In 2012, undrafted 22 year old Jeremy Lin shocked the basketball world with a series of games where he put up all-star numbers, being the first Asian-American to do so. In the absence of established stars Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, Lin carried an otherwise lackluster Knicks offense to 5 straight wins, including a 38 point performance over Kobe’s Lakers, beginning a global sporting craze known as Linsanity. However, although Lin’s cinderella story should be celebrated as a result of his hard work, it can also be seen as his constant suppression under the hegemonic forces that rule basketball, and the world at large. Through a deeper look at Lin’s life, as told by the documentary, Linsanity, we see many struggles of an Asian basketball player trying to make it in a black and white sport. Jeremy Lin’s experience exemplifies the consequences of stepping outside of the margins of the model minority stereotype, and further confirms its existence.
According to Tim Gruenewald, modern racism exists in the form of cultural essentialism, where a race is synonymously pigeonholed into a differing set of cultural characteristics from the mainstream. All facets of the minority’s lifestyle are assumed and deviations from these assumptions are considered strange. Sports, especially basketball, do not fit into the mainstream assumptions of the Asian lifestyle. As such, Asian athletes are not fully recognized for their skill, and are filtered out. The assumed lifestyle differences associated with being Asian are inherently seen as a disadvantage in the current skillset and expected potential of the athlete. This can be seen in the NCAA D1 schools’ collective rejection of Jeremy Lin, despite his leading his team to a state championship.
Basketball is a microcosm of society, and cultural essentialism explains Lin’s constant rejection by the basketball powers. In professional basketball, the demand for narratives about the players drives a racial profiling and reframing, which is partly based on correlations and comparisons with existing players, but also by larger-scale racist stereotypes that exist in society. Black players are praised first for their athleticism, white players for their basketball IQ and savvy. While these descriptions may correlate to an extent with the existing characteristics of black and white players, the narratives created by the media does reinforce the master-slave complex. Black players, especially young ones, are described as “raw talent”, that “needs polishing”, while young white players don’t necessarily see the same description.
In this complex, there is no established narrative for Asian players, leading the media to look towards blanket Asian stereotypes to build Lin’s profile. Despite being one of the most athletic prospects in the draft class statistically, Lin was overlooked by many teams for having bad defensive potential due to a lack of athleticism. People expected Lin to have a high basketball IQ, and bashed him for not being able to meet those expectations as a rookie. However, the most glaring stereotype that Lin faced throughout his career, especially in the NBA, was that Asians were not good at basketball. In terms of skill, Lin had to set a much higher standard to reach the same level of play due to his race. Although Linsanity is an impressive feat in and of itself, it can also be seen as the product of stifling natural grade-A talent by a system that inherently does not want Asian guards in the NBA.
Lin’s success represented a threat to the established racial hierarchy of the NBA. In America, professional sports are the pinnacle of societal masculinity. In a society where Asians are expected to take the feminine and submissive role, Lin’s explosion created uneasiness throughout the league. If Lin established himself as a pass-first, role-playing, team player, perhaps the league would have been more accepting towards him. Rather, Linsanity was a streak of games where Lin, with his aggressive, drive-first approach, put up 38 point games against the likes of alpha dog Kobe Bryant. He was met with resistance, from Knicks star Carmelo Anthony refusing to cooperate with him, to Kobe ignoring him, to fouls against him not being called at an unprecedented rate.
Lin’s entire career has been based on resistance to the NBA’s attempt to suppress and feminize him. His radical and frequent changes in hairstyle represent his refusal to be pigeonholed into racial stereotypes. He has experimented from the most classically American to Asian hairstyles, perhaps for himself, and perhaps as a message to the youth. Careerwise, after a successful season at Charlotte, Lin was in the conversation for Sixth Man of the Year, and was expected to sign a long-term contract as a benchwarmer for all-star guard Kemba Walker. This would have been another opportunity for the media to pigeonhole the Asian player into the sidekick trope. However, Lin, gambling on himself, signed as starting guard for the worst team in the NBA, the New York Nets.
Linsanity was undeniable proof of Asian American athleticism, or at least its possibility. It is interesting to think about the player Jeremy Lin could have become in a league free of systemic suppression, where he would be drafted, nurtured, and built around from the start of his career. Undoubtedly, Lin has started a grassroots movement encouraging young Asians to play basketball, as well as given the establishment reason to give those kids a chance.