The day after the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA Finals, amidst a news feed peppered with posts about the newly crowned champs (and the freshly dethroned Warriors), I came across one post that struck me. The photo — Jeremy Lin on the confetti-littered court, decked out in freshly unpackaged championship garb, smiling ear-to-ear with the Larry O’Brien trophy tucked proudly under his arm — was captioned by an unknown Facebook user, “He looks like a tourist!”
The caption brings to mind various stereotypes about Asians and Asian Americans — the unaware and encroaching tourist snapping photos and throwing endless peace signs. The effeminate Asian male, someone who would have no business on an NBA court as anything other than a visitor. But within the context of Jeremy Lin’s current career struggles, the caption fixates on a stereotype that Asian Americans know all too well: the perpetual foreigner. This — the simultaneous defending of and distancing from heritage, the confirming and questioning of belonging — is the baggage that comes with being Asian American and is something that has followed Lin into the NBA. After a nearly decade-long career, Lin’s struggles with free agency demonstrate that the league is once again asking him to prove himself.
Lin’s journey has never been free of controversy and struggle. As a senior in high school he saw a lack of athletic scholarship offers despite being a state champion, first team all-state, and Northern California Player of the Year. Playing for Harvard University, he set numerous school records and was unanimously selected for All-Ivy League First Team his junior and senior years, yet went undrafted in 2010. He was signed by the Warriors the same year after showing out at NBA Summer League. In the few months leading up to Linsanity with the Knicks in 2012, he had been waived by two teams and sent down and recalled from the D-League nearly half a dozen times. Even after his success with the Knicks (he averaged an unprecedented 9.9 assists, 2.2 steals, and 25 points in his first nine NBA starts), he became a free agent at the end of the season, receiving only one offer from the Houston Rockets.
Lin has moved around just as much in the years since. The Rockets traded him to the Lakers after two seasons. He signed with Charlotte a year later, where he contributed well off the bench and then Brooklyn a year after that, where he was a starter before suffering a season-ending injury on opening night of 2017. He finished the season with the Nets before he was traded to Atlanta as a mentor for their rookie point guard Trae Young. In February, he bought out his contract and joined the Raptors where he became the first Asian American NBA Champion.
It would be naive to say that race hasn’t played some role in the way that Lin is valued as an athlete, though that role has morphed throughout his career. Through high school, college, and before Linsanity, he challenged the idea that many held of what Asian athletes can do. Basketball had seen a Chinese star before in Yao Ming (Lin said he was often jokingly compared to him), but at seven feet, six inches tall, “The Beast From the Far East,” Yao represented the “other,” almost enhancing the foreignness and air of mystery surrounding Asians and Asian athletes. (Still, results from a quick and very informal survey of coworkers indicate that people don’t consider the difference between Asian and Asian American to be very significant.) Even after demonstrating his skills on a national stage, media revealed its underlying stereotypes against Asian athletes, commonly describing him as “deceptively quick,” his story “miraculous” and synonymous with succeeding against all odds.
Linsanity revealed that Lin carried the “model minority” stereotype with him as well, as his success was used to critique other players, particularly his teammate at the time, Carmelo Anthony. The media rhetoric was rife with racialized language about his “basketball IQ” and “less selfish attitude” due to his East Asian background — posed against the ways black players are commonly referred to as “naturally athletic” or “physically gifted,” but not smart.
Put simply, basketball was not prepared for a guard who looked like Lin, which led to the sensationalism of his rookie success and an impossible platform for comparison, both for other athletes and for Lin himself.
Truthfully, Lin’s career numbers are just as good, if not better, than a number of other players in the league who have been signed, and those who defend him say he is not wrong to question his lack of free agency interest. As one critic points out, “his true shooting percentage — the gold standard for an ‘efficient’ player — has flirted with very good to elite levels.” Lin has hardly been a one-hit wonder in the NBA, yet he has failed to achieve veteran status as others have. If basketball were a country, one could argue that Jeremy Lin learned the language, passed his citizenship test, and even bought a house with a picket fence, years ago. Why then is he still (jokingly, literally, metaphorically, suggestively) viewed as a “visitor” to the league? When will Jeremy Lin cease to be a tourist in the NBA?
Consider — Jackie Robinson’s monumental first steps up to a Major League Baseball plate; the power of Muhammad Ali’s voice and its impact on future generations of athletes; the gloved fists of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Summer Olympics, thrust high and strong in a salute to Black Power; U.S. Women’s Soccer fighting for equal pay; Colin Kaepernick taking a knee.
Consider Wataru Misaka becoming the first non-white NBA player the same year Jackie Robinson did it for baseball, during the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and the nation’s shifting attitudes toward Japanese Americans. Consider Serena Williams’ dominance of women’s tennis and breaking of gender and racial boundaries. In basketball alone, consider Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, LeBron James.
Sports is one of America’s most influential institutions, and is in many ways a microcosm for American society as a whole. Athletes have always helped drive change by calling attention to various issues, by defying norms and by breaking stereotypes. Part of their measured success encompasses what they have done and influenced off the field, court, track, etc. History shows us that this is the legacy of American sports. Why should Jeremy Lin be excluded from this legacy? It is precisely his struggle to prove belonging that makes him belong, his fight for acceptance earning him a spot next to the greats.
There are a host of reasons I am inclined to root for Jeremy Lin, from the superficial (I am of Chinese descent) to the more personal (I was also once an underestimated basketball player). In writing this I have found that what rings most true to my biracial experience is what his struggles speak to about being in between — closely connected to Chinese heritage, yet an American kid through and through, and inheriting an outward appearance that prompts all kinds of assumptions and unwarranted remarks. Watching him in a league that lacks Asian representation, I am at once sad, angry, frustrated, and comforted knowing that on occasion, he too feels the pressure of speaking for an entire group of people.
Another hallmark of a great athlete seems to informally be that his or her significance is contemporarily underestimated and controversial, and in that regard, Lin also fits. So, rest assured, Jeremy Lin. No matter what happens next, your legacy will be, and already is, bigger than basketball.
(Edit: Jeremy Lin has since agreed to play in the CBA with the Beijing Ducks.)