Op-Ed: 'Linsanity' Is Thrilling, Yet Frustrating

New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin sprang into the spotlight after he scored 27 points in a game against the Toronto Raptors. Lin, who previous mostly rode the bench, has become a sensation in the U.S., particularly among many Asian Americans. Journalist Chuck Leung feels a bit conflicted about celebrating Lin's success.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Two weeks ago, no one knew who Jeremy Lin was, maybe not even some of his teammates. After a spate of injuries, the New York Knicks signed the 23-year-old to a temporary contract as a warm body to hold down the last seat on the bench. The Harvard grad played a similar role last year for the Golden State Warriors and got cut earlier this year after a brief tryout with the Houston Rockets. But as the team floundered, the Knicks handed Lin the ball.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Tied at 87. Lin with the ball in his hands. Fans on their feet. Five, four - Lin for the win. Got it.

JEREMY LIN: I just thank my Lord and savior Jesus Christ for that shot, man. I was thankful that it went in.

CONAN: Jeremy Lin guided the Knicks to a seven-game winning streak, compiled some astonishing statistics along the way and prompted a phenomenon - Linsanity. We want to hear from Asian-Americans and Pacific islanders today. How has Jeremy Lin changed the conversation? Tell us your story. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Chuck Leung has been following Jeremy Lin since he saw him play in a high school state championship.

Leung is now associate Web editor for PEN American Center in New York City. He wrote an article in Slate.com where he says all this Linsanity is both thrilling and worrisome. And he joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

CHUCK LEUNG: Hi. Thank you.

CONAN: And thrilling, I think, we get. What's worrisome about this?

LEUNG: Well, I think one of the things that I started to notice - and there was an interesting New York Times article that was published, I think, last Friday or so. And it centered on a group of Asian-Americans who identified with Lin because they were also Ivy League-educated. They are Christians. And they shared, you know, many of the, you know, qualities, I think, that they saw and people saw in Jeremy Lin. Unfortunately, I think a lot of those qualities are sort of indicative of stereotypes that exist today in America.

And I'm sort of worried that, you know, that the stories that were coming out and the people that were championing him and kind of claiming him as their own would sort of perpetuate these ideas that Asians are, you know, hard - just hardworking, determined, you know, meek in certain situations. You know, and there are a lot of things that I wasn't very comfortable with in terms of the language that was being used to describe him.

CONAN: Yeah. There has been some unfortunate misuse of language, some outright slurs that have appeared. And some of them don't seem to be mean-spirited. They seem to be ignorant.

LEUNG: Right. Yeah. There was a tweet that Jason Whitlock posted...

CONAN: This is a well-known sportswriter.

LEUNG: Yeah. I think he writes for FOX Sports. And it said something to the effect of, you know, that the ladies in New York will...

CONAN: I think we could just leave it there.

LEUNG: OK.

CONAN: But we could say that it was an unfortunate...

LEUNG: Right.

CONAN: ...racist remark.

LEUNG: Right.

CONAN: And he's apologized for it...

LEUNG: Yeah.

CONAN: ...but nevertheless.

LEUNG: And just the fact that it's OK to say these things. You know, when he was playing at Harvard, opposing fans would scream out - scream sour pork and wanton soup, and just the idea that that could still be possible today. I mean, imagine if somebody who's watching LeBron James play and screamed out, you know, something like fried chicken or something. It's sort of ridiculous, but the fact that it's still acceptable in 2012 for these things to happen is bothering, you know.

CONAN: And there is, though, the Jackie Robinson element to it. He is a pioneer, the first Asian-American to have anything close to this prominence in a major American sport. He is totally unusual, coming from his background and, frankly, from - coming from Harvard University.

