You can’t talk about professional basketball these days without mentioning the “L word.” No I’m not talking about Lebron. I’m talking about “Linsanity,” the latest craze to sweep the nation since “Tebowing.”
Six-foot, three-inch point guard and Harvard graduate Jeremy Lin is at the center of it all and in less than three weeks, he’s gone from a virtually unknown bench warmer to the leader of a suddenly resurgent New York Knicks team on one of the world’s biggest stages.
In the frenzy over the sudden phenomenal success of "Linsanity," there's been some talk of race. Professional boxer Floyd Mayweather recently remarked that "Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he's Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don't get the same praise."
I think we can all agree that Floyd Mayweather is not the final authority on these issues, but does race play into the Lin equation? Absolutely. The fact that Lin is the only Asian American in the NBA has guaranteed sensationalism and some controversy, but, what is truly driving the “LINg” Island Express Train is the fact that Lin is a statistical anomaly both on and off the court.
Let’s look at the facts. First, Lin is the first Asian American to really make a name for himself in the NBA. Sure, there’s been the occasional giant from China, like Yao Ming, but Lin is the first American-born Asian basketball player to sprint between the paint on national television.
Second, Lin graduated from Harvard, not a top ten basketball school like Duke or Kentucky. Despite an outstanding high school career, Lin received no scholarship offers and was only guaranteed a chance to play at Harvard or Brown. Lin chose Harvard and went on to set new records becoming the first Ivy League player to score more than 1,450 points, 450 rebounds, 400 assists, and 200 steals during his college career.
Despite his performance at Harvard, Lin went undrafted in the 2010 NBA draft and floated between the Golden State Warriors, the Houston Rockets, and NBA D-League teams before ultimately finding the Knicks. He began the season as the third-string point guard until an injury to a starting player gave him the opportunity to play. All this makes Lin a classic underdog – and everyone loves an underdog (think: Harry Potter).
Third, Lin is a on a hot streak. He has led the N.Y. Knicks to eight wins in 10 games while averaging 23.9 points and 9.2 assists per game, and shooting 50 percent from the field. New York Times FiveThirtyEight writer, Nate Silver attempted to quantify the odds of this type of performance.
After searching basketball-reference.com, he found that since the 1985-86 season, only 41 players have had such a streak in addition to Lin. He wrote, “It is an extremely impressive list … The list includes nine Hall of Famers — and a number of other players who are sure to make it once they retire. The players on the list account for 17 of the last 28 MVP awards.”
The fact that Lin is posting these kinds of numbers would be enough to make basketball fans swoon but it is the confluence of factors — his race, his collegial background, and his impressive stats — which has launched “Linsanity.”
Last week, Lin generated 2.6 million mentions on Twitter and on social media, that was more than Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and seven of the NBA’s other most elite players combined, according to the social analytics firm General Sentiment. (see chart)
NM Incite, a Nielsen Media Research Firm, reported that within the New York television market, there has been a 73% increase in viewership to Knicks games on MSG and ESPN. Nationally, the February 10 contest between the L.A. Lakers and New York Knicks was the most-watched Friday night regular season NBA game on the network so far this season, with just over 3 million viewers.
These statistics clearly show that Lin’s performance has endeared him to fans in New York and across the country, but nowhere is his story more deeply felt than in the Asian-American community.
Anthony Youn, author of "In Stitches, about growing up Asian American and becoming a doctor,” sums it up well in his recent USA Today article. He wrote, “With Lin, Asian Americans have found a role model who combines both the traditional Asian values of our parents with the Western traits needed to excel. He is the sports hero we've been patiently waiting for. And maybe? just maybe? "Linsanity" will make other corporate executives, and leaders in their industries, take a second look at an Asian American for a leading role, as the Knicks did with Jeremy.”
No matter how this story continues to unfold, Lin’s immediate impact has been to challenge traditional Asian American stereotypes within the NBA and the professional sport’s community at large.
Photo Credit: nikk_la