The Subtle Bigotry That Made Jeremy Lin the NBA’s Most Surprising Star

The Knicks point guard has dazzled the league and his teammates this season. But the reason for that surprise has everything to do with longheld assumptions about Asian American athletes.

By Jamilah King Feb 08, 2012

There hasn’t been much reason to cheer at Madison Square Garden this season. After over a decade of defeat and dysfunction, New York Knicks fans started the lockout-shortened season fairly optimistic that the NBA’s most storied franchise would return to prominence. But almost midway through the season, the team’s star players are battered and bruised and it’s struggling through a losing record.

Jeremy Lin wasn’t supposed to matter. But now he does. And that fact both unearths and challenges some deeply held assumptions about the place of Asian Americans in U.S. culture.

Fresh off of two stellar games in which the second year point guard clawed his way out of relative anonymity, Lin has suddenly become a factor for a team–and a city–that’s desperate to win games. Yet along the way, Lin, the deeply religious, American-born son of Taiwanese immigrants, is shattering stereotypes about who and what can make an elite basketball player.

On February 4, Lin shocked Knicks fans (and, from the looks of it, even some teammates) by coming off of the bench to score 25 points to help defeat the New Jersey Nets. He also had 7 assists and 5 rebounds, all career highs; he’d previously averaged just over 2 points per game in his young career. Two nights later, after being awarded the starting point guard position, Lin stunned the sports world again by scoring 28 points to lead the team over the Utah Jazz.

"I’m riding him like a freaking Secreariat," Knicks Coach Mike D’Antoni laughed to the Times about Lin, accounting for the fact that Lin played all but 3 of the game’s 48 minutes against the Jazz. For his part, Lin maintained his humility, offering only that "God works in mysterious and miraculous ways."

It was a pivotal moment for the Knicks, who’d been searching for a point guard all season. And to show just how unprepared the team was for his sudden burst of stardom, the team had to photocopy his bio into the game notes package because he was signed too late to be included in its regular media guide.

Regardless of how the rest of the season goes for Lin, and the Knicks, his moment in the spotlight is an important time to reflect on how the country views its Asian American athletes.

"Of course we’re far beyond the blatant discrimination that stopped players such as Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays from playing in the MLB, but there still is a similar psychological barrier that Lin is currently in the process of dismantling in front of our very eyes," said Dean Adachi, an historian and lecturer of Asian American studies.

Lin is only one of a handful of Asian-American players in the NBA’s history, and the first in over a decade. Although 1950 is usually seen as the year when two black basketball players broke the color barrier, Japanese-American Wataru Misaka technically did it two seasons before in 1947-48, when he played for the New York Knicks. 

Though Lin has consistently shown promise since his high school days–even leading his Palo Alto, Calif., high school team to a state championship his senior year–he was overlooked by both college coaches and NBA scouts. The first time he showed up to a summer league game in San Francisco’s celebrated Pro-Am tournament, someone at the gym told him: "Sorry, sir, there’s no volleyball here tonight. Just basketball."

It was a precursor to the thinly veiled prejudice that Lin and other Asian American male basketball players often face after decades of racist caricaturing that’s stereotyped them as nerdy and un-athletic, wholly incapable of excelling in a distinctly physical sport like basketball. "The most glaring stereotype to plague Asian athletes is that they are too small to succeed at the highest levels–too short for basketball, too weak for football," Adachi said.

That’s not much of a concern for Lin, who’s 6-foot-3. But media reports are filled with references to his immigrant parents, who are both reportedly only 5-foot-6, implying that he’s something of a basketball miracle.

"It’s a sport for white and black people," Lin told the San Francisco Chronicle back in 2008. "You don’t get respect for being an Asian-American basketball player in the U.S."

Only Harvard and Brown guaranteed Lin a spot on their basketball teams. He chose to head East to Cambridge after being shunned by his dream school, UCLA, and his local university, Stanford. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that of the nearly 5,000 Division I men’s basketball players in 2006-07, there were only 19 Asian Americans. That  included numbers for Pacific Islanders and ethnically mixed Asian American players, according to the NCAA Student-Athlete Race and Ethnicity report. In total, that translates to less than 1 percent.

And when Lin’s hometown Golden State Warriors signed him just before the 2010 NBA season began, some critics claimed that it was only a publicity stunt by the team in an effort to appeal to the Bay Area’s large Asian-American community.

"Through no fault of his own, Lin stands at a bombed-out intersection of expected narratives, bodies, perceived genes, the Church, the vocabulary of destinations and YouTube," wrote Jay Caspian Kang, who’s Asian American, about Lin’s electrifying play at Harvard. "What 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 superman."

But while the NBA may have been caught off guard by a player like Lin, basketball has long been hugely important in many Asian-American communities. Japanese-American basketball leagues have been around since the early 1900s in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles, long before the game gained widespread popularity in the U.S. Over the decades, they’ve expanded to include other Asian ethnicities. The race-based leagues have garnered their share of criticism for being racially exclusive, but organizers have maintained that the leagues are important tools that help members develop a sense of community and preserve their ethnic identities.

The continued popularity of those leagues help explain some of Lin’s rabid fan base.

"Especially now that there are lots of Asian Americans growing up and playing, I have to try to hold my own in college," Lin told the Chronicle during his Harvard days. "It’s definitely motivational and it gives me a chip on my shoulder."

That chip on his shoulder could become much more important as his NBA career continues. Oliver Wang, a writer and professor of Sociology at California State University at Long Beach, says that the obvious impact of Lin’s play is that he could inspire other young Asian-American basketball players to continue working on their games.

"It’s difficult enough as it is to get to the NBA," Wang told "Without a few role models out there to inspire that interest, I think it makes it all the more difficult."

Wang notes that while former players like China’s Yao Ming certainly helped change some perceptions of Asian men in sports, there’s still what he calls a "dividing line" between foreign-born athletes–who are often products of highly developed professional athletic programs in their home countries–and Asian-American kids today. 

For Jay Caspian Kang, that difference has everything to do with familiarity, which is what makes someone like Jeremy Lin so appealing to many Asian-American basketball fans. "He’s a kid who grew up similar to them, to me," Kang said. "He represents something different because of that than if he were just seen as an import from another country."