LEUNG: Yeah. And I think a lot of my friends and I, you know, we first identified with him as just basketball fans. You know, I grew up playing basketball, you know, at a young age, and I played for my high school team and played, you know, all through college and beyond with friends. And, you know, we sort of identified with him as an athlete first. You know, we saw a lot of the qualities, you know, just even from a physical perspective, you know. I'm just a shade under six feet. I have a lot of friends that are much taller than me, and, you know, just seeing somebody on the court like that, that sort of looks like us and is just a couple of inches taller and a little bit faster, a little bit stronger, but I think that's the way that we identified with him first. And seeing how he's been talked about recently, it sort of cast a different light, and it wasn't the way that we saw him, necessarily.

CONAN: Here's an interesting email we have from Eddie Wong: As a child in the '70s, I remember my dad gushing with pride whenever Connie Chung was on TV or the cover of Parade magazine. I didn't connect with being Asian the way he did, or understand why he rooted for the Chinese contestant in Miss America, Miss USA pageants. I just rolled my eyes and tried my best to fit in as American among my Caucasian classmates. Now that I'm my father's age, I must admit to following Jeremy Lin's exploits with the same fervor my father would have if my father were alive today, and I'm not an NBA fan. Go, Jeremy.

LEUNG: Yeah. Yeah. And that's one of the things that - and I see a lot of people that have no interest in sports and, you know, haven't been following him for as long as, you know, some of my friends and I have been following him. I don't know. I think I mentioned this in what I wrote for Slate, that there's that element of kind of ownership and wanting to protect, you know, our fandom to some extent and not wanting other people to crowd in around us. And so I think that was part of my response, too.

CONAN: There is an interesting - if you go to Jeremy's - to his Facebook page, after the fifth win, he wrote: The team is so unselfish and has so much heart. Love playing with them. He is the first person ever to say that this particular Knicks team is unselfish.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEUNG: Yeah. I think that his attitude and his style of play is really infectious. I think, you know, early on the season, the Knicks weren't doing so well, and they were accused of kind of selfish play. And I think he's totally transformed the atmosphere, and I think it's been great. I love watching. I was actually in Madison Square Garden yesterday and caught his game last night.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Interesting in that he handed out a lot more assists than normal, scored just 10 points - just 10 points - still had his double-double, but he actually rested for the fourth quarter as the Knicks cruised to a convincing victory - over a very bad team, admittedly. But nevertheless, the idea that you would sit Jeremy Lin out, let him rest, the star, for the fourth quarter to save him up for - this is a guy who - if he got off the bench at all, just played in garbage time.

LEUNG: Mm-hmm. And it was great. In the fourth quarter, everybody in the crowd was chanting for him to come back in, but, you know, I totally understand wanting to save him up. And it's a crazy idea that this guy that, it was just two weeks ago, was so close to being cut from the team is now sort of the centerpiece of the team and the driving force of their success.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Wan(ph) is on the line with us from Oklahoma City.

WAN: Yeah. Just - this has been a real strange phenomenon amongst my friends and I. We're Chinese-Americans, most of us first, second, even third generation. I'm second generation. And, you know, there - a lot of my friends are kind of gone crazy over this. And there's, like, you know, all this new Chinese pride. And these are people who fought - we all resisted being called, you know, Asian-American. We're just Americans. And just recently, there - I mean, I was accused of not having yellow pride. I'm, like, how could you say that? Like I'm - I find that so ridiculously offensive.

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WAN: And they would have, too, even a month ago. And it's - I - it's crazy out here, especially in Middle American where, you know, there's a large Asian community here, and we work hard to integrate.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAN: And this has definitely been a phenomenon. I'm just happy that maybe I'll be - I guess, as a race of people, to be - I would rather be identified with basketball than kung fu, which I don't know any kung fu whatsoever. So...

CONAN: You also have, probably, the greatest basketball player on the planet who plays there for the team in Oklahoma City.

WAN: We love Kevin here. I wish he was Chinese.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Thanks very...

WAN: He's honorary Chinese.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Wan.

WAN: Thank you.

CONAN: As you discuss this with your friends, how has the conversation changed? Are people enthusiastic, or are people reticent?

