Lin's legacy will be built off court
Let's be honest: Houston point guard is barely above average as a player, but his true worth is in shattering stereotypes
We have had a little more than a year to digest things and certainly enough time to have thoroughly reflected on the madness. The notion of Jeremy Lin as merely an above average basketball player for the Houston Rockets is beginning to take root. But such was the depth and height of "Linsanity" last year that the residue will never truly subside. This past week Lin was profiled by 60 Minutes, the top news show in the US and a place where heads of state and Nobel laureates are frequent subjects. The list of NBA point guards who are not even considered among the top 10 players in the league at their position being profiled on 60 Minutes is beyond short. It's non-existent.
Charlie Rose is arguably the most respected, insightful and probing interviewer on American TV but even he could not help himself. "As a New Yorker," he said to Lin during the interview, "it was a magical time. Madison Square Garden at that moment was what it was intended to be." The self-titled "world's most famous arena", before Lin debuted as a starter there last February, had become more graveyard than iconic cathedral thanks in large part to the perpetually woeful state of its resident basketball team, the Knicks.
All Lin would do is score 136 points in his next five starts, the most by any player ever in their first five games in the history of the NBA, lead the Knicks to a 5-0 record and give birth to the most viral epidemic in the history of sports. There are few truly transcendent moments in sports and Linsanity transcended the transcendent. But we know all that now. The bookstores in Asia are heaving with volumes about Linsanity, the documentary on his life is in cinemas. His faith-based tour last summer in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan was greeted by Beatlemania pandemonium, while Lin subsequently cashed in big time by signing with the Rockets when the Knicks refused to match the offer. The Rockets are barely clinging to a play-off spot and lead the league in points scored per game while being ranked third worst in points allowed, which is a perfect metaphor for Lin's game. He can score but he can't defend.
Not surprisingly, Rose did not ask Lin about his porous defence. He wanted to know why the California high school player of the year did not get a single Division I scholarship offer. Lin's answer was racism and there is absolutely no debating the point. University recruiters are just not conditioned to seriously look at Asian American athletes for scholarship regardless of their achievements because there are just so few of them. There is nothing more disorienting to college recruiters or professional scouts than an unorthodox performer. And the notion of someone telling the coach of UCLA or Stanford that they like this Chinese point guard would have solicited a look of disbelief. Lin knows it. "Asian immigrant parents rarely push or support their kids to play sports like my family did," he said. Lin's parents emigrated to California from Taiwan and while both were engineers by trade, they were also avid sports people.
Even in affluent Hong Kong, the list of world-class athletes is shorter than the list of NBA point guards profiled on 60 Minutes. Thankfully, Lin's success has not only shattered Asian stereotypes in the US but among Asian parents as well. He's a Harvard grad and he plays in the NBA, too. Of course, Lin is exceptional but you can still be a great student as well as a good athlete. Quite often one begets the other and it's a great lesson for the parents behind the flaccid legion of schoolboys and schoolgirls around here who are all work and no play.
Ironically, Lin's interview on 60 Minutes was broadcast the same week as the much-anticipated movie 42 debuted in the US. 42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson, the first black person to play Major League Baseball and the quintessential racial sporting pioneer. While Robinson's professional debut was the result of an act of principled courage by Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, Lin's debut was an act of desperation. The Knicks were playing so badly that coach Mike D'Antoni figured he had nothing to lose by throwing him out there. And yet both Robinson and Lin will forever be united for smashing stereotypes. Regardless of whatever he achieves on the basketball court, Lin will always be a social pioneer first and foremost and that's not a bad thing. Particularly out in this neck of the woods.