Living with Linsanity
By Oliver WangMarch 6, 2012
DAY 1, FEBRUARY 4TH: Going into this night’s game, both the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets are sub.-500, their seasons already foundering in failed expectations. In New York especially, all the focus is on football, since the local Giants are on the eve of their second Superbowl of the past four seasons. Maybe because the stakes feel low, maybe because Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni has few options with an injury-ridden roster, and maybe because his job is on the line, D’Antoni decides to play the team’s 3rd-string point guard from Harvard: Jeremy Lin.
The undrafted, unsigned Lin proceeds to score 25 points, including 12 in the 4th quarter, all whilst outplaying the Nets’ star guard, Deron Williams. The Knicks win, 99-92. That evening, the New York Daily News reports on the game with a headline that starts, “It’s Lin - sanity!”
So it begins.
It’s a sports media truism that February is a slow news month, what with the end of football and baseball still months away. However, the interest in Lin — a 23 year old, Chinese American basketball player — metastasized from local novelty to global phenomenon in seemingly record time. He can now boast the best-selling jersey on NBA.com. Time Magazine put him on the cover of their Asia edition; Sports Illustrated has featured him on their cover in back-to-back weeks. There’s a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor named after him (though no longer with fortune cookie bits). Perhaps you heard that when all this began, Lin was crashing on his brother’s couch; you couldn’t script a more unlikely, compelling story. Have I mentioned this has all happened in less than three weeks?
“Linsanity,” the phenomenon and Lin, the person/player, are obviously inextricable, but they’re not interchangeable, and over the last three weeks the Lin story has become a loom for a skein of narratives through which myriad constituencies weave their needs and desires. For some, Lin is the ultimate underdog: overlooked, undervalued yet now, overachieving. For them, his rise is a confirmation of American exceptionalism and the promise of meritocracy. He is cast as the fearless, yet unselfish, minority player who could have pursued any career with his Ivy League education, but instead, decided to gut it out in professional basketball.
For others, Lin is the beneficiary of token sympathies, overly lauded for being an Asian curiosity in a sport dominated by black and white bodies. From this perspective, Lin is a product of the same hype machine that produced Tebowmania over the winter and which will likely move onto some new flavor-of-the-month once the novelty of Lin wears off.
By the time this essay is published, Lin will have played in barely a dozen games in less than a month. That constitutes barely 1/5th of the total season — even with a compressed, post-lockout schedule — and only involves 1/3rd the number of opponents the Knicks will face. But the pace and ferocity of Linsanity creates its own frustrating and enthralling logic (or lack thereof). Multiple, even contradictory, narratives can coexist with seeming plausibility. Much of this arises because Linsanity inspires a voracious need for explanation — a Unified Field Theory of Lin-ology if you will — yet the phenomenon has proven insistently mercurial, defying simple summation, shaking off easy containment. After all, we’re still free-falling through the moment: How can anyone make sense of an experience when they’re still in the midst of it?
Day 3, February 6: The Knicks are set to play the Utah Jazz this evening, but during the day, my social media feed is still filled with highlights of the Knicks/Nets game, including one Lin-centric reel assembled by YouTube user “TaiwaneseNOTChinese.” Another, shorter clip, shows Lin and the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony bowing to one another after a spectacular layup drive. Commenters debate: “Is this racist?”
Later that night, the Knicks beat the Jazz, 99-88, with Lin racking up 28 points and 8 assists. Before the day ends, the first Lin “gif memes” begin to emerge, with images of Lin splitting defenders, splayed over with captions such as “Who says Asians can’t drive?”
To understand the giddiness of Linsanity in these early days — which is to say, a few weeks ago — it’s worth noting that this unlikely story already had its first act in late 2009, when Lin was a senior at Harvard and scored 30 points against perennial heavyweight U-Conn. Ivy League teams are rarely taken seriously by collegiate basketball fans but no one usually drops 30 on the Huskies, either. Half a year later, Lin re-entered the social media orbit during NBA Summer League, where an oft-circulated video showed him outplaying John Wall, the #1 draft pick for that year.
