Two years after Linsanity: Appreciating the player and critiquing the narrative
“Linsanity: the Movie” premiered Oct. 4 and came to St. Louis for a screening at the AMC Esquire 7 last Thursday. The documentary traces Lin’s ascent from suburban basketball beginnings to toils in the NBA’s Development League and his shocking eventual superstardom—at least for a roughly month-long period in 2012.
As Linsanity captivated audiences in the United States, China and Taiwan, some still minimized his achievements and anticipated the inevitable decline. “Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise,” boxer Floyd Mayweather tweeted in February 2012.
Actually, Lin scored more points in his first four career starts than any player since the 1976 NBA/ABA merger. He finished what essentially was his rookie season with numbers that compared favorably to the rookie statistics of contemporaries like Chris Paul, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. Yet Lin, now a Houston Rocket, is no longer outdueling Kobe Bryant in Madison Square Garden or adding a new chapter to his fairy tale storybook every 48 minutes of game time. Based on statistics, he is the definition of average for an NBA point guard.
Now, other players really are doing what Lin is doing and not receiving the same attention. The hype now and then is largely because he is Asian-American, but unlike Mayweather and others believe, it’s a complete nonissue. In fact, Lin still deserves the spotlight specifically because of his identity and what it represents.
Traditionally stereotyped as meek and unimposing, Asian and Asian-American men have been mocked and excluded from sports like basketball that place a premium on raw athleticism. The stereotypes are still very much a reality in even the most supposedly educated and open-minded places. One of the film’s more impactful moments was its discussion of the vicious taunts Lin faced in Ivy League games as Harvard’s point guard.
I have never heard slurs against Asian or Asian-American athletes at Washington University, but I certainly have witnessed condescension toward even casual pickup basketball players in the Athletic Complex. I have been guilty of it myself—when I studied abroad in Shanghai after my freshman year, I regularly played with Chinese college students on the outdoor courts at Fudan University. I thought I could wreck these guys, who proceeded to cross me over, bury jumpers in my face and kindly return my own shots into my face.
Every minute Lin plays and every point, assist or steal he records is testament to the falsity of the stereotypes and an inspiration for other Asian and Asian-American athletes who have been looked down upon. He doesn’t need to be Linsane—he just needs to play like the solid slasher and creator that he was last season in Houston.
Despite Lin’s success, the nature of stereotypes against Asian-American basketball players has still, to an extent, tokenized his significance. To many, Linsanity may have been nothing more than a momentary human interest story that died once the player returned to planet Earth.
One Asian-American NBA player already had experienced such tokenization long before Lin.
Wat Misaka played three games for the New York Knicks in the 1947-48 season, the same year that Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball and shortly after the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. “Little Wat Misaka, American born of Japanese descent, was a cute fellow intercepting passes and making the night miserable for Kentucky,” the New York Times wrote of him after a particular game.
“Cute” was likely never an adjective used to describe Robinson, whom whites perceived as a threat to one of their most sacred institutions. “To admire blacks for their skills but to fear their presence in a situation where blacks might predominate” is what Wash. U. professor Gerald Early describes in his book “A Level Playing Field” as the “white ‘double-consciousness.’”
Yet no such fear existed for Misaka and neither does it for Lin, which bolsters the typecast for Asian-Americans as inconsequential amusements. Backlash like that of Mayweather aside, Lin’s story was generally embraced because the success of an Asian-American basketball player came across as a pleasant surprise and not as a serious socio-cultural challenge. Due to his reinforcement of almost every other idealized American value—the film emphasizes his Christianity, loving family and suburban upbringing, not to mention his Harvard education—doubt of Lin’s ability based on stereotypes did not equate to hatred and fear.
The conundrum is likely what set Mayweather off, since black athletes still regularly have to confront caricatures more harsh and oppressive than “cute.” Regardless, he and others who minimized or continue to minimize Lin misunderstand his importance.
We should value Lin for who he is today and in the future rather than just the cultural apex of Linsanity. His story should be reinforcement for an active effort to destroy racial mythmaking in sports, for Asian-Americans and beyond.