Jeremy Lin: What He Means to Asians, Athletes, and Dreamers
I’ve been watching the whole Linsanity phenomenon with a mixture of exhilaration and anxiety. While I don’t generally follow basketball, I am certain that Linsanity means something—to Asian Americans, to the world of sports, to anyone who’s ever had a dream and been told no. I watch and follow and devour any analysis, because Lin is part of my community — I am, like Jeremy Lin, a second generation Taiwanese American, raised in Silicon Valley by engineers. He’d fit right in at a family reunion or church potluck. At least a dozen of my Asian male friends have changed their Facebook avatars to photos of Jeremy.
What I can relate to is the experience of being told “No” – not explicitly because of race (no one says those things so directly in this day and age), but never really knowing if that was the reason. And I can relate to being denied athletic opportunities, even if the only time I even dared to venture in that arena was during my freshman year of high school.
HIgh School Sports Reject
Not that I was any good at sports. Skinny and uncoordinated, I was always last picked for any team in P.E. class. Our coach, a formidable woman who was rumored to have played on the LPGA tour, looked the other way when other kids heckled my nervous attempts to catch and throw. Most of my friends were exempt from P.E., having made it on some sort of school team, leaving me at the mercy of 19-year old seniors who melted eyeliners in the locker room with the same Bics they used to light their joints.
Knowing that I had one more year of state mandated abuse ahead of me, that spring I made a Hail Mary to get out of P.E. – by trying out for the badminton team. It didn’t require years of training or athletic prowess. What it did require was a signature from my P.E. teacher to try out.
As I slipped out of my navy gym shorts and into my stirrup pants that day, I grabbed the green permission slip out of my backpack and marched upstairs to the glass coaches’ office. Cigarette smoke mingled with the metallic odor of a hot curling iron. The coach jumped up from her seat and met me at the doorway.
“Could you —” I stammered, shoving the paper towards her.
“No.” Coach interrupted. She stood there and smiled, her formidable body guarding the entrance to her sanctuary. Perhaps she had misunderstood me, and thought I wanted something else − perhaps to use her phone? Mooch a can of orange soda? Borrow her curling iron?
“Could you sign this form? So I could try out for badminton?” I attempted again. All she did was stare me down with her beady blue eyes and nicotine stained smile. I stood there for a few seconds. Then it finally hit me: she was not going to help. I was being told “No” by a teacher.
Is It About Race?
It’s been a long time since I was denied the opportunity of trying out for the team. Closed that door and locked away the key. But I don’t need to reach back that far to identify that nagging feeling of being told “No”.
Not being promoted.
Not getting that call returned.
Not being acknowledged by a hostess at a swanky restaurant.
Of course, those things happen to a lot of people. And (with the exception of the restaurant) it could very well be that I just wasn’t that good. But when a person is doing something that isn’t typical of their people of their ethnicity, there’s always that nagging doubt. Could it be… because of race?
While at the gym this morning (I still manage to make it to yoga and group exercise classes) I mulled this over as I attempted to balance myself on a giant rubber ball – while holding a plank for a full minute. I fell off the ball after about fifteen seconds.
What would Jeremy do?
Jeremy Lin was not offered a spot on a single college team upon graduating from high school. Clearly, he was good -- he was the state all-star in basketball! -- and he was smart. But at 6'3", his size wasn't notable, neither did he have a flashy playing style. Still, he didn't didn’t walk away with his tail between his legs. He sent his stats and his videos to Ivy League recruiters, and was ultimately admitted to Harvard where he played on the basketball team.
Even though he was a star at Harvard, Lin wasn’t drafted initially by the NBA, although he was eventually picked up and bounced around several teams, including his hometown Golden State Warriors, who left him on bench most of the time, then traded him off. When he finally made his breakthrough, he was a non-contracted D-lister sleeping on his brother’s couch while continuing to practice with the Knicks. He’s famously quipped that the Madison Square Garden doorman asked him if he was a trainer. At least they didn’t ask him if he was delivering Chinese food.
Although I share the same Christian faith as Lin, I have to admit, I don’t have that kind of faith. I’m a doubter -- always anxious for the bubble to burst, for the other shoe to fall. And most of all, I’m apprehensive about fairy tales, especially ones that promise a color-blind society. We’ll see. Will his popularity be written off simply as a novelty? The racially charged Twitter smack talk has already begun. Will there be Jeremy Lin sneakers and branded basketballs? Will he go on to have a long career as a commentator? Or like the handful of Asian American athletes who have gone before him, will he be passed over the lucrative promotional opportunities and retire into obscurity?
I’m also realistic enough to know that sometimes as a minority in America, you have to cherish each victory. Storms they will be coming. But like Lin clings to his faith, I think we can all look at his accomplishments as a sign of what was, and is, and is to come.Portions of this post were originally published in "Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting" (San Diego City Works Press)