One dominant Linsanity narrative claims that Lin was “unwanted” by the NBA, but that’s a convenient fiction. He was undrafted, but so are many players who eventually make the league. Several teams, including the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Lakers, expressed interest in signing him but Lin ended up with the Golden State Warriors. Lin, a Palo Alto native, grew up as a Warriors fan in the team’s backyard. But the team was already stacked with talented, young point guards, including Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry. The Warriors dutifully brought Lin out for P.R. purposes, including an “Asian American Appreciation Night,” but he only came off the bench during garbage time, pleasing the crowd but impressing few. After the Warriors cut Lin in the off-season, even his most ardent fans just assumed his career was likely going to be little more than an asterisk in a sports trivia book.
Day 5, February 8: The Knicks trounce the Washington Wizards, 107-93, with Lin logging his first “double-double”: 23 points, 10 assists. It’s only his second game as a starter, helping beat a team that was/is the second-worst in the entire league; but sportswriters have already begun to describe Lin as a “modern-day hero America loves.”
Part of the underdog narrative relies on the belief that Lin was overlooked because he was Asian. Certainly, his career climb conforms to long-standing empirical evidence that Asian Americans are overlooked in hiring and promotions decisions (a.k.a. “the bamboo ceiling”). Consider: he led Palo Alto High School’s basketball team to a state championship but wasn’t offered any college scholarships to play. He set school records at Harvard but wasn’t drafted into the NBA. After being dropped by the Warriors, the Houston Rockets briefly signed him, but dropped him before the 2011/12 season began. And, of course, he rode the pine for the Knicks for the first six weeks before D’Antoni finally put him in. It’s easy to understand why some would see this sequence as prima facie evidence of bigotry via low expectations.
However, consider an alternate set of facts: Lin certainly isn’t the first player of Asian descent to thrive in the NBA; that’d be Yao Ming. He isn’t even the first Asian American to play for the Knicks; that’d be Wat Misaka, back in the 1940s. However, Lin is the only current NBA player from Harvard; the Ivy League has no prestige basketball programs and thus, even high-scoring alum such as Lin merit little attention from NBA scouts.
His time with the Warriors may have represented a missed opportunity for them, but any team with Ellis and Curry on their roster isn’t likely to surrender many minutes to a third-string guard. The Rockets were equally overstocked with point guards; when league commissioner David Stern vetoed a 3-way trade between the Rockets, Lakers and Hornets, it left Houston with too many guards. Keeping Lin — who, unlike the team’s other guards, was not on contract — made little sense. Likewise, the Knicks already had veteran point guards in Mike Bibby and the just-signed Baron Davis; it was only when injuries befell both Davis and forward Carmelo Anthony — who often filled in at point — that D’Antoni was forced to turn to Lin. Most importantly, numerous basketball experts argued that Lin upgraded his own skill-set between seasons. Thus, even if the Warriors had played Lin more in 2010/11, they wouldn’t have been seeing the same breakout player he’s become with the Knicks.
From the perspective of a sports professional, these are all rational decisions, and if Lin wasn’t such an anomaly as an Asian American player in the current NBA, perhaps race wouldn’t have factored into public perception. But of course, Lin is Asian American, and it’d be woefully naive to remove race from the discussion. Racial difference was an integral part of Linsanity since the beginning and, as the phenomenon grew, the issue would continue to snowball.
Day 7, February 10: For many, this is the night Linsanity officially takes on a life of its own. With a national TV audience watching, the Knicks host the Lakers, the marquee team in the NBA. Many hope Lin will perform valiantly, but assume it’ll be a contribution to a losing effort. Instead, he scores a career-high 38 points — exceeding Kobe Bryant’s 35 — including a few devastating, long-range shots to seal the Knicks’ victory. It’s still early in the season, the Knicks are still under .500, but the atmosphere in MSG is described as “playoff-like.” As a Lakers fan since the early 1980s, I’m too depressed by my team’s dismal performance to fully enjoy Lin’s success.
