“Off the Rim” is a column by Sarah Ko about basketball.
In all honesty, I am a Golden State Warriors bandwagon fan. As a Southern California native, I grew up cheering for the Lakers, but that all changed when the Warriors drafted now-NBA champion Jeremy Lin. And now that the only Asian American face in the NBA is gone, Asian Americans, like myself, are facing an identity crisis.
After his rookie year in 2011, Lin went from an undrafted, G-League backup point guard to the breakout superstar in the Knicks starting lineup — inaugurating the viral "Linsanity" movement. Lin became a global cultural sensation for defying the ultimate Asian American stereotype: they have no game; they're better as doctors and engineers.
As Linsanity took off, critics such as Floyd Mayweather claimed Lin’s achievements were meaningless and he was only a sensation because he was Asian. They immediately compared Lin to the other iconic Asian faces in the NBA, including Yao Ming and Wang ZhiZhi. While those claims may be true, these critics failed to recognize a key differentiator: the other Asian faces in the NBA were born outside the U.S. Yao Ming is a Chinese citizen born in Shanghai, but Jeremy Lin is an American born in California. He just happens to be Chinese.
Growing up as a Chinese kid, Lin checked all the boxes and lived up to the expectations of “Tiger Moms.” He had a 4.2 high school GPA, exceptional SAT scores and admittance to Harvard. But as an American kid, he also played streetball after school. As the basketball team captain at Palo Alto High School, he was awarded All-State and Northern California Division II Player of the year.
Basketball has always held a deep value in Asian American communities. It is a fundamental childhood activity. Asian Americans are naturally drawn to basketball because the game is so universal: you can play with anyone anywhere. It’s where differences are set aside and the sole focus is on the game. Even Asian American influencers, such as the Fung Bros and Riche Le, revolve their content around basketball and its culture.
Chinese Americans aren’t the kids with “tiger” parents destined for medical degrees. Korean Americans aren’t the kids with smelly red cabbages. Japanese Americans aren’t the kids who only watch anime. Asian Americans are kids ballin’ on the street, living the same dreams shared by all American kids.
Lin’s impact on the Asian American identity brought up a new generation of dreamers. When Lin joined the NBA, Asian Americans became the second-largest demographic watching the NBA, the first being African Americans. Even after two injury-laden years, Lin’s jersey continued to be a staple in many closets. Unbeknownst to Lin, what Kobe, Lebron, and Michael Jordan did for the Black community is what he did for the Asian American community.
While on his Asia tour this summer, Lin gave a speech on GoodTV that drew a great deal of criticism from basketball fans, players and analysts where he complained that the NBA gave up on him. Many said he should suck it up and should just continue on with his life. There are, after all, numerous basketball players who are forced to move on.
But these critics need to take a step back.
In the same hour-long speech he also said, “A lot of you guys here know what it’s like to have your dream crushed … And I know that a lot of you guys feel hopeless in some situations … I don’t know what it is but a lot of you guys are like me. You’re waiting.”
He’s right. We, Asian Americans, are waiting. We’re waiting for another iconic Asian American figure to disturb the prejudices we face and to serve as a gateway towards racial equality. We’re waiting for a chance to show everyone what being Asian and American really means.
The Asian American image is essential in the NBA. After all, the NBA stands for the National Basketball Association, where all cultural identities in our nation should be represented. Lin’s contract with the Beijing Ducks isn’t just about his NBA career-ending. It’s about an Asian American icon leaving the U.S; the hope that we can be more than a stereotype is dying with his departure from the NBA.
Lin’s departure to the “motherland” is a call to action for every Asian American. It’s time for us to reinvent ourselves and for a cultural re-education in America.
“Off the Rim” runs every Thursday.