I was living in Korea when Linsanity broke out. I don’t think I was truly captivated until I saw him dunking on the Wizards after crossing over John Wall. So when it was Knicks vs. Lakers on February 10, 2012, I was definitely finding a way to watch, all the way from Seoul.
I’ll never forget that morning as I watched my low-quality pirated feed. I think I’d hoped for a mere respectable showing, like double-digit points. The Lakers weren’t a top team anymore, but they were still the Lakers. And they had Kobe. Surely, this is where Lin’s under-the-radar run would end, with the league actually sort of knowing who was now.
Then I saw him drop 38 points. I saw him spin around Derek Fisher for a balletic layup. I saw him dish to teammates who high-fived him in gratitude. I saw him nail a roof-blowing corner 3 at the perfect moment. Most of all, for the first time in my life, I saw an Asian American guy be the cause of celebration.
Lin and I were born in the same year. That makes us Older Millennials, the generation most defined by (1) being the last generational cohort to have an internet-free childhood and (2) graduating into the Great Recession. There’s a whole Older Millennial Asian American male narrative that still needs to be told, but here’s a perfect encapsulation: for me growing up, the most culturally significant Asian American guys were William Hung and Ken Jeong. It was into this barren landscape that Jeremy Lin entered.
First things first, Lin has had a fine NBA career. The fact that injuries derailed his prime is sad, but not uniquely tragic. He was a key part of Houston’s revival in the Beard era and helped lead Charlotte to a surprisingly decent season. Yes, his L.A. season was a depressing slog of Kobe’s nihilistic multi-season farewell tour and Jordan Hill’s long 2s (still, I watched almost every Lakers game that season… so never question my Lin fandom bona fides), but maybe it’ll make for a great chapter in Lin’s eventual tell-all book. Injuries marred the vast majority of his time in Brooklyn, but when he could play, he showed he was starter material, albeit on a rebuilding team. To top it all off, he has a championship ring, millions of dollars, and of course, Linsanity.
But what made Lin special wasn’t just his athletic abilities. If the critical question was about the supposed inferiority of Asian bodies (especially Asian male bodies), then even by the time of Linsanity, guys like Ichiro and Yao had already at least partially answered it. These days, even though I love the hell out of Son Heung-min and he’s a fan favorite who’s legitimately one of the best players in the Premier League, I don’t think I’ll ever feel a connection to him the way I do with Lin.
Some might say it’s because Lin is Asian American while those aforementioned athletes are all from Asia, but the real difference is that they were never underdogs in the way Lin was. All those guys were cultivated early on to be superstars and while they faced doubts when first competing in the West, they nevertheless commanded high draft picks or transfer fees. That was never Lin and if he were a McDonald’s All-American in high school, he wouldn’t be the Jeremy Lin that so many of us admire.
At the height of Linsanity, it was revealed that Lin had a Xanga page from the early 2000s under the gloriously dumb username, “ChiNkBaLLa88.” I never used Xanga myself, but I had used similarly primitive social network sites at that time. Just looking at that username evoked a sense of mundane 2nd-generation Asian American suburbanness. I thought of Asian immigrants who’d come to America, hoping to escape from their cramped apartments into the inconceivably vast houses and backyards of America, only to find that all that space could be suffocating as well. And between parents and their increasingly difficult-to-understand American-born children, that space would widen by all sorts of other forces.
It was in the early 2000s when I first turned to the internet to find answers for my unsettling questions about race, questions that nobody I knew could even begin to answer. From looking at Lin’s username, I wondered if that was his way of testing out his racial identity.
That’s what was and is so special about Lin: he was the everyday Asian American (who just happened to be really good at basketball). The lives of athletic prodigies are incredibly strange and removed from the common collective experience. We marvel at the few “OMG they’re just like us!” moments because we know how rare such instances are. But every day, Lin probably did play Pokemon cards at recess and outdoor basketball at lunch on a hoop with no net.
And no experience is more everyday Asian American than being doubted and overlooked. Nobody knows what the hell we’re supposed to be, not even ourselves. If Lin outscoring Kobe on that night of February 10, 2012 was gratifying, it was even more so to hear Kobe say afterwards that Lin’s talent was probably always there but nobody bothered to see it.