After the game, FoxSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock tweeted, “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple of inches of pain tonight.” This instantly went viral, justifiably offending nearly everyone. The normally unapologetic Whitlock eventually apologized. The following Monday, boxer Floyd Mayweather also took to Twitter to claim “all the hype is because he’s Asian.” Another round of outrage followed.
The fact that both Whitlock and Mayweather are African American helped feed another emerging storyline: the idea that blacks resent an Asian American infringing on their cultural territory. Even the pre-game remarks of Kobe Bryant, who claimed ignorance of Linsanity, were interpreted as fuel for this particular fire: “I don’t even know what he’s done…Is he getting, like, triple doubles?” Some people, perhaps unaccustomed to the fact that Bryant’s made a career out of ungraciously dismissing opponents, saw this as further evidence of a forming backlash.
It must be said that the notion of a Lin “backlash” — barely a week into Linsanity — seemed far-fetched, especially compared with the avalanche of good will tumbling his way. A backlash is when everyone outside of your team base thinks you’re woefully overrated and waits in giddy anticipation for opponents to humiliate you (à la Tim Tebow). Or a backlash is when once loyal fans accuse you of backstabbing them and your image is literally ripped out of the city (Lebron James). One pre-game interview and two tweets — even one as beyond-the-pale as Whitlock’s — do not constitute a “backlash.” But if there is one truth about Linsanity, it’s how the phenomenon practically demands new narratives to feed itself; this was simply the latest.
That said, Lin’s presence as a high-achieving Asian American playing in a sports league dominated by black men was bound to run into broader race relations/tensions. The long-standing stereotype of Asian Americans as “model minorities” — well-educated, humble, hardworking — was never simply about Asian Americans. The caricature emerged at the end of the 1970s as a subtle pushback against black/brown-led civil rights and ethnic nationalist movements. The high educational attainment of Asian Americans — more a direct product of post-1965 immigration policy than cultural predilection — became a strategic “divide-and-conquer” tactic that helped shield white privilege from demands for affirmative action and other anti-discrimination policies.
In other words, Asian Americans were meant to “model” the proper behavior for all minorities: keep your head down, work hard, don’t make a fuss. While these traits are sometimes mislabeled as “positive stereotypes,” what is often lost is how they also position Asian Americans as symbolic foils against other communities of color. The praise for Lin’s Ivy League education, his “bold humility,” “hard work,” and “unselfishness,” also have to be understood in contrast to how other NBA players — mostly black — are accused of being “selfish” and “lazy.” As my friend and colleague David Leonard wrote on the blog New Black Man, regarding the racial undertones of Linsanity:
whereas black ballers are defined/demonized with references to selfishness and ego… Lin purportedly provides something else…a “cerebral player” whose success comes from guile, intestinal fortitude, and determination.
Fortunately, however, Linsanity hasn’t simply produced testimonials reifying these conventions; it’s also empowered other commentators to push back. Dozens of Asian American journalists and editorialists, in both traditional and new media, have used the Lin craze as a way to address the persistence of the model minority myth though there’s still ambivalence around whether Lin undermines or reifies the myth (the answer is, of course, both).
Moreover, African American media figures have also taken visible roles in challenging the idea of brewing inter-racial resentment. The Daily Show’s “Senior Black Correspondent” Larry Wilmore hilariously lampooned this idea on a February 16th episode, where he joked that Lin is “revenge for Neil deGrasse Tyson,” a prominent African American physicist. Wilmore went on, “what was [Tyson] thinking? Science? That’s Asians’ turf!” And the New York Times’ William Rhoden shot a video story in Harlem’s famed Rucker Playground, where he interviewed African American street players about Linsanity and found that the “fever has spread uptown … the spiritual home of basketball.” “That’s always been the Harlem way,” Rhoden opined, “…if you can play, you can play,” though he also wondered aloud if “a black Harvard grad would have been this celebrated, especially for his intelligence?” He leaves thought on an ambivalent note: “well, who knows?”
It also can’t be ignored that Lin’s most vociferous and public fan has been African American film director — and diehard Knicks junkie — Spike Lee, who has used Twitter to praise and defend Lin since week one. In one February 14th tweet, Lee insisted “Jeremy Lin Was Born Here In The US Which Makes Him An American. WAKE UP.” For Asian Americans used to decades of being treated as perpetual foreigners, to have prominent non-Asians insisting on our American-ness is a strange but encouraging change.
