Lin beats the stereotype in a victory for intelligence
Published 19/02/2012 | 05:00
The Hollywood version of Jeremy Lin's story is that he materialised out of nowhere and overnight became a star.
But the true-life version doesn't diminish the romance much either. It's a feel-good fable, a classic American fairytale.
Jeremy Lin is a 23-year-old professional basketball player with the New York Knicks. Five weeks ago he was playing minor league basketball, where the salary is anything from $12,000 to $24,000 per season. This week he is on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.
For the last few weeks they've been wondering how the game's vast recruiting system let him slip through the net. In his final year at school he led his team, Palo Alto High, to the California state championship but no college with a Division One basketball programme recruited him. He went to Harvard where he picked up a degree in economics and a standout reputation as a point guard. But the NBA scouts who saw him didn't trust what they were seeing. He wasn't playing at the elite colleges level; there were doubts about his defence, his finishing and his long-range shooting.
There was one other issue: he is Asian-American, the son of Taiwanese-Chinese emigrants. And very few Asian-Americans before him had ever played in the professional basketball league. No one is saying for certain that it was a factor, but most observers accept there is a stereotype. "It's the Asian thing," said Rex Walters last week. Walters is Japanese-American and a former NBA player. "People who don't think stereotypes exist are crazy. If he's white he's either a good shooter or heady. If he's Asian, he's good at math. We're not taking him."
Lin in any event was completely overlooked during the 2010 NBA draft. But in a subsequent summer league game he outplayed his direct opponent, a player who had been drafted, and on the basis of that performance he was signed by an NBA team, the Golden State Warriors.
They kept him for a year but he remained at the back of the roster and received almost no playing time. Last December they released him. The Houston Rockets signed him and almost as quickly let him go to make room in the salary cap for another recruit.
Point guard is basketball's playmaker position, the rough equivalent of rugby's outhalf or American football's quarterback. Lin is 6' 3'' and by all accounts a pure point guard: able to read the play, pick the correct pass, control the flow of an attacking move. "He's one of those kids who makes the right play time after time after time," says Walters. "But it takes time to see that. It takes patience to see that. That's not how recruiting works."
On December 27, the Knicks recruited him. They already had four point guards but two of them were injured; Lin was signed just for emergency cover. His salary would be €800,000 for the season but it wasn't guaranteed; he could still be cut at any time without them having to pay up. His brother, a New York-based student, put him up on the couch in his living room. In the middle of January, the Knicks shipped him out to the Erie BayHawks to pick up some playing time in the minor leagues.
A week or so later, they brought him back and gave him 20 minutes but the Knicks still lost their third game in a row. The losing streak continued, Lin getting game time in two of the next three.
Then, on February 4, he ignited. The phenomenon that has spawned a blizzard of dodgy puns took off -- "Linsanity" was born. He came off the bench to score 25 points against the New Jersey Nets and inspire a badly-needed win. Two nights later, he made his first start in the NBA and finished with 28 points. It was a sensational start for a rookie but a multitude of sceptics were pointing to the relative weakness of his opponents. How would he do against the mighty LA Lakers? He notched up 38 points against the Lakers to give the Knicks their fourth win in a row. Last Tuesday night against Toronto, with the teams level and one half of a second left on the clock, Lin drained a three-point shot to notch up their sixth consecutive win. On Wednesday, they won their seventh.
He is the talk of New York and an emerging folk hero in America's Asian community. For them he is breaking the stereotype and confounding preconceptions. The story has gone viral online and crossed the Pacific to mainland China, the home of his maternal grandmother. "His jerseys have sold out, even including the counterfeit ones," said one Chinese youth, as reported in The New York Times.
Lin's story has inevitably been presented as another example of the virtues of perseverance -- the sacred character trait beloved of the sporting culture. But it is a victory too for the cerebral kind of performer who is often hard to notice in team sports, even when they consistently do the right thing. They tend to have an efficient, understated style that flies beneath the radar.
Last week, coach after coach who looked at Lin and passed on him admitted they never saw what he had to offer. The Knicks coach was one of them. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," said Mike D'Antoni. "I don't know what to tell you. I've never seen it before."
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