Center for Asian American Studies
Center for Asian American Studies

CAAS faculty, Eric Tang, writes about Jeremy Lin in The Statesman

Wed, March 7, 2012
CAAS faculty, Eric Tang, writes about Jeremy Lin in The Statesman

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Jeremy Lin, the overnight basketball sensation, comes to our neck of the woods today (well, to San Antonio, at least). Over the past month, the undrafted and twice-waived Asian American point guard from Harvard has led his New York Knicks to an 11-4 record while racking up all-star numbers. Along the way, he leveled the Los Angeles Lakers with a 38-point performance before playing brilliantly in a win against the defending champion Dallas Mavericks. But beyond his play, Lin's overnight success has gripped the national consciousness, allowing the masses to reinvest in the idea that the underdog still stands a fighting chance, that those who do it the "right way" a combination of hard work, discipline and faith will eventually triumph over those with talent alone. This is the basis of what has been dubbed "Linsanity," a phenomenon that will draw larger than usual crowds tonight. And yet, while there's no doubt that Lin is doing something right, what if the rest of us are getting the story wrong?

According to Lin, these virtues were not the decisive factors that led to his breakout performance against the New Jersey Nets on Feb. 4. Lin entered that game with his career on the line. In less than one week the Knicks were planning to release Lin rather than guarantee his contract for the year. Lin proceeded to change his employers' minds by driving the lane repeatedly, finishing with a combination of reverse layups, off-balance shots and teardrops. As he ended the night with 25 points, his teammates poured off the bench to celebrate the most inspiring performance they had witnessed all year. It was a scene taken straight out of Hollywood, one that did nothing to betray the inner torment Lin had experienced in the months leading up to that moment.

"There were nights when I was just reduced to tears," Lin said to ESPN's Rachel Nichols, who asked him to describe his state of mind prior to that pivotal game. Lin was at his breaking point; he had done everything that was asked of him, yet he wasn't getting the opportunity to demonstrate his abilities. Then, unexpectedly, Knicks head coach Mike D'Antoni placed Lin into the game. (It was later revealed that Knicks star forward Carmelo Anthony had advocated on Lin's behalf). With his window quickly closing, Lin decided that he had to "just go out there and play this game aggressive."

"I said to myself, ‘You know what? I've already given everything I can. So I'm going to make sure I do it my way, and if it doesn't get me where I want to go, then I can live with that.' "

In order to save himself, Lin decided to set aside the right way for his way. In that moment, he realized something many Asian Americans are now waking up to: Hard work and sacrifice will not always get you noticed. To the contrary, they can render you more invisible. Lin certainly isn't the first Asian American to do everything asked of him only to reinforce the idea that he really didn't matter, that he was mediocre. The Asian American kid from Harvard works hard and does what he's told? Well, what else does society expect from him or any other Asian American? Asian Americans are hailed as a model minority, and this has less to do with celebrating their achievements than keeping them invisibly in place. At the same time, model minority talk works as a jab at other racial groups, particularly African Americans, whose "raw talent" or "pure athleticism" is said to compensate for a poor work ethic.

I'm not suggesting that hard work and sacrifice are irrelevant. I'm arguing that, in the penultimate moment, they did not make Lin. What made him was his decision to be unruly, his refusal to be patient and deferential. How maddening, then, to hear the loose-headed talk of those who attribute Lin's success to tough Asian parenting that demands excellence and obedience at all levels ("Tiger parenting," according to last year's controversial book by Amy Chua). Need I remind everyone that this is the NBA? Every last player who makes it to this level is hardworking and exceptional. Any NBA roster reveals a list of individuals who overcame long odds to get there — poverty, violence and racism. To suggest that Lin possesses resilient qualities over and above his peers is to play into the racist notion that the league's majority African American players are all talent and little substance.

Lin's story is unique, and if he continues to put up all-star numbers for years to come, it will be historic. For now, his success instructs us that there is no clear-cut way of ascending in professional sports — or in life for that matter. Playing the right way versus the wrong way, or playing with heart versus cruising on talent — these are false and racially coded dichotomies that Linsanity can do without. In the end, they only reinforce the kind of blindness that kept him hidden in plain sight all along.

Tang is assistant professor of African and African diaspora studies and core faculty in Asian American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

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