LEUNG: Yeah, definitely. I think everybody is very enthusiastic and rooting for him. It's is just kind of interesting to think about the idea there's just one Asian-American community, and I'm sure that it's...

CONAN: Yeah.

LEUNG: ...the same for the black community and the Latino community. But, you know, Asian-Americans aren't, you know, uniformly, you know, hardworking and, you know, obedient or whatever stereotypes are out there. You know, there's a bunch of us doing different things, and we have our idiosyncrasies and our interests. and I think, you know, kind of lumping all of us together and, you know, sort of assuming certain things, I think, is one of the problems that I was worried about, And I think just, you know, even me being here talking about this, I think, is great because it's a conversation, I think, that needs to get started. And I think Jeremy Lin's success - and hopefully continued success - will keep these conversations going in to the future.

CONAN: Here's an email. This is from Michelle in Philadelphia: As a Taiwanese-American - my mother born in Taipei and half of my family still live there while I was born in the USA - I feel I can relate to Lin's heritage. I'm appalled that China is trying to take credit for Lin. His parents were born in Taiwan, not China, and he is all American, of course, born in this country. His parents, I guess, hold dual citizenship. I guess he's eligible for that, too, but he is an American by birth.

LEUNG: Yeah. And I think that question of, sort of sub-ethnic kind of, you know, petitioning is really interesting. I have lot of friends from Taiwan, and some identify closer to their Taiwanese heritage, and some don't and some are indifferent. But that's another one of those things that I think not a lot of people outside of the Asian-American community are familiar with, and even that is sort of an interesting discussion.

CONAN: I half-expected the Chinese Vice President Xi to divert from his plans to visit Iowa yesterday and stop off at Madison Square Garden.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEUNG: That would've been great.

CONAN: We're talking with Chuck Leung, an associate editor - Web editor at PEN American Center in New York about - what else - Jeremy Lin. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Let's get Susan on the line, Susan with us from Boulder.

SUSAN: Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

SUSAN: In regards to Jeremy Lin's story, I can totally relate, as an Asian-American growing up in a very - not really diverse community. There's not a lot of Asians in Colorado. And in growing up, I wanted to be - to play basketball as well and - but, you know, my dad always told me, like, I'm not good enough. I can never compete. But having Jeremy Lin in the spotlight right now, I feel like it brings the great public discussion of that, yes, Asians and almost any other - any race can play any kind of sport and can participate in anything they aspire to.

CONAN: Have your - has any of your friends, Susan, said anything that surprised you?

SUSAN: My friends?

CONAN: Yeah.

SUSAN: A lot of my friends are really proud and supportive of, you know, the success Jeremy Lin is having. And in regards to whoever - there was a comment before me about China claiming Jeremy Lin. I think The New York Times just ran an article about that, and it didn't say any kind of, like, possession of Jeremy Lin. They're only proud that what - that's what they're saying. They're not claiming that Jeremy Lin's Chinese or not. They're just saying we're very proud of his success.

CONAN: As a lot of Asian-Americans, I think, were proud of Yao Ming, the player from China, when he starred in the NBA.

SUSAN: Yeah. But - well, whoever said that she's appalled about China claiming that Jeremy Lin is Chinese, I think that is a little exaggerated. But the government - the New York Times has stated that Chinese, like - I don't know if it's the government, but they're just saying that they're just proud, only proud, not staking their claim on Jeremy Lin.

CONAN: Susan, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

SUSAN: Yeah. Thanks. Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Is there something of a generational difference here, Chuck Leung? What are your parents saying about Jeremy Lin?

LEUNG: My dad's actually a huge basketball fan. He's one of the first kind of influences on me in getting into basketball. I remember sitting on our couch when I was young, and he was a huge Lakers fan and just loved the way Magic Johnson played. I think for their generation, you know, there's no really difference. I think they all are universally hoping that he succeeds and are rooting for him. I think it's only when you come