Just weeks after recovering from Tebowmania, America has been swooning again over another unlikely athletic sensation — Jeremy Lin, a devout Christian who is considering the ministry after basketball (sound familiar?) and doesn't fit the athletic mold (sound familiar?) but has somehow turned a losing team into winners (sound familiar?).
A few weeks ago he was playing ball for the Erie Bayhawks; now he is an NBA sensation whose talent has finally been recognized, and everyone wants to know how, in this enlightened age, he could be ignored just because of, well, you know.
How could so many college and pro teams overlook him just because of his background, just because so few of his type have succeeded before him, just because it was believed players with his roots couldn't play pro basketball.
Why hold it against him just because he's a Harvard grad?
Oh, and that other thing: He's Taiwanese-American.
Harvard grads are CEOs, senators and presidents, not NBA players, or at least there haven't been any since 1954. Asian-Americans are computer or math whizzes, not point guards. Until Lin came along, there wasn't a single Asian-American in the NBA (as a historical footnote: in 1947, the University of Utah's 5-foot-7 Wat Misaka, a Japanese-American, became the first non-white to play in what is now the NBA). To mix sports metaphors, Lin had two strikes against him on the basketball court.
As everyone knows by now, Lin was passed up for college scholarships, ignored by the NBA draft and cut by a couple of NBA teams before he found a home with the New York Knicks. He was given a chance to play only as an act of sheer desperation — the injuries and poor play of his Knicks teammates. Otherwise, maybe Linsanity never happens and he could go back to solving math equations or whatever it is people thought Asian-American Harvard grads should be doing instead.
There are so many coaches out there who rejected Lin that they could form a club, along with the people who fired Steve Jobs, Walt Disney and Oprah.
"I've never seen it happen," NBA analyst Tim Legler said on ESPN. "A guy that had three different teams look at him and not see what we're seeing now?"
Well, the secret — if it truly was one — is out. When asked how so many teams could pass up Lin, Steve Kerr, the basketball analyst and former player, said it was because he was Asian-American. That's the consensus among NBA observers. Lin's agent told Time magazine that Lin's race "absolutely" worked against him.
Coaches and NBA scouts, like everyone else, have biases and blind spots. Asians are table tennis players, but not basketball players. White guys are quarterbacks or kickers or offensive linemen, but not running backs and rarely great basketball players. Black guys are running backs and cornerbacks, but not great pro quarterbacks.
Such biases have flourished for years of course, although no one talks about it much. Many years ago a local college football player, a white wide receiver, was told by a black coach that he would have to be twice as good as his black rivals to make the NFL. Kevin Curtis, a former Utah State star who is white, is viewed as a possession receiver by TV announcers when he actually possesses blazing speed and is a deep threat. John Stockton and Steve Nash, white point guards past and present, are considered mediocre athletes who have starred in the league anyway. The attitude in the TV booth is they aren't good athletes, but …
Lin was a walk-on in college and a free agent in the NBA. Only a handful of observers foresaw his potential. "He's a special player," said Tony Shaver, the coach of William and Mary. "I wouldn't be surprised to see him in the NBA one day."
That was more than two years ago. In the interim, Lin was waived by the Warriors and Rockets and relegated to playing for the Reno Bighorns, Dongguan Leopards (in China) and, as recently as a month ago, those Erie Bayhawks.
Then the Knicks gave him a chance. When Lin saw his first significant action, the team was 8-15. They're now 17-18 and Lin is making a habit of showing up NBA stars and lottery picks.
"I'm riding him like freakin' Secretariat," said Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni.
So is the rest of the country. Enjoy the ride.
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