This said, the black/Asian relationship within Linsanity is neither spurious nor incidental. It has powered some of the most complicated aspects of the phenomenon, not just off the court, but especially in Lin’s games themselves.
Day 11, February 14: The Knicks travel to Toronto to play the Raptors. Lin plays poorly for most of the game but closes on an indelible note. The best way to experience this is not through the official broadcast, but instead, by looking at a fan’s court-level phone video. What unfolds in the last minute of the game is worth narrating at length:
The score is tied and the Knicks’ Ivan Shumpert misses a jumper but the Knicks rebound the ball. With a new shot clock and 20 seconds left in the game, Shumpert passes back to Lin, who parks a yard past the 3-point line. Lin cradles the ball, turns to D’Antoni for quick instructions, then turns back to face the Raptors’ own star guard, José Calderon. Lin literally just stands there as 14 seconds tick off and in that pregnant pause, the energy of the entire arena elevates and all around, people rise to their feet. Lin doesn’t begin dribbling until 5.5 seconds are left on the clock, slowly advancing up court, with Calderon backing away, anticipating some kind of drive to the basket.
This would have been the sensible move. The score is tied so the Knicks do not have to score here. A drive to the basket increases Lin’s odds of being fouled and thus being awarded a pair of free throws (though he’s not a particularly good free throw shooter). Or, if Lin can draw a second defender, that may leave one of his teammates open for a good-look jump shot. Minimum risk with a decent reward.
Instead, with 2.4 seconds left, Lin stops, rises and shoots a three-pointer from a few feet beyond the arc. This is an unexpected, ballsy move to win the game — maximum risk, maximum reward. The ball clears the net and the arena — these are supposed to be Raptors fans, mind you — go crazy. Here comes my favorite part: Lin turns and stutter-skips his way back to the awaiting arms and shoulder bumps of the Knicks bench. He doesn’t jump, there’s no fist pump; he is positively Horry-esque in his saunter. In this moment, Lin embodies “swag.”
Swag is a particular performance of masculinity, a style of cockiness that can be traced back to the classic, white masculine swagger of someone like John Wayne. In modern times however, swag is more associated with the dominant pose of urban black men, who, through hip-hop and other cultural forms, have influenced expressions of masculinity amongst non-blacks as well. Swag, in other words, is the product of a deeply American merry-go-round of racial posturing and borrowing.
It’s also a defining but contested attribute of the modern NBA. When the league enforces dress codes amongst the players or when fans complain about “too many tattoos” on the court, these are essentially reactions to swag, which is to say, reactions to the perception of an excess of blackness. When columnists like The Daily Beast’s Buzz Bissinger discussed the NBA’s “race problem,” this is what they used to mean… at least B.L. (Before Lin).
For Asian American men, the fact that Lin exhibits swag is important because it validates a desire to lay claim to the conventional masculinity that many feel has long been denied them. Emasculation is a long-standing, dominant trope in pop culture representations of Asian and Asian American men; suffice to say, it is a tricky and conflicted subject, something that could — and has — filled books. Therefore, for those Asian American men who feel like masculinity is a club that everyone else has membership to, someone like Lin is a godsend, not just because he’s performed well in the NBA — one of the grand stages of contemporary American masculinity — but because he’s done so with swag. Those displays, such as wagging a blue Gatorade-tinged tongue after hitting a big three vs. the Jazz, confirms he’s “one of us,” not the kind of emotionless, inscrutable figure seen in so many Orientalist caricatures. This is an irrational fear anyway; Lin grew up in the Asian American Mecca of the Bay Area, he’s told interviewers his favorite player growing up was Latrell Spreewell, and even if his favorite groups are mostly Christian rap and rock artists, at least he likes hip-hop. But it’s not just enough for him to tell people this; swag is showing it.
