 1 playoff game when the Broncos were going absolutely nowhere prior? Oh, the playbook simplification? Yeah, that's it. Fact is, you're just a hater and if Tim was of a different color I have a strong feeling you wouldn't dare to slam him.

Where's the correction? Zirin disses Wat Misaka

The first comment pointed out Red Zirin's historical error. Where's his correction?

Wat Misaka was the first American-born NBA player of asian descent. There's actually a good documentary on him:


Red Zirin is demonstrating historical ignorance and ethnic insensitivity. Red Zirin would opportunistically play the race-card against the writier, if it were anyone else.

Linsanity is the epitome of The Society of the Spectacle

it's sad but not at all surprising to see the fake Left gush over the vacuous spectacle of "Linsanity" (TM).

for those not so easily ensorcelled, i proffer:


the brutally rapacious and imperially criminal culture of make believe is burning but Left-in-name-only sports addicts rationalize their fiddling addiction with evangelistic zeal (without a trace of irony to boot).

and please let us not fall for the this-gives-hope-to-all-the-bench-warmers B.S.

for every Jeremy Lin there are a million bench warmers who will NEVER make The Spectacle.

and they should be proud of that!

for making Spectacle in this culture of make believe is unconscionable.

ultimately, it helps few and harms many.

this is what amerika is all about:

glorifying few at the expense of many.

"radical sports" is an oxymoron.

re: um...'s comments

So if Amare and Melo are out and Lin is in and the Knicks are winning...doesn't that mean that Lin is a much more positive force on the team? Not that he's a better player but he makes the team better. The Knicks were far below 500 when it was the "Amare and Melo" show.


This is an awesome underdog story. I hope it continues at least until they lose to the Bulls in the playoffs.

The best comparison to Lin is Kurt Warner. Both came out of nowhere and got there shot after injuries. I've been trying to think of another basketball player that came out of nowhere to greatness even it's only for a short period of time. Baseball had Fernando-mania and football has Tom Brady and Kurt Warner but nobody in basketball. It seems rare is pro basketball that a guy can be so dominate when nothing was expected. Most superstars are 1st round picks or at least 2nd rounders that fell in the draft for one reason or another.

Committee for Historical Justice for Wat Mitsaka

We the Committee for Historical Justice for Wat Mitsaka DEMAND that Zirin correct his egregious historical error.

Wat Mitsaka was the first American-born NBA player of Asian descent.

Apparently Asian people don't register in Zirin's history. Is Zirin a bigot?

Uh, no.

Just because a fact may, or may not, have been missed doesn't suddenly turn someone into a bigot. Quite the irony considering that the whole point of the article is to discuss the fact that, possibly, one of the only reasons Lin is getting attention is because he's Asian.

Is mentioning race, racist?

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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 dave@edgeofsports.com.
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