How Jeremy Lin is affecting the lives of thousands of Asian children.
by Keane Shum
There is one, and only one, very specific demographic rooting against Jeremy Lin, the sudden, inexplicable new star point guard for the New York Knicks. They are the conspirators behind an age-old scheme, one in which the dreams of young Chinese children all over the world have been dashed for generations. They may seem well-intentioned, even loving, but their true motives are quite nefarious. They are—and I know them well—the Chinese mothers of basketball-obsessed teenage boys (and sometimes girls).
To these mothers, this past week, in which Lin scored more points than anyone else in NBA history has in their first four starts and led the Knicks to five straight wins, including one over Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, was neither entertainment nor inspiration. Instead, it has been a troubling foil to their master plan. For no longer can they say, as my mother often did to me, that there is no way a little Asian kid can ever play in the NBA.
“Yes I can,” their kids will now say. “Just like Jeremy Lin.”
There’s just under three minutes left in the third. Jeremy Lin just blew by John Wall and threw down a dunk.
The third quarter is over. Jeremy Lin has 20 points. For the third straight game.
One minute left, Knicks up by double digits. Mike Bibby just came in for Lin, who finished with 23 points and 10 assists. Mike Bibby, coming in to give Jeremy Lin garbage time rest.
Let me explain the absurdity of this.
In May 2002, Bibby hit the game winner in game five of the Western Conference finals, giving the Sacramento Kings a 3-2 series lead against the Lakers. He was the starting point guard for a great Kings team that was a Peja Stojakovic airball away from beating the Lakers in game seven and moving on to the NBA Finals, where they would have easily dispatched the New Jersey Nets. Bibby averaged 20 points a game against the Lakers, and for his efforts, the Kings signed him that offseason to a seven-year, $80 million contract.
In May 2002, Jeremy Lin was finishing the eighth grade. I don’t know this for sure, but I can make a pretty good guess about what he was doing that summer, while Mike Bibby was dotting the i’s in his name next to an eight followed by seven zeroes. I’ll bet you Jeremy Lin spent most of his days that California summer outside on the blacktop, messing around with a bunch of other pubescent teenagers with black hair and brown eyes in ridiculously baggy And-1 t-shirts and shorts, and some nice kicks, and when they pass they do a little lookaway, or they stick their tongue out as they go for a layup, or try a couple mixtape stunts that have no practical use on a basketball court.
I know this because that’s what I did the summer after I finished the eighth grade. I’m five years older, so if Lin sweat through a no. 8 Lakers jersey that summer, with “Bryant” on the back, I wore a no. 9 Lakers jersey my eighth grade summer, “Van Exel” on the back. We might even have rocked the same sneakers, maybe Nike Air Max Uptempos that had their first release when I was in the eighth grade and their retro release five years later.
But even when my basketball dreams were most vivid, when I spent hours going make-it-take-it on a boiling summer day, they were so ludicrous that even I knew they would always just be dreams. I went to basketball camp in high school, but by then the dream was well past due; I never once entertained any real thoughts of how I could play ball at a U.S. high school level, never mind trying to walk on a college team.Even before it was clear I would never be good enough—and that was pretty early on—I never asked, what’s the road to playing college ball? How do you actually get to the NBA? No, I put my head down into my books, not my defender, and settled on covering Ivy League basketball for my college newspaper.
It has been a surreal, ridiculous, and completely joyful eight days for Jeremy Lin and for all of us who have been following his every dribble-drive and pass out of the pick-and-roll. Some of us have been watching Lin for years, ever since he began leading the Harvard basketball team in strangely tight games—sometimes even victories—against powerhouse NCAA programs like Boston College and Connecticut. Others—now, millions of others—have only caught on in the last week, rubbing their eyes at what appears to be a Chinese kid running up and down and circles around some of the NBA’s premier point guards, in actual NBA arenas.
All of us, our mothers excluded, have been transfixed. Everyone loves an underdog, and New Yorkers love scrappy point guards that beat up on the Lakers. But the Jeremy Lin show has been especially addicting, its high like no other sports high we know, for the legions of Asian kids whose relationship with basketball is a tortured devotion in which we love it above all other sports but can never seem to break through. We can’t break through at school, where we get cut from the team, and we can’t break through at home, where our mothers tell us to read books, not defenses. We can’t break through even in casual pick up games at the gym, where guys call us Yao or Wu-Tang but don’t pass us the ball, where we are novelty acts whether we score off floaters or from behind the arc or even dunk.
Jeremy Lin has broken through. Broken out, and broken through. Unscouted out of high school, undrafted out of college, he, too, has gotten cut time and time again. His parents, I guarantee you, also told him to finish his homework before he could go out and play, and were probably not too disappointed with his choice of school. And even after three straight games of at least 23 points and 7 assists, even after crossing over John Wall and dunking on the Wizards, it wasn’t until Lin dropped 38 improbable points on the Lakers on Friday that (most of) the haters finally stopped asking if he was legit.
There are a lot of guys in the NBA who are living out their dreams, impossible dreams, dreams that start when they are born inches away from bullets to their graves and end up with them signing hundred-million dollar contracts the day before they suit up for an All-Star Game. But that’s not a dream that most Asian kids, in California or in Hong Kong, know. We’ve never lived it, never felt it, never dreamed it. But Jeremy Lin? An Asian-American kid from Harvard who is now the starting point guard for the New York Knickerbockers? Who Spike Lee talks up courtside at Madison Square Garden, and who Magic Johnson compares to Steve Nash and John Stockton on national television? That dream?
That dream we know. We don’t just know that dream; we own that dream. At home with a controller and in front of a TV, we used to create ourselves in video games with black hair and a light tan complexion and fill up imaginary box scores with exactly the kinds of stats Lin has been filling up real box scores with: points and assists. Point guard stats, because that is the only position most of us could ever even imagine playing in the NBA. Outside on the blacktop, shooting around alone on a quiet day, we’ve heard 20,000 people at the Garden stand up and roar as we run out the tunnel and win a game in its dying moments. And somewhere in computer heaven, there is a dusty 386 hard drive with the complete, typed-up recaps of NBA games and whole NBA seasons that were only ever played in my head.
I can’t stop watching Jeremy Lin highlights. I’ve been trying to figure out why, whether it’s his infectious style of play, or how giddy his Knicks teammates look whenever he does something else spectacular, or just the satisfaction of seeing basketball at its most flowing and free-wheeling.
I think it’s all that, but also something else. It’s almost as if I keep waiting for a glitch in the videos, something that shows this has all been a ruse, that his jerky drives into the key and awkward, off-balance lay-ups have been doctored to make the ball go in the basket, and that Deron Williams and Kobe Bryant and 20,000 delirious fans have simply been Photoshopped into the picture.
Because there is something eerily, wonderfully familiar about watching Jeremy Lin play, and play so well. It’s like when you wake up from a dream that you wish you could dream again, if only you could have recorded it, and saved it, and played it back over and over. It’s like someone downloaded the fantasy basketball sequences I dreamed up when I was 11 and has now posted them to YouTube, where they will live on for perpetuity, whether or not Jeremy Lin keeps this up any longer.
Whether or not Jeremy Lin does keep this up any longer, maybe the mothers of the next generation of Asian kids can now at least find some room to compromise. Maybe in a few years, when some kid holding a basketball under his arm is pointing desperately to the clips of that magical week in February of 2012 when Jeremy Lin shocked the world, maybe his mother will say, “You really want to play in the NBA? Fine.”
And the kid will smile, his hopes raised.
“But you have to go to Harvard first,” his mother will then say. “Just like Jeremy Lin.”