As one might expect in trying to parse the relationship between race and masculinity, the concept of Lin-as-male-role-model doesn’t come without its complications. This was an observation made early on by Jay Caspian Kang, a senior editor at the EPSN spin-off site, Grantland.com, who wrote a series of ahead-of-the-curve blog posts about Lin in 2010. In one of them, “The Lives of Others,” he went straight to the nerve center:
[W]hat Jeremy Lin represents is a re-conception of our bodies, a visible measure of how the emasculated Asian-American body might measure up to the mythic legion of Big Black supermen. Within that singularly American calculus, it’s not about basketball at all. It’s about our fucked up anthropology.
In other words, the Asian American relationship to masculinity is already fraught with stereotypes around race and manhood yet, through Lin, “redemption” hasn’t come through undermining or rejecting the hegemony of modern masculinity. Rather, it comes through dominating other men, at their own proverbial (and literal) game.
If one hopes for some more transformative masculinity in all this, it’s worth watching this interview with Lin, after the Raptors game. Fast-forward to the 30 second mark where Landry Fields, reportedly Lin’s best friend on the team, quickly glides into frame, spontaneously kisses Lin on the head, and then departs. It’s a moment of genuine affection that’s almost as good as watching Lin hit the 3-pointer and strut off. (Almost.)
Day 13, February 16: The Knicks are off, having handily beaten the Sacramento Kings the night before, 100-85. It’s one of the first games where coach D’Antoni actually rests Lin for any extended time period, having earlier boasted, “I’m riding him like freakin’ Secretariat.”
Linsanity took no hiatus and this was a banner day for bandwagoners, seeking to wedge Lin’s story into whatever pet cause they see fit, including: 1) Lin as an “ambassador” for Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics education (even though his degree was in Economics), 2) Lin as a celebrated product of “Tiger Mom” parenting, or 3) Lin as a “stereotype that should be celebrated,” (and nonsensically, a poster child for the argument against affirmative action).
Against these kinds of tortured analyses, it’s easy to understand community sensitivity around Lin and those aforementioned Model Minority Myths. His story serves as an all-too convenient tool for ideologues seeking to promote a neoliberal model of competitive individualism. Yet I wouldn’t overstate the threat these kinds of shoehorned articles present; most readers likely saw them for what they so obviously were: opportunistic and ridiculous.
Especially for any lay observer of contemporary media, this form of front-running is practically inevitable; no good story ever goes unexploited. At least some have a sense of humor about it. In a February 24th column by sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, she explains “What Jeremy Lin, Basketball Teach Us About Sex.” Here’s a sample insight: “You have to learn to play together and if you do, you can score repeatedly.”
Day 14, February 17: Lin appears on the first of his Sports Illustrated covers… just in time for the Knicks to lose their first game of the Lin-era, 85-89 vs. the New Orleans Hornets. Many chalk this up to the S.I. cover jinx: it’s commonly believed that any athlete who makes the cover of the magazine is fated to suffer a poor performance soon after. That evening, Lin shoots under 50%, only posts 5 assists, and commits a staggering 9 turnovers. Jinx: 1, Lin: 0.
By any reasonable expectation, a Knicks loss was inevitable; Lin didn’t magically turn the team into the 1971-2 Lakers. No doubt some in the sports media had been waiting for such a loss in order to have the chance to pen a new pun, something along the lines of “Can’t Lin them all!” Anthony Federico, an editor for ESPN, wrote a headline that appeared on the site’s mobile site: “Chink in the Armor.” It doesn’t matter that “chink in the armor” is a common phrase in sports media to describe a weakness: the fact that “chink” also is a racial slur specific to Chinese created an instant public relations nightmare for ESPN. It also didn’t help that, as the story gained steam over the weekend, another ESPN employee, analyst Max Bretos, was found using the same phrase in an earlier broadcast.
If condemnation against ESPN came swiftly, the company’s reaction was just as quick: by Sunday, the company announced that they had fired Federico and suspended Bretos. Protests against media insensitivity towards Asian Americans are hardly new but the difference here was the speed at which ESPN responded. “I’ve seen a lot of crap like this over the years,” Phil Yu of the popular Angry Asian Man blog wrote, “but I’ve never seen a media entity like ESPN act this fast to address a complaint. That’s the Jeremy Lin Effect.”
