In a little more than a week, Jeremy Lin has become the biggest phenomenon in New York sports and the entire NBA.
The dazzling point guard has turned the basketball world upside-down, an Asian-American who plays skillfully, with great flair and crowd-pleasing charisma. Moreover, he is a graduate of Harvard University, who was largely ignored by all the major college basketball programs and signed to an NBA contract by a very reluctant Golden State Warriors (the first of two clubs who waived him before the New York Knicks picked him up).
On a number of fronts, Lin has single-handedly broken down barriers and stereotypes and captivated millions of fans, including many who never previously cared about basketball at all.
As an Asian-American myself (though not Chinese nor Taiwanese like Lin), the 'Linsanity' saga has enraptured me and revitalized my interest in basketball.
However, perhaps owing to my cynical and skeptical nature, I suspect a backlash may soon be coming Jeremy Lin's way – from many sources.
Of immediate concern is the imminent return of the Knicks star regulars Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudamire. Anthony, a notorious ballhog who loathes passing to his teammates, typically clogs up the offense for whatever team he plays for. Melo is a great player and scorer, but can't really function in the context of a team.
In any case, Lin's role on the Knicks might be seriously compromised by Anthony. Given that the Knicks have invested tens of millions of dollars in Anthony (who makes Lin look like a pauper), Anthony has to get his playing time. I highly doubt Melo will be able to mesh with Lin (as a big man, Amare probably won't intrude on Lin's playmaking time).
Thus, Knicks' coach Mike D'Antoni (whose job Lin likely saved) faces a daunting problem. If he reduces Lin's minutes or dares to sit him for long stretches, Knicks fans may riot. Lin isn't just another player – he's a cultural phenomenon.
More importantly, under Lin's leadership, the Knicks have won five straight games and now have an outside shot at gaining the eighth seed in the playoff hierarchy.
Also, there's a far more troubling dimension to the Lin story – and it's something the mass media has not explored too much. That has to do with race.
If Lin were black, his emergence would have been politely lauded, but would not have generated the kind of enormous excitement that Lin has produced.
If Lin were white (and made the same sudden impact), he would receive substantial media coverage as the latest 'great white hope' in a sport dominated by African-Americans.
But as an Asian-American, Lin opens up a whole different kind of Pandora's Box of potential possibilities and conflicts.
There have been very few Asians to have ever made it to the NBA – the most successful was Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, who had to retire due to chronic foot problems.
However, Lin is a far more accessible and compelling figure than Yao – at least to Asian-Americans.
Yao came from Shanghai, China, stood an astounding 7-foot-6 and did not speak English in public during his first few years in the league. He was also a stationary redwood tree who played well, but without much flair.
In contrast, Lin is a California kid who is deeply immersed in the flashier American-style of basketball. Asian-Americans (including me) can relate to him much better than Yao.
Asian-Americans occupy a very strange and perplexing space in U.S. society. Well-established Asians generally have higher incomes and more advanced education than the broader population.
Indeed, Asian academic success has become so great that some top colleges have imposed racial quotas on admissions in order to put a ceiling on Asian enrollment.
Despite their high achievement, Asians remain under-represented in politics and in the top positions in corporate America.
Newer, poorer Asian immigrants have established stores and small businesses in virtually every urban center in the country, where they face long hours, crime, violence and the resentment of the local neighborhood.
Thus, paradoxically, Asian-Americans are both a privileged class and a disadvantaged one, too,
More to the point, the dominant racial conflict in the urban U.S. is no longer black-versus-white; but rather the growing hostility between black and Hispanics on one side versus Asian immigrants on the other.
As a twenty-year resident of New York City (in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn), I have witnessed this brewing 'race war' first-hand.
Generally speaking, poor blacks and Hispanics deeply resent and feel threatened by the massive influx of Chinese, Koreans, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, among others, into urban neighborhoods where they have established small business enterprises. These “Asians” put in long hours, sacrificing everything for their children’s education. Quite often, their kids to become doctors, lawyers, accountants and jump several social classes in one or two generations.
