After declaring for the 2010 NBA Draft out of Harvard, Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin got passed over for 60 other players. He had no guaranteed path to a team roster. When he eventually signed with the Golden State Warriors after proving himself in summer workouts, he’d already begun generating buzz. He was a double underdog: not only had the last Ivy League NBA player retired in 2003, but he was also an Asian American aspiring to be a professional basketball player, a novelty in itself.
When finally given significant playing time, Lin made the most out of it and single handedly took the Knicks on a seven-game winning streak, putting up unprecedented numbers for a first-time NBA starter. The media dubbed it things like “Linsanity,” “A Linspiring Story,” and “Linpossible is nothing.”
Lin’s sudden emergence has sparked many questions. Every team in the league was forced to examine how they had missed a chance to sign the NBA’s newest star. Their motivation to pass on Lin becomes clearer when the process of drafting and its complications are examined.
Drafting is all about managing risk and predicting how certain players will develop. There’s almost no such thing as a sure bet. Michael Jordan is generally considered the best basketball player in history, but he was only the third pick in the 1984 draft. It’s extremely difficult to predict how someone will adapt to the league. Take a look at the 60 players taken over Lin in the 2010 draft. Only ten of them start for their teams; ten others are no longer in the league.
Drafting well can make or break a team in the NBA, and, to simplify the complexities, profiling by recruiters has become rampant. When analysts were describing the future of white BYU star Jimmer Fredette in the NBA, for example, they likened him to white Orlando Magic shooting guard J.J. Reddik, due to the limited roles they both played for their teams as shooting specialists. The comparison to Reddik is easy to understand, but why not James Jones, a black sharpshooter for the Miami Heat, to whom Fredette was arguably more similar? There were plenty of other players to compare him to, but they picked the prototypically white shooting guard. The same problem applies to Spanish import Ricky Rubio. Even though he plays point guard, he was compared to the Gasol brothers, who both play power forward, due solely to the fact that they all play a “Spanish” brand of basketball: one with solid fundamentals, good footwork, and over-enthusiastic passing.
But Lin doesn’t have a brand. There isn’t an Asian template of basketball yet. He’s the only player in the NBA not yet bound by stereotypes that pervade the game. While he’s not bound by a prototype, that ultimately is what made his early career so difficult. Although the game is ultimately a game of results—where only the best players with the best skills make the cut—sometimes it takes more than that. Sometimes it takes the talent, the work to develop that talent, and then an extra heap of willpower to convince someone to look beyond skin color.
Maybe everyone was just scared of Lin because they didn’t know who he’d be; he was un-sortable. Because there have been none, it was only assumed that Asian Americans weren’t athletic enough to compete in basketball at the highest level. Almost every college coach skipped over him, as did all the NBA general managers. But that’s not the problem.
Lin’s emergence has also spurred a heightened awareness of the issue of race in both the media and the sports world. A Cambridge Ben and Jerry’s recently came under heavy criticism for its “Taste the Linsanity” flavor, because it included fortune cookies. Some of Lin’s teammates have even been criticized for bowing to him in a ceremonial fashion. ESPN fired the editor responsible for the headline “A chink in the armor,” after the Knicks were had their seven-game winning streak snapped by the Hornets. Lin is in uncharted territory and is fighting preconceived notions about his game. “After a game, a lot of players say: he’s quicker than he looks.” said Lin in an interview. What exactly does “quicker than he looks” mean? Basketball commentators like Jeff Van Gundy, who have barely even seen Lin play, usually describe him to have a “high Basketball IQ” leaning on already established Asian American stereotypes. Jeremy has repeatedly said that he wants to be seen as an athlete, not an Asian American athlete. And he makes his point on the court. With each layup, each assist, each jumpshot, he challenges his doubters and puts points on the scoreboard.
That’s not to say Lin’s story can be divorced from his race. Basketball isn’t just a game of numbers. As of 2010, 82 percent of the league was African American, and the sport is deeply intertwined with hip-hop and other elements of black culture. It’s unsurprising to hear “Who’s marking the white guy?” in a pickup game. “Orchestra is on the other side of campus,” he’d hear as a member of the Crimson in opposing Ivy League gyms. On the other side, most of Lin’s supporters also allude to race. Aside from the puns off of his last name, common signs at Madison Square Garden include “EMPEROR LIN” and “BRING GOOD FORTUNE ON THE KNICKS.” Even with good intentions, racial epithets are a problematic backdrop to Lin’s rise. Adding race in the context of any competition does nothing but taint the art of the sport. Until we as society can move past the racial associations and stereotypes that leech onto basketball, Lin’s points, his wins, his assists, will all be just “Asian.” The larger question is how to arrive at a point where players are judged simply by how hard they ball.
ALEX SEOH B’14 goes hard in the paint.