Defying All Odds

by September 01, 2010

by Ben Sin / @bennymeter

There’s an early scene in the 1992 cult classic White Men Can’t Jump that Jeremy Lin – along with probably quite a few Asian American ballers – can relate to. The scene in question saw Woody Harrelson’s Billy Hoyle, supposedly just a spectator in the stands, being picked out by Sidney Deane (played by Wesley Snipes) to play for an opposing team simply because, Deane assumed, that Hoyle was a chump based on his skin color.

Lin told two years ago that growing up as a Chinese baller, he was always dismissed: picked last, deemed too short, and getting the MJ-first-All-Star-game freezeout treatment when he did played. Things got a bit better when he became captain of the Harvard team and led the Crimson to one of its better seasons in recent history. But still. It’s the Ivy League, many thought. “It’s a sport for White and Black people,”Jeremy Lin Lin said then.

All that changed for Lin when, on a cold December night, he dropped 30 points on UConn. Buzz about “that Chinese kid” started picking up, and soon profiles and features appeared on ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and even Time Magazine.

Over in Taiwan, where Lin’s parents hailed from, media frenzy snowballed – Lin’s relatives were sought out and interviewed. Asian American communities paid extra attention to the 6-3 kid, with fan sites and customized YouTube videos popped up all over the net. For other basketball diehards, it would seem Lin had pulled a Gilbert-Arenas-in-’06 or Anthony-Randolph-in-’09 type of overnight jump from underrated to overrated.

Lin went undrafted after graduation, but the Dallas Mavericks Summer League Team gave him a spot on the roster. Of course, the novelty of his skin color was a topic everywhere he went. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to assume that was the sole reason for the invite.

But it all changed again, for a second time, when Lin dueled No. 1 pick John Wall and more than held his own during a summer league game. The buzz started again, could Lin make the NBA? After a few more solid performances, Lin defied the odds and signed with the Golden State Warriors on July 20, 2010.

For Taiwanese basketball fans, Chinese-American ballers, and hell, just about all Chinese in general, Lin making it to the NBA is a big deal. It’s not just the fact that a Chinese dude is balling against the best in the world… it’s how he’s doing it. Most Asian faces in the NBA before him were hulking giants who made the League almost exclusively due to their height. The fact that Lin is doing it with explosive drives, smooth handles, pesky defense, and – a true rarity for Asians – dunks, brought a sense of pride and enthusiasm, to the Chinese.

The stereotype that Chinese are generally inferior athletes in America is the elephant in the room that mainstream media can’t tackle. But on blogs, and in conversation between friends, Lin making it to the League is widely considered as the first attempt to kick that elephant out.

But can he? While many in the Asian American community have taken the signing with a sense of pride, most notably the Banana Times’ Why Jeremy Lin Matters blog entry (selected by Yahoo Sports’ Ball Don’t Lie as one of the 10 best basketball blog entries of the week recently), there are skeptics. William Vuong, a 28-year-old former basketball standout at Alhambra High School in California, says Lin’s signing is a gimmick.

“I want a Chinese baller to make it because of skills, not because he sells tickets and products,” says the 2000 Alpine League First Teamer. Vuong says he watched every Summer League game, and, although Lin is good, he isn’t “NBA good.”

“If the Warriors needed a point guard, why not Sherrod Collins from Kansas?,” he asks, adding that Collins is a proven winner from one of the top programs in the nation. “Anyone who thinks the Warriors, who was recently sold and is based in a city with one of the largest Asian American community in the US, didn’t sign Lin for merchandise and ticketing sales is tripping.”

Whether or not Lin’s signing is driven by an agenda to boost ticket sales and buzz is up for debate, but the move has undoubtedly caused a positive reaction for the NBA in Taiwan. Chris Wang, a veteran sports journalist and current columnist for in Taiwan, says Lin’s signing has increased interest in the League, although he isn’t sure if it’s increased enthusiasm for basketball in general, because Wang argues tJeremy Linhat, “pound for pound, Taiwanese basketball fans love of the game surpasses those in China.”

Lin and his family (parents and two brothers) appeared in an NBA-organized press conference in Taiwan less than 10 days after the signing. Hailed as “the first Taiwan player in the NBA,” Lin received a hero’s welcome at the press conference.

Back in the US, where Asian American basketball leagues can be found in all major cities, Lin’s emergence has given a sense of hope for aspiring Chinese ballers. Ren Hsieh, commissioner of the Fast Break NYC basketball league, says almost all Asian American ballers in his league have feel proud and inspired. But Hsieh takes a cautious approach. “Let’s wait and see how he plays first before we label him the Great Yellow Hope,” he says.

Garron Chiu, who wrote the Why Jeremy Lin Matters piece in Banana Times, argues that “[Lin] will be an important stepping stone in proving that Asians have got game too, whether it be in dominating all-star games or contributing 10 minutes off the bench.”

With Nike Taiwan reportedly in talks to create a show based on Lin and Taiwan media sending reporters to the Bay Area for day-to-day in-season coverage, Lin’s upcoming season could play a big part in whether or not the Chinese-can’t-ball stereotype stay strong or take a (minor) dent. Regardless, basketball is about to reach an even higher profile in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China.

Yeung Dong-yuen of NBA Taiwan says Lin’s emergence has inspired basketball playing youth in the country to believe. “It’s a long shot to make it to the League,” he says. “But Lin proved it’s not impossible.”

“Asian Americans have never really believed they could make it to the NBA,” says Hsieh. “I know I dreamt about it, but it was never serious.”

Lin has finally, Hsieh adds, added legitimacy to the dream.

Ben Sin is a California-raised, Hong Kong-based journalist currently writing for the South China Morning Post. His true passion, some say obsession, is basketball. Visit his blog at