Harvard senior Jeremy Lin has been leading the Crimson all season with hopes of going pro. The question is will people finally see behind the Asian American novelty? This piece also appeared in the Spring 2010 issue.
By Joshua Lee & Allie Leogrande
A high school senior stares at an acceptance letter from Harvard. He doubles back and checks his mailbox again to find nothing more for him that day. The next four years of his life await in an envelope branded with an Ivy League signature and he is livid. It’s not exactly the future he had in mind.
For Jeremy Lin of Palo Alto High School, playing basketball for a top-notch Division I program was all he had ever wanted. And as his high school’s three-year Varsity starting point guard and Northern California Division II Player of the Year, Lin had the credentials to do so by any standard. But when it came time to recruit in 2006, Lin was overlooked. Division I coaches wouldn’t return his calls — leaving Lin with the difficult decision to attend Harvard University in the fall, even though Ivy League schools do not offer athletic scholarships, just so that he could get a taste of the Division I basketball he longed for.
This is life and basketball for Lin, a 6’4″ Taiwanese American, and soon to be Harvard graduate in May 2010. A college senior that hopes to finally be appreciated as a good ball player all the while knowing he’ll be judged for his race over any of his skills or statistics.
To track the basketball journey of Lin is to follow racial prejudices in America on and off the court. Within a country where athletic competition is ultimate judge of masculine authority, the Asian American male often poses no real threat. So much so that according to Michael Kim of ESPN, college coaches would purposely overlook talented Asian American athletes because of certain American stereotypes about their athletic potential and growth.
Lin in a rarity, not simply because he represents a Taiwanese heritage on the court, but specifically the kind of Asian American upbringing Jeremy experienced. While other Asian parents were pushing their children into fields, like medicine, that garner job security and respect within the community, Lin’s father, Gie Ming, ran against the grain. He pushed his two sons to not only excel in academics, but also to become two extremely successful athletes.
Lin carried much of his father’s athletic ambitions to Harvard, where he would play Division I basketball within a prestigious league that is famous for every reason besides athletic competition. As the best player in the worst league in Division I basketball, Lin would begin his dream of being a college athlete as a novelty act. But as he progressed, year-by-year, the act Lin brought became one of simple dominance.
It was national television that would serve as the medium where Lin was not only acknowledged for his race, but also for his basketball skill. In January 2009, as sleeper pick Boston College trounced undefeated North Carolina earlier in the week, Harvard came to town. Junior Point Guard Lin put on a national show for an all-Boston game. Lin dominated in all facets of basketball, scoring 27 points while tallying eight assists, three rebounds and six steals. The following day, the papers heralded the numbers and the efforts of a player from an Ivy League team who defeated a basketball powerhouse. There was no mention of his race. Sometimes, in basketball, numbers can speak louder than skin tone.
Last season, Lin was the only player in the nation to rank in the top 10 of every major statistical category in his conference, according to Sports Illustrated. Now in his last season in a Crimson uniform, Lin’s statistics continue to shine. To name a few, he averages 17.3 points per game, 4.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds — leading Harvard to its best start in 25 years.
Lin’s chances at being drafted in the second round of the NBA draft seem high, but he faces tough competition. His spot in the pro’s would be a big step for a growing population in the U.S. And unlike current Asian NBA athletes Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian, Lin, if drafted, would represent a slightly different demographic that is unfamiliar to the professional basketball world — Asian Americans.
“I think one of the more interesting aspects about the Jeremy Lin story is to see and hear the reaction his story triggers in Asian Americans,” says ESPN broadcaster Michael Kim. “They are clearly happy to see one of their own do well on a stage where not many other Asian Americans have found success or opportunities.”
Lin’s ethnicity, however, has also become a target of ridicule. According to the most recent statistics from the NCAA Student-Athlete Ethnicity Report, only 0.4 percent of Division I male basketball athletes are Asian Americans. On the road, Lin often hears racial remarks from college fans and even other athletes. Dana O’Neil, an ESPN correspondent, explains that although it’s not acceptable for fans to jeer at him, Lin has learned to overcome adversity.
“I think in a positive sense, he’s become stronger and tougher and smarter,” she says in an ESPN.com article. “He doesn’t react to it at all, which is really difficult to do but also the right thing to do. That takes a very, very strong person.”
No matter where Lin’s future take him, he has paved the way for many minority hopefuls in athletic competition. And now Lin waits, four years after his acceptance into Harvard, for a letter of acceptance sealed with the mark of an NBA team.
“I’ve seen a lot of teams come through here, and he could play for any of them.” says Jim Calhoun, Hall of Famer and head basketball coach for UConn, in an ESPN.com article.
Jeremy and all of his fans are sincerely hoping Coach Calhoun’s statement of approval transcends stereotypes and leads to unprecedented success in the NBA. Because even with the frame of a natural point guard, people are praying for the man who carries an entire American demographic on his face and shoulders. They pray he can support the weight.
Asian Americans have been given someone to admire in the basketball world and Kim says Lin has made a lasting impression.
“There will come a time when no one will care or question whether an Asian American is playing Division I hoops,” Kim says. “The only question that will remain is if that person can play. When that time comes, people should remember Jeremy Lin’s place on the time line.”