There’s a fear among 2nd-generation Asian Americans that we’re some kind of lost generation, and not in the glamorous post-WW I expat-in-Paris way. We don’t even constitute the majority of Asian Americans, making us a minority within a minority. We are a city-state at best, dispersed throughout a huge landmass. We’re not meant to be heroes or stars. We have neither the sheer numerical power to assert any relevance, nor any moral authority to leverage much power. At best, we can hope to fit in somewhere.
But Lin the ChiNkBaLLa88 defied all that. He took over New York City and seized the spotlight away from Carmelo Anthony, a hometown son who was the team’s biggest superstar signing in forever. He wasn’t ever a trash talker, but his style of play itself was a kind of taunt. Right after he hit the game-winner against Toronto on St. VaLintine’s Day, he gets mobbed by teammates, but he doesn’t jump up and down, not yet. It looks as if he’s in a catatonic state. Then he lets out a primal scream that sounds more angry than joyful. What was he raging at? I like to think it was against feeling lost and irrelevant.
And through it all, he never shied away from talking about race. He, like the rest of us Older Millennials, came of age during the peak of the post-racial era. The proper Asian American thing to do would’ve been to acknowledge that racism existed, but that his rise proved that the arc of the universe bent towards justice. Instead, from the start, he outright said race must’ve played a part in being overlooked, from a lack of college basketball scholarships to not being drafted.
Even as his star dimmed as Linsanity became more of a historical artifact, he continued to speak for us when he talked about on-court racial taunts and NBA security guards not letting him into locker rooms. We’ve all experienced our iteration of such moments. When Kenyon Martin launched a silly attack on him for his dreadlocks, he stood up for himself with killer grace instead of being the “bigger man” (which is often just a rationalization of cowardice). He even talked honestly and thoughtfully about Asian male desexualization, a topic that even regular Asian guys are too embarrassed to talk about.
Lin’s lasting legacy will be that he gave Asian Americans a taste of what it was like to be the heroes of our own stories. If a 2nd-gen Taiwanese American dude from Palo Alto who once called himself “ChinkBalla88” on Xanga could become the toast of the country, then why couldn’t the rest of us? Often, the Asian Americans who become our spokespeople are those who’ve set themselves apart from the community in some way, because being too Asian American is usually an express lane to mainstream cultural irrelevancy. But Lin was a guy you could easily picture in the SGV, eating hotpot for the third day in a row with his Azn crew.
Since then, Asian Americans have become entitled to more of the spotlight, in the best sense possible. Nowadays, with Ali Wong ruling comedy, Crazy Rich Asians breaking box office records, and BTS selling out stadiums, we are in the richest era of Asian pop cultural figures in the West. But just under a decade ago, Asian America put all our hopes on an undrafted kid out of Harvard. It must’ve been an immense weight for him.
It was admittedly difficult to watch Lin tear up during a press conference in China as he had to come to terms with the likelihood that his NBA career was over, at least for now. But that crushing disappointment only made him more relatable and more emblematic of the 2nd-generation Asian American experience. From the moment we were born in this country, we were the first in something, with uncharted territories ahead of us. The glory of being pioneers comes with the burden of clearing obstacles. What if Lin had been nurtured since college to become an NBA star? He might’ve been an all-star. But we wouldn’t have had Linsanity and its cultural legacy.
With respect to his NBA career, I’ll always look at his Charlotte days with the most fondness. Yes, Linsanity was crazy exciting, but I knew it was kind of a dream. In Charlotte though, it was where Lin pulled himself out of his Lakers nadir to establish himself as a quality player. His crazy hairstyles even had the sense of the nice Asian American boy breaking free a little bit. I truly wish he had a chance to thrive in Brooklyn. I moved to New York City at the same time he signed with the Nets. I made sure to buy home opener tickets for his second season there. Surely, he wouldn’t be injured again. But the home opener was the second game of the season; the Nets would start the season on the road in Indiana. Lin blew out his knee in Indianapolis. Whatever era of awakening had started with Linsanity, its chapter seemed to end there.
But this simply means the start of something new. It’s so fitting that Lin is headed to China because the whole “2nd-generation Asian American goes to Asia” thing is a rite of passage for many of us. Some even get the privilege of living there, at least for a little while, to create our own personal histories with our ancestral countries that were once just those places that our parents came from. As someone whose life was fundamentally changed after living in Asia, I eagerly look forward to how Lin will grow there, not merely as an athlete but as a person.
Follow Chris on Twitter: @JesuInToast