Finding the Right Jeremy Lin Storyline

New York Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin is confounding every stereotype we have about modern day basketball stars. Professor Lakshmi Ramarajan suggests that Lin's complex storylines can help us put our own prejudices in focus.
by Lakshmi Ramarajan

New York Knicks basketball sensation Jeremy Lin has attracted worldwide attention because he crosses so many boundaries and defies so many stereotypes.

Lin, an Asian-American (rare in the NBA) who played college hoops at Harvard (even rarer in the NBA), was cut from two teams before landing with the Knicks this year. When injuries to starters gave Lin a chance to play more, he blossomed into a star in just a few games, setting off an episode of "Lin-Sanity" that swept New York and swept up many Asian fans.

At the same time, he confounds us because we can't create a simple storyline around his identity. Is he an underdog or is he privileged? Does he fit in with the NBA or doesn't he? Here are some of the stories we miss in the storylines we do embrace.

The Basketball is Black Story: If the story is one of ethnic prejudice and discrimination, the one that goes, "If he had had a similar high school athletic record and were black, he would have been recruited by a basketball powerhouse instead of Harvard," the questions we ignore are to what extent we implicitly believe that African-Americans have a natural talent for basketball. Or to what extent we believe that Asian-Americans can't play basketball because they are less "American" and basketball is an "American" sport.

The Asian Success Story: If the storyline we embrace is one of Lin's making it as an Asian-American in the NBA, the questions we ignore are: What it would take to make professional sports a "legitimate" career path in Asian-American families? Or how many Asian-American families might steer their children away from basketball because they see it as a "black" thing? Or to what extent Lin's story reinforces the model minority narrative, and whether we may turn against him if or when he fails?

The Privileged Underdog Story: If the storyline is how Lin's relative privilege as a Harvard graduate worked against him, the questions we ignore are about our beliefs about the role of college education for all athletes. The WNBA requires women to wait four years after high school graduation to enter that league. Many more players in the WNBA have college degrees than in the NBA. Do we think a college education is acceptable for WNBA players because women aren't really "jocks"? Do we think NBA players don't need a college education because they are African-American and so less entitled to being "nerds"?

New York Knicks basketball sensation Jeremy LinThe Religion Triumphs All Story: Finally, Lin himself offered the narrative that religion is both a source of struggle and a source of strength in his professional life. The question we ignore is to what extent Lin's Protestant faith makes him seem less "other" to a non-Asian-American audience than his race, especially in the context of current public discourse about politicians who have Muslim names or Mormon faith?

There are two plausible reasons why these other stories have not been told. First, it is difficult to understand multiple identity stories in combination. It means holding on to complexity and not using simple reasoning around one category or another to guide our thinking. The second is fear. It is difficult to talk about the ambiguity that comes with stories of simultaneous privilege and prejudice or stories about a relative underdog making good, not an absolute one.

Each individual storyline makes us hopeful—breaking boundaries suddenly seems possible. But looking at them in isolation reinforces boundaries, reproduces myths, and perpetuates conventional wisdom—all of which lead to inequality. That African-Americans are talented at sports, that Asian-Americans are successful off the court, that jocks can't be nerds, and that Americans are Protestant are just a few of the many hidden stories that our mania about Lin exposes about ourselves. If we can use his multiple stories to put our own prejudices in focus, we can truly break boundaries.

    • Stewart Nelson
    • Account Exdecutive, Kapnick Insurance Group
    It is not religion or race that made Jeremy a sensation! It was good old fashion hard work. He earned the staring spot.
    • Anonymous
    There's a cautionary-tale dimension that's been added to this feel-good story: Linsanity is yesterday's news. The Knicks have fallen to earth and Jeremy's "15 minutes" are up. What can we learn now?
    • Anonymous
    It is always good to have someone who shifts our perspectives about ourselves and the world we live in.
    Stereotyping and deep seated prejudices are as alive today as it was 30 years ago. Hopefully, a better linked e-world will expand our minds and understanding and reminds us how we fall short of the perfection of God we hope to possess.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    It is a fallacy to create visions based on the laws of probability and devlop strong notions about what seems logical on the face; we need to go beyond for
    experience justifies occurance of seemingly illogical results. No doubt a bit of allegiance to an activity on the basis of ethnicity is there but reaching hights is by dint of dedicated hard work only. Thus the pre- set boundaries are broken and the winner cannot be barred by such sort of limitations past results and experience tries to create.
    Jeremy Lin efforted sincerely and won and his background did not hinder his achievements.
    • Helen
    • WNBA fan, Womens Hoops Blog
    "Do we think a college education is acceptable for WNBA players because women aren't really "jocks"?" Wow, that's not a narrative I've ever heard.

    Instead it's: Men's sports are some wrapped up with money, the push from men's coaches is to win, not to graduate students. On the flip side, the push from the WNBA and, I believe women's coaches is, "There are only 12 WNBA teams. There are 320+ Division I teams. Do the math and figure out what your chances are of making a team... and then earning $40k as a rookie. A degree is what you want."

    I'd be interested in your take on the historical narratives: 1) How many Jewish players there were in the early years of the NBA
    2) What were the narratives surrounding Harvard's Allison Feaster, who played in the WNBA
    3) What are the historical roots of basketball in the Asian culture? If you did a little research, you'd find they're rich and deep, on both the men's and women's side, reaching pre WWII and through the internment camps. Dennison House in Boston had a Chinese American team (women's)
    • Tom Yasuda
    • Founder, Thecapitalclinic
    To me, the story with the most telling long term implications, properly developed, is the soft power effect of Linsanity in China. As the media in China propagate every detail of this remarkable story and millions of Chinese embrace the many Lin-endorsed and Lin-related products that are sure to come, the authorities will not be able to control the longer term political and social ramifications of the multitude of storylines of a US-born, Harvard-trained, strongly commited evangelical Christian with Taiwanese/Chinese parents, excelling in the US-centric sport of basketball, who will predictably become a business success as well as a good to maybe great athlete. The US' most effective soft-power Genie in China is out of the bottle and cannot be contained. The B-School should develop a case study to examine this "made-in-America" phenomenon that is taking China by storm. This could be more than a story of a gifted, but hard
    -working, athlete/scholar with a good sports and marketing agent making a lot of lucre - at least I hope that it will be so.
    • Anonymous
    Today's youth, unless raised by racists, do not care if your black white or purple. If you are so good at what you do that it cannot go unrecognized, it transcends boundaries, and steriotypes. Paving the road and inspiring others.