Unless you have been stuck on Newt Gingrich’s moon colony, you probably have heard about Jeremy Lin – AKA “Linsanity”. Trending on Twitter, saturating the social media scene, and commanding ample attention from sports media outlets, Lin has entered the national cultural landscape with vengeance. While his rise most certainly reflects his recent success within American’s media market and the renewed hope from New York Knicks fans, who have increasingly embraced the cynicism usually reserved for the Cubs, the hoopla has larger implications. The power and popularity of Jeremy Lim rests with the appeal of the constructed narrative around him.
Since Lin emerged on the national scene during his playing days at Harvard, the media discourse has focused on his experiences as an immigrant. Lin’s parents emigrated from Taiwan to the U.S. in the 1970s. According to an ESPN article, his Dad dreamed of coming to the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. and “watch the NBA.”
The narrative is one right from the playbook of the American Exceptionalism and American Dream crowd: Gie-Ming (his Dad) dedicated himself to fostering their academic success (they would only get to play basketball after finishing their homework), along of their basketball prowess. Having studied the great players of the NBA, he passed this knowledge onto his children. According to Dana O’Neil, Lin’s story is one of the “immigrant dream”:
All those years Gie-Ming Lin spent rewinding his tapes so he could teach himself how to play a game he never even saw until he was an adult? All those hours spent in the local Y with his boys, schooling them in fundamentals over and over, building muscle memory without even knowing what the term meant? That silly dream, the one in which his children would fall in love with basketball as much as he had?
The underdog, bootstraps, and sticktoitness narrative that ultimately depicts Lin as “overlooked.” According to Howard Beck, the recent ascendance reflects a “continuing a long pattern of low expectations and surprising results.” Noting his success in high school and at Harvard and the lack of attention from coaches, scouts and teams, Beck further argues: “At draft time, in June 2010, Lin was again overlooked. NBA teams…They were the kind of concerns scouts have every year about dozens of prospects, from all sorts of programs and all sorts of backgrounds. Yet there was no escaping Lin’s unusual pedigree and the subtle sense that he did not fit a profile.” His success is attributed to his intelligence, dedication, and his fundamentals. It is attributed to his hard work. Thanks to our culture’s attachment to stereotypes, stories focusing on talent and athleticism are rare.
Part of the narrative of Lin exceptionalism has focused on how he has overcome racism and bigotry during his meteoric rise. His Harvard-to-riches story, his struggle to garner acceptance and an opportunity, reflects anti-Asian prejudice that led teams and fellow competitors to underestimate him. According to Pablo Tore, “the Kansases and Kentuckys, however, didn’t exactly knock down … Only four schools responded. Out of the Pac-10, Lin recalls, UCLA ‘wasn’t interested,’ Stanford was ‘fake interested,’ and during a visit to Cal a staffer ‘called me ‘Ron.’” Lin specifically has cited racial stereotypes as an impediment to his recruitment: “I think in America, basketball is predominantly for, you know, black and white people. And so, I think it is just, yeah, I mean, I guess people aren’t used to it and people don’t expect it,” he noted during an NPR interview, “In general Asian-Americans are seen or looked down upon on the basketball court.”
Through his career, he has experienced prejudice from fans, who have yelled “wonton soup,” “sweet and sour pork,” “to play the orchestra,” “beef and broccoli” and “sweet and sour chicken” in his direction. He has been called a “Chinese import” while others have demanded that he “Go back to China.” The narrative of Lin exceptionalism, one that cites racism and prejudice, as yet another obstacle overcome is emblematic of the power of the constructed narrative surrounding LinThe Jeremy Lin story (coming to theater near you) is evident in the ways in which media narratives are used to convey racial and national meaning, the ways in which he has been ideologically marked, and the ways in which they have been used by the NBA and sport media to attract Asian and Asian American fans throughout the Diaspora. “In the era of globalization, the Phantom of race is articulated not through the body of the NBA’s black majority, but in the event of the minority athlete, who is not white but Asian,” writes Grant Farred in his thoughtful discussion of Yao Ming, race, and the globalization of the NBA. “‘Asian-ness’ has often located Asian Americans outside of African-American Blackness, which is to say, ‘above” African Americans in the racial economy.
Evident by ubiquitous media representations of Lin as “the very incarceration of humility” (Farred, 2006, p. 57) and a widely circulated narrative that consistently imagines him as “representative of the Asian immigrant who buys into the Puritan concept of hard work, self-sacrifice, and the honor in labor in order to secure a piece of the American Dream” (Farred, 2006, p.58), his cultural power emanates from the perceived gulf between him and his black peers. According to Dave Zirin, “Athletes in the eyes of many fans are too spoiled, too loud, too ‘hip-hop, too tattooed, too cornrowed – all of which translates to players are ‘too black’” (Zirin 2004). In a post-Palace Brawl NBA, the Black body functions as “a site of spectacle,” as “a potential measure of evil, and menace,” necessitating containment and control (Denzin, 2001, p. 7). Lin provides that needed containment. The media hype and the widespread celebration of Lin pivots on his Asianness and its relationship the meaning of Blackness on and off the court.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is author of After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press, spring 2012).