I got the chance to see Linsanity in person Wednesday night. As I approached The Garden, there was a completely different energy than just a few weeks ago. Scalpers were begging for tickets. Reporters were scattered all over Seventh Avenue. Racks and racks of Lin jerseys were being sold outside the main entrance.
Despite what broadcasts had been showing over the past 12 days, the crowd didn’t skew heavily Asian. The Knicks fans in attendance were as diverse as any crowd I have seen in the past. For every Asian in a Lin jersey, there were two non-Asians. Everyone loved him.
By now, everyone from President Obama to my mother-in-law knows the story of Jeremy Lin. In two days Lin went from sleeping on his brother’s couch to pushing the Super-Bowl-Champion Giants from the headlines in New York. A week and a half later, he has changed the narrative of the NBA season. The hometown Knicks, who have stunk on ice for most of the past decade–and much of the first six weeks of this season–finally have the look of a contender.
So why is the media focussing so much on Lin’s ethnicity?
Basketball minds point to Lin’s quickness, determination, leadership, and court vision as invaluable assets that were badly misjudged. Yet the conversation rarely ends there. Jeremy Lin’s Taiwanese heritage almost always has to come up. Yes, Asian players aren’t well represented in the NBA. But is his ethnicity what makes his sudden success so exemplary?
The rise of Jeremy Lin is not unlike the emergence of former Knick John Starks 20 years ago. Starks was also an unheralded player out of college who briefly played for a couple of teams, got cut by the Golden State Warriors, then landed on the Knicks. When finally given a chance, Starks–like Lin–took advantage of his opportunity and became a fan favorite.
One difference between the Lin and Starks stories is that no one questioned Starks’ ability to sustain his hard play because of his ethnicity. The 6’5″, 190-pound Starks fearlessly drove the lane and took a pounding and was praised for his will and determination. Today, the 6’3″, 200-pound Lin fearlessly drives the lane and takes a pounding. When he gets up, people talk about how amazing it is that he can be so tough. Why is that so amazing?
In the early 1990’s, people didn’t show up to Madison Square Garden holding signs referencing Starks’ ethnicity. Now you can’t watch a game on screen for five minutes without the cameraman focusing on a sign referencing Lin’s ethnicity (“The Lin Dynasty!”, “Emperor Lin!”, “Yellow Mamba!”) or an Asian Knicks fan cheering in the crowd. The big difference between the two breakout stars is Jeremy Lin doesn’t look like a typical NBA player. Starks did. The media sees an angle. In ways as small as selective screen shots on Asian fans, they seem to be not-so-subtly implying why it is so unbelievably extraordinary for this player to be doing so well.
The reality is that Jeremy Lin is beloved in this town because he has made everyone believe in the Knicks, a thought that has been largely laughable in the bumbling James “Cablevision” Dolan era. A team whose season was in dire straits at the beginning of the month suddenly has the much-needed steady hand at the point and, as a result, are winning games. The energy in The Garden is off the charts and teammates seem to have extra pep in their steps. Hopefully, if Lin continues this stellar play, the focus will be completely off his ethnicity.
When Lin’s name was announced, the crowd went ballistic–not just the Asians. When I went to buy a beer, the black woman behind the counter asked, “How’s our boy doing?” and it was obvious who she was talking about. When I stood at the urinal at halftime, a large Hispanic man (who was possibly a little too close to me) said, “That motherfucker can ball.” It was obvious who he was talking about.