The fallout from the Federico incident ignited yet another wave of Linsanity stories about race and in doing so, once again highlighted how awkward the mass media can be in its attempts to discuss the complexities of race in American society. For example, one common “observation” about the ESPN debacle was how it allegedly exposed a double standard around racism. As the Los Angeles Times’ sportswriter Bill Plaschke rhetorically asked in a February 21 column, “can you imagine a major American media company tolerating this sort of blatant racism if it were directed toward any of Lin’s African American teammates?”
The problem with this simplistic formulation is how it’s premised — whether intentionally or not — on the notion that anti-black racism has been eradicated from “major media companies.” There may be high-profile examples of where overt, anti-black language has drawn swift consequences — see Don Imus — but much of the racism within “major American media companies,” typically happens in less blatant ways, but is no less pervasive. Lin may certainly face different forms of discrimination as an Asian American, but to suggest he’s dealing with racism when other players of color do not is yet another way in which Linsanity has produced dismayingly reductive narratives around race.
Meanwhile, Linsanity has unfolded against the backdrop of bitter, post-lockout labor relations in the NBA, where the vast majority of team owners are white and their players are black. Yet to raise those issues often merits not sympathy but criticism. Then again, it’s been reported that Lin wants to become the Knicks’ next union representative in the National Basketball Players Association; perhaps that Harvard degree in economics will serve a purpose beyond being a symbol for model minority myth-makers.
Day 16, February 19: The Dallas Mavericks visit New York as the first team with a winning road record to play the Lin-era Knicks. The Mavs are shorter on talent than last spring, when they won the NBA championship; their star guard, J.J. Barea now plays for the same Timberwolves team that the Knicks beat earlier, while the Mavs’ former center, Tyson Chandler, plays for the Knicks and has been Lin’s key partner in scoring off the pick-and-roll.
Lin enjoys a stellar game against the Mavericks: 28 points and 14 assists (despite 7 turnovers) and is key in the 4th quarter with several important plays including scoring over the much taller Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion in consecutive 3 point shots. After the disappointment of the loss to the Hornets, the 104-97 victory over the Mavericks rejuvenates the Knicks’ momentum, at least for a day.
Day 17, February 20: The Nets return to MSG for a rematch of the game where Linsanity was born, not three weeks earlier. This time, however, the Nets seem intent on rewriting the story, especially point guard Deron Williams, who lights up the Knicks for 38 points. The Nets win, 100-92. Lin still performs well despite the loss — 21 points, 9 assists and only 3 turnovers — but the Knicks are more concerned with the return of star forward Carmelo Anthony, sidelined with a groin injury since the last Nets game.
It wasn’t that long ago that Anthony was the center of a NBA media storm, back in 2010/11 when the Knicks were trying to land him from the Denver Nuggets. Anthony had made it clear he was uninterested in staying in Denver after his contract ended and after the debacle of Lebron James’ “The Decision” the previous season, Nuggets management was hoping to avoid a similar fate by trading Anthony while they could still get strong players in return. As the process became more protracted, criticism built around Anthony, fueling the storyline that he was a fundamentally “selfish” player.
It didn’t help that, once Anthony joined the Knicks, the team fell into a long-term funk of constant losses and dashed expectations, all the way until February 4, 2012. There’s a dark irony in how Anthony, lauded as the team savior, ended up watching from the bench as a third-stringer became the most celebrated Knicks player in at least a generation. For that reason, in the days leading up to this game, sports press repeatedly flagged a storyline around whether “Melo can play with Lin,” once again invoking the supposed selfishness of one race in contrast to the public-spiritedness of another.
For the Nets/Knicks rematch at least, these fears were unfounded. The Knicks didn’t lose because Lin and Anthony couldn’t find a way to play together. They mostly lost because the Nets went on a 3-point spree, shooting nearly 50% compared to the Knicks’ measly 24%. Unselfishness doesn’t win games when your opponents are outscoring you 45-15 from long range.