Asian enterprise and upward mobility has sparked enormous resentment not only among some whites, but also among the poor urban black and Hispanic population trapped in poverty and paralyzed by institutional racism.
For those of you who think I am exaggerating or being unnecessarily alarmist, I refer you to the events of April 1992 in Los Angeles. After four (white) LAPD officers were acquitted of brutally beating black motorist Rodney King, the black and Hispanic people in South-Central Los Angeles took out their rage principally on Korean shopkeepers who had moved into their neighborhoods.
Koreans were attacked, some even killed, while their businesses were burned to the ground. (The Korean community had nothing remotely to do with either Rodney King or the policemens' acquittal.)
Yet, the aggrieved residents of South-Central viewed the Koreans as an easy and accessible target. Stories soon emerged of how the Korean shopkeepers gouged their customers, refused to hire any local people and generally treated them with coldness and disrespect.
Granted, no conflagration of the magnitude of the 1992 Los Angeles riots has been repeated since, but little racial brushfires have scarred the urban landscape.
In Brooklyn in the early 1990s, black activists boycotted Korean-owned stores for their perceived mistreatment of black customers.
I have witnessed this conflict up close and personal. Once in an Indian-owned shop in Brooklyn, I saw a middle-aged African-American woman curse and abuse the clerks (mistakenly calling them 'Ay-rabs') and demanding they “go back to where they came from.”
I have seen black teenagers humiliate a Sikh shopkeeper by stealing his goods and calling him “Osama bin Laden.”
I can recite scores of other similar incidents that I have either witnessed first-hand or heard and read about. I am certain such unpleasantness isn't happening only in New York – Philadelphia, Baltimore, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Dallas and Chicago likely have similar scenarios.
What does this have to do with Jeremy Lin?
Lin is excelling in a sport dominated by African-Americans. Moreover, as the son of two engineers and a graduate of Harvard University, he is hardly a 'poor, disadvantaged' minority – indeed, he has options in life most urban ghetto-dwellers cannot even dream of.
Pro sports, particularly the NBA, is dominated by blacks because they have limited options to become successful.
Thus, I feel that Lin's sudden rise is bound to elicit some measure of resentment from black basketball fans and perhaps even some of the players.
Already, black boxer Floyd Mayweather has assailed Lin. He tweeted: Jeremy Lin is a good player, but all the hype is because he's Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don't get the same praise.
Jason Whitlock, a black sports columnist, made a vulgar joke about Lin's genitals and anatomy.
This is only the beginning.
Race is the huge elephant in the room that few people are willing to talk about, especially in sports. In the NBA in particular, race and racism are never far from the surface. I recall in the late 1980s/early 1990s Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons not only derided the talents of Boston Celtic Larry Bird, but he also claimed that the league was importing European (read: white) players in order to prevent the NBA from becoming “too black.” Isiah’s paranoid ramblings were dismissed by some, but I don’t think his views were that singular.
If Lin’s success suddenly opens to door to waves of Asian players into NBA, I fear we will again hear such conspiracy theories.
Although I have not heard yet any racialist comments directed at Lin (reportedly, he suffered slights and insults from mostly white opponents and fans in Ivy League gyms while he starred for Harvard), I fear such vitriol is just around the corner.
I recall about a decade ago when Yao Ming joined the Houston Rockets, I heard or overheard anti-Chinese rhetoric on New York City subways, parks and bars (from both black and white people). Many suggested that Yao “did not belong” in the league or that he was “taking a (high-paying) job” from an American.
Shaquille O'Neal, playing for the Los Angeles Lakers at the time, even insulted Yao and made some noises sounding like vaguely Chinese gibberish to degrade Yao. Although Shaq later apologized, it was clear where the Big Diesel's heart lay.
To his credit, Yao took it all graciously or simply ignored the abuse (it's possible he didn't even understand much of it).
Perhaps times have changed for the better – I certainly hope so. Maybe Lin's race will merely serve as a point of pride among millions of Asian-Americans and not something to ridicule among the much larger population of non-Asians.
But I'm not holding my breath.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.