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The Jeremy Lin Phenomenon

February 14, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jeremy Lin, a point guard for the New York Knicks and the first Chinese-American player in NBA history, is on a storybook run in his first four games as a starter. Ray Suarez and Jeff Yang of The Wall Street Journal explore how an unknown basketball player suddenly captured the attention of the NBA, the sports world and beyond.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next, how an unknown basketball player suddenly captured the attention of the sports world and beyond.

Ray Suarez looks at the Jeremy Lin phenomenon.

RAY SUAREZ: Just a week ago, few fans knew his name or his face, but tonight when basketball point guard Jeremy Lin takes to the floor for the New York Knicks, all eyes will be on him.

A Harvard graduate and the first Chinese-American player in NBA history, the 23-year-old was cut by two other NBA teams before the Knicks picked him up and sat him on the bench. After moving to the starting lineup earlier this month, he scored more than points in his first four starts, 109, than any other NBA player since 1976. And fans around the world have been dazzled by plays like this one.

For more about the Lin phenomenon, we turn to Jeff Yang of The Wall Street Journal.

And, Jeff, the story was already implausible in 100 other ways, it seems, cut by his early teams, not scouted as a prospect in high school. But it’s really the fact that he’s Taiwanese-American that has gained a lot of the attention.

What is fascinating about his Asian-American background?

JEFF YANG, The Wall Street Journal: I think the thing that’s fascinating obviously for Asian-Americans is that there really has never been anyone like him before, I mean, not just in basketball, but arguably in sports.

Organized sports is such a huge thing in America, such a big part of the fabric of our culture, and yet we’ve never had a player who wasn’t just successful, but dominating in one of these sports before. And Jeremy comes along. He’s somebody completely unheralded.

He’s got a huge amount of talent, but has been effectively ignored. And, overnight, like a Cinderella story, he becomes the biggest news in all of New York and maybe all the world.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned that there’s never been anyone like him before. What about Yao Ming? What’s different about Jeremy Lin?

JEFF YANG: Well, obviously, there are two really big differences right off the bat.

The first is, Yao Ming was exceptionally physically gifted, but in a specific way. I mean, he was 7’6” tall. And you can’t, as they say, teach size. So he was somebody who came into the league already a superstar and with gifts that you honestly can’t just create with hard work.

And, furthermore, he’s Chinese. He’s somebody, actually, a foreign player who’s come to the United States, both with a certain reputation, but also with certain limitations. He — English wasn’t his first language. He wasn’t culturally part of the fabric of the United States when he first came here.

And he was still hugely inspirational. But when you look at Jeremy, you’re looking at somebody totally different. He’s an all-American kid who is redefining the notion of what an all-American kid is. And that is a big part, I think, of what why Jeremy is such an exceptionally interesting story.

RAY SUAREZ: I’ve just plowed through several dozen articles on his sudden rise. And an interesting things pops up. He’s constantly referred to as intelligent, or his court smarts make up for a lack of being physically imposing.

Now, is that kind of the flip side of the stereotypes that many minority players bridle under, that they are physically gifted? Now, being smart is a good stereotype, but it is — is it a stereotype nonetheless?

JEFF YANG: Well, I mean, it doesn’t hurt that the guy did go to a pretty good school. He went to Harvard University. So, it’s not as if it’s not accurate on some level.

I do think that, when you look at the way that his career has played out, where team after team and individual after individual has sort of underestimated his physical abilities, there probably is a little bit of that, a sense in which he’s looked at as many maybe a smart player, but not somebody who can really run with the big boys.

And that is something that I think Asian-American athletes in general have gotten tagged with, this idea that they have to bring brains to the table, because they don’t have the brawn or the raw talent. His brains and leadership have also played a big role. He’s changed the nature of the team. He’s gotten a lot of great shots and great looks for his teammates. They’re playing better together than they ever have.

And we’re hoping that it will only get better when the big stars actually come back off the disabled list.

RAY SUAREZ: He also seems to be having fun with it, though, isn’t he, whether it’s bowing to Carmelo Anthony or doing a little courtside ritual that involves opening books and pocketing glasses.

JEFF YANG: There’s something about him that’s almost infectious. He’s playful. He’s funny. He can be very serious and very solemn in some ways.

He’s got a very strong Christian faith. But, at the same time, when people see him play, they see somebody who makes them remember the playground, makes them remember the pickup games they have played themselves. And that’s — that’s amazing.

RAY SUAREZ: One black athlete tweeted that, if a black player did what Jeremy Lin has done over the past week-and-a-half, it just wouldn’t make much of a splash.

But, interestingly, Ta-Nehisi Coates blogged on The Atlantic that it’s true that, if he were black, this would probably be a smaller story, but, if he weren’t talented, it would not be a story at all.

JEFF YANG: I absolutely agree with that.

I think that, in a way — and the statement you’re talking about was by Floyd Mayweather, who’s a boxer. The notion that somehow he doesn’t deserve the attention he’s getting is ludicrous. The guy has done some amazing stuff. He’s turned a team around. He’s turned a season around. He’s maybe saved his coach’s job.

And he’s certainly proven that he deserves to play on that field with anybody. The fact that he’s Asian-American certainly makes him exceptional, unique and inspiring in a lot of ways, certainly for me, for people like me. But there’s no question that his talent got him there and that his talent will keep him there.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeff Yang from The Wall Street Journal, thanks for joining us.

JEFF YANG: Thank you.