Day 20, February 23: The previous evening, the Knicks rebound briefly by defeating the Atlanta Hawks, 99-82. However, on this night, they have to travel to Miami where the conference-leading Heat end up trouncing them 102-88. The Knicks actually hang in with the Heat during the first half, getting solid efforts from newly signed back-up guard J.R. Smith and 3-point specialist Steve Novak. But in the 3rd quarter, the Heat pull away behind strong plays by Chris Bosh and Lebron James and never look back.
Though the defeat may not have been as surprising as the Knicks’ previous losses to the lowly Hornets and Nets, Lin’s performance is patently awful: 1-for-11 shooting, only 3 assists, and 8 turnovers. The Heat deliberately single him out on defense, throwing aggressive single and double-team coverage to slow his fast breaks and force mistakes. For the first time since Linsanity began, Lin looks shockingly out of his depth, incapable of making the necessary adjustments against a Heat team intent on minimizing his presence.
Even without the Heat smothering Lin, Linsanity had already began to ease up in the wake of ESPN’s headline fiasco; once writers are claiming that “Knicks’ Jeremy Lin holds mirror up to America,” everything that followed was bound to feel smaller. Coverage down-shifted to more mundane topics — Lin’s endorsement possibilities, a profile of his new $13,000/month condo — but these were conventional stories of success and wealth, something we’d expect of “other” celebrities. Linsanity has been about lofty ideals and social meta-narratives, not chronicling real estate adventures.
Day 21, February 24: All-Star Weekend begins in Orlando, the customary “halfway” point in the NBA season. Lin is a late addition into the weekend’s activities and his presence during the night’s Rising Stars game of first and second year players is quiet: not quite 9 minutes, with only 2 points. NBA.com’s coverage of the game suggests this is another example of Lin’s humility: “careful about the cult following he has generated in a short time, Lin simply didn’t want to show up the other players.”
The NBA still made full use of Lin in other ways, giving him his own solo press conference on Friday, a highly unusual move to reflect a highly unusual phenomenon. He answered a range of questions regarding his life of the last few weeks, and his replies suggested that he has been quite aware of the stickiness of race in his own narrative:
I think just being Asian-American… I’m going to have to prove myself more so again, again and again, and some people may not believe it. I know a lot of people say I’m deceptively athletic and deceptively quick, and I’m not sure what’s deceptive.
The press conference was a refreshing intervention in Linsanity, momentarily shifting the focus back onto the man himself who, in this instance, seemed affable and down to earth. It has been very easy to forget that Lin is not just a Symbol but a 23-year-old trying to do right by his team, his family, and himself. Linsanity already feels overwhelming from the outside; it’s hard to imagine how Lin is trying to process it all himself.
Partly because nothing like this has ever happened before to an Asian American, I’m tempted to say that this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. However, that may be my own projection of wanting to “own” this moment as an Asian American myself. The more sobering likelihood is that what we’re seeing is not just a phenomenon created around a unique story/individual, but rather, an emergent set of media forces that have allowed this perfect storm to form in its midst.
Social media has undoubtedly amplified and accelerated Linsanity in ways that would have been impossible in, say, 1992, when Kristi Yamaguchi won the gold medal in figure skating at the Winter Olympics. Likewise, the preponderance of sports-oriented media outlets, from 24-hour cable networks to talk radio to internet sites, means that there’s a constant need to generate content, and that often means latching on small stories and spinning them large.
But what Linsanity has also revealed, in stark and sometimes uncomfortable ways, is how much we still want to talk about race: how much it informs the stories we tell ourselves as people, as a nation, as an idea for a society. And just because we’ve amped up the volume and increased the channels for discussion doesn’t mean we’ve necessarily gotten better at it. We fall back on the same narratives, the same talking points, perhaps because it feels too vulnerable to push outside those safety zones. Linsanity, at this point, seems to waver between reifying these decrepit dialogues, and forcing new ones into existence. It’s unfair to put so much on Jeremy Lin’s shoulders, to expect him to help carry this weight for the rest of us. But for many reasons — personal and societal — I hope he continues to thrive in his role, and I wait, with wary but excited anticipation, to see how he continues to drive his lane.
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