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Why Jeremy Lin Matters

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China Power

Why Jeremy Lin Matters

How Taiwanese-American basketball star Jeremy Lin could transform stereotypes of Asian-Americans.

One writer who must be excited right now about basketball team the New York Knicks phenom Jeremy Lin is Michael Lewis, America’s best writer of non-fiction. In his book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, Lewis profiles the Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane, as he stole unseen stars from wealthier teams by exploiting baseball’s prejudices; unlike the rest of baseball, Beane wasn’t interested in good looking athletic players who either hit homeruns or struck out nobly, but in smart players who got on base. In The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, Lewis uses the inspiring rags-to-riches story of a poor homeless African-American high school player to explain how football strategy and tactics have evolved over the years. 

And at long last, with the arrival of Jeremy Lin onto the world stage, Michael Lewis can complete his sports trilogy. 

Lewis’s book would begin with last Friday, when basketball’s best player, Kobe Bryant, and his Los Angeles Lakers side waltzed into Madison Square Gardens. Having just heard of “Lin-sanity,” Bryant’s both bemused and annoyed. He’s heard how six days before, Lin, a player who slept on his brother’s couch and whom the Knicks were debating whether to pay minimum wage, scored 25 points against the New Jersey Nets, lifting the Knicks to a rare win and himself to instant Internet fame. And then Lin led the Knicks to victory against both the Washington Wizards and Utah Jazz, scoring over twenty points in both.

That’s all Hallmark movie-of-the-week nice and sweet, but now Lin and the Knicks must play against Kobe Bryant, who has led the LA Lakers to five NBA championships. And the Knicks haven’t beaten the Lakers since 2007. Plus the Knicks are missing their two star players.  

So when Lin played the best game of his life, scoring 38 points against the Lakers, leading his team to a 92-85 win, even Kobe Bryant had to acknowledge Lin was no longer an Internet sensation, but a star:  “Players don’t usually come out of nowhere. If you can go back and take a look, his skill level was probably there from the beginning. But no one ever noticed.”

The 6 foot 3, 200 pound, 23-year old Lin’s story is truly remarkable. He’s the first Harvard graduate to play in the NBA in almost sixty years, and he’s the first American of Chinese or Taiwanese ancestry to play in the NBA. And his five games of averaging 20+ points make his the best start in NBA history. So Bryant’s implied question “How come nobody noticed Lin’s star potential?” would be the focus of Michael Lewis’s book, not just looking at how basketball players are born and bred, but also looking at the often ignored Asian-American community, and how Lin’s ascent promises to forever transform the Asian-American identity.    

Kobe Bryant is right in that Jeremy Lin had the skills to be a superstar all along. As a high school senior, Lin captained Palo Alto High School to a state championship, and was considered the best high school player in California. He hoped to play at UCLA or Stanford, but no college offered him an athletic scholarship.  He got stuck at the professional athlete’s idea of a ghetto called Harvard, where he set Ivy League scoring records.  Upon graduation, no NBA team drafted him, and when he signed with the Golden State Warriors, many speculated it was a publicity stunt, as Jeremy Lin had a large and loyal following among the local Asian-American community. He bounced from one NBA bench to another before ending up on the bench of the Knicks and sleeping on the Manhattan couch of his brother, a dental student at New York University. The Knicks were about to cut Lin when injuries and hopelessness called him off the bench against the New Jersey Nets.         

So why didn’t anyone notice Jeremy Lin before?

The first answer is that sports teams often aren’t good at figuring out who’s really good, as Michael Lewis illustrated in Moneyball and as Malcolm Gladwell argued in his New Yorker article, “Game Theory.”  Both Michael Lewis and Malcolm Gladwell make the same point:  That professional baseball and basketball teams overvalue individual performance statistics, and undervalue statistics that show an individual’s contribution to team success.  As he’s demonstrating with the New York Knicks and has previously demonstrated with Palo Alto High School and Harvard, Jeremy Lin is an excellent leader, ball passer, and court strategist, but he lacks the flashiness of an Allen Iverson, whom Gladwell considers one of basketball’s most over-rated players. 

The second answer is complex and murky:  That Lin was discriminated against because he was Asian-American.

As Michael Lewis reminds us in Moneyball, professional athletics discriminates against most people, especially those who are short, fat, or pitch underhand, irrespective of their actual ability and talent.

What’s interesting here is how Lin’s success could alter the way Asian-Americans are perceived and how they perceive themselves. 

While Lin is the quintessential American underdog story of hard work and tenacity, passion and persistence conquering all it wasn’t an Asian-American story until Lin came along. Cultural prejudices against Asian-Americans tend to be stubborn and persistent because they happen to be mostly true:  Many Asian-Americans excel in school without showing passion or curiosity, and become professionals where they demonstrate little initiative or creativity.

When college recruiters saw Lin play, many were probably thinking “He’s a scrawny Asian-American kid” and some may have been thinking “Does he have the passion and drive to excel at the game, or is he just playing us so that he can get a full scholarship to come to our school, drop out of the program to focus on his grades, and then end up as an investment banker?”  And Lin probably didn’t articulate his love of the game because he also has those stereotypically Asian-American traits of humility, forbearance, and reticence.        

As Lin’s recent performances prove, he must passionately love the game, which permitted him to stay focused and work hard, despite the cultural discrimination and his lack of genetic gifts. And that’s what makes him such a compelling story to people all around the world, whether they be basketball fans or not.

Lin will undoubtedly have some bad games now and then, but he’s already proven he can play in the NBA, and he will undoubtedly finish with a great first season that will herald a great professional career. But his historical significance will be how he’s a cultural pioneer, breaking barriers and prejudices, and transcending the limitations of his sport, his identity, and his time. 

Jeremy Lin has made all Asian-Americans and many East Asians proud. And for young Asian-Americans who are silently and secretly battling their individual aspirations against parental demands and cultural expectations, Lin has finally given them a voice, and forever changed their world.

Michael Lewis, if you’re reading this: Get started on the book now.