WASHINGTON — They know what it feels like to be overlooked. People, they say, assume they are weak, servile, out of place. So when these Asian-Americans watch Jeremy Lin slash and shoot his way through the NBA’s finest, it’s almost as if they are on the basketball court with the California-born point guard who has set the zeitgeist on fire.
Asian-Americans have rallied around other athletes — Michael Chang, Hideo Nomo, Yao Ming, Michelle Wie, Ichiro Suzuki. Tiger Woods was embraced for his Thai side. But Lin has a new and different appeal — a homegrown star besting some of the world’s greatest athletes in an intensely physical sport. Asian-Americans have done well in America in many areas, but not this one.
The child of Taiwanese immigrants, Lin was ignored instead of hyped. He emerged from the end of the bench to hoist the sinking New York Knicks to win after improbable win. A few hints of racism have scratched the edges of his growing fame, but Lin continues to put up unprecedented numbers and capture the imagination of mainstream America.
In a mere half-dozen games, Lin became that rarest of Asian-Americans: A widely regarded hero.
“There’s a certain validation to this,” said Phil Yu, founder of the influential blog Angry Asian Man, which tracks and discusses Asian issues.
“Asian-Americans are still seen as foreigners in this country,” Yu said. “Seeing Jeremy Lin accepted and celebrated in this American sport, it makes us more American, and it makes other people see us as more American.”
The moment that resonates most with Yu is not Lin’s game-winning 3-pointer against the Toronto Raptors with less than a second to play this week. It’s not Lin’s 38 points to beat the Los Angeles Lakers after Kobe Bryant said he didn’t know who Lin was. It’s not Lin’s crossover leading to a soaring dunk against the Washington Wizards, even though the play victimized John Wall, the top draft pick the year Lin went unselected.
Instead, Yu cherishes seeing a picture of two white fans wearing Lin’s No. 17 Knicks jersey.
“There is no comparison to anything else I’ve ever seen,” Yu said. “I can’t describe how I’m feeling.” Watching Lin’s highlights, “I got a little bit choked up, honestly.”
Ren Hsieh had a different reaction as Lin was torching the Lakers: He shouted loud enough to wake the baby in the other room. “It was the improbability of it all,” he said.
“I’ve never seen it happen …” NBA analyst Tim Legler said on ESPN. “A guy that had three different teams look at him and not see what we’re seeing now?”
The reason is obvious to Hsieh, who played high school basketball in Houston and now runs a league and foundation promoting Asian-American athletics.
“No one would outwardly say (Lin was passed over) because he’s Asian, but every Asian-American athlete knows that feeling of being overlooked,” he said. “I certainly felt it when I was playing.
“You get a look in people’s eyes, they just don’t get excited to see you. They don’t say, ‘Oh man, I gotta have this kid on my team.’ Every Asian-American athlete has always had to really bust their butt to get a chance to play at a high level.”
Hsieh remembers the skepticism when the China-born Yao entered the NBA. One commentator, NBA great Charles Barkley, promised to kiss his co-host’s posterior if Yao scored 19 points in a game.
Yao went on to score 19 or more points 268 times in his eight-year NBA All-Star career, and Barkley kissed a donkey on national television.
Lin was similarly underestimated. He led his high school team to a state championship, but was ignored by every Division I college team except Harvard. He was cut by two NBA teams and could barely get on the floor in practice, until the injury-riddled Knicks handed him the ball almost in desperation. Now Lin owns an NBA record for most points in the first five games as a starter since 1976.
So when someone labels Lin “deceptively athletic” even though he has a typical point-guard build, or when his teammate Tyson Chandler says, perhaps jokingly, that he didn’t know the 6-foot-3 (1.91-meter) Lin could dunk, some see stereotypes afoot.
That was a point made by Knicks superfan Spike Lee. Brainstorming a slew of Lin nicknames, he gleefully tweeted, “Jeremy ‘Stop Asian Profile’ Lin.”
“The word athlete is really not associated with people of Asian descent,” said Helen Xia, author of “Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People.”
Xia said Asians were first viewed in America as “coolies,” laboring on railroads, laundry or in restaurants. Then they were a stealthy and diabolical wartime enemy, then rivals stealing American jobs with cheap labor. Today the labor stereotype has transferred to another arena, with Asians viewed as math-and-science robots toiling over books and computer screens.
Xia calls Lin’s rise in a game as athletic as basketball “stunning” and “a real turning point.”
Nobody deliberately excluded Lin because of his ethnicity, Xia said: “That’s not the point. The pervasive and insidious nature of racism keeps us from seeing what’s right in front of us.”
Lin has declined to dwell on racial issues, but he did tweet that when he first joined the Knicks, “Every time I try to get into Madison Square Garden, the security guards ask me if I’m a trainer.”
There have been countless Asian-based puns, like the New York Post’s “Amasian” headline. Boxing champ Floyd Mayweather tweeted that Lin was getting attention just because he’s Asian. And Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock tweeted a cruelly racist remark about Lin’s manhood. (Whitlock later apologized.)
It didn’t work with Lin. Women were in the stands this week with “Be My Va-LIN-tine” signs. Websites were matchmaking Lin with women of all ethnicities. A YouTube video shows an Asian girl dumping her white boyfriend for an Asian man after watching Lin on the court.
“He’s giving Asian men some swag,” said Jeffrey Ng, founder and creative director of the Staple Design clothing and creative agency in New York City.
When Ng started selling hip-hop apparel 15 years ago, there were no Asian-Americans in his business. Meeting with clients, “I always felt this, like, why are you here? No matter how good my clothing was, I had to first answer the question of, why are you in this room?”
“Lin had to work twice as hard to overcome that first question of, ‘Why are you on this court?'”
Peter Kim, an actor in Los Angeles, said Lin’s success could open up more opportunities in his business, which puts few Asians in leading or romantic roles.
He recalled that when Lin beat the buzzer to give the Knicks the win against the Raptors, the crowd exploded — and the game was in Toronto, not New York.
“That alone should show how significant Jeremy Lin is to the Asian people,” Kim said. “He’s not just an athlete playing for a team. He’s playing for a whole culture and our representation to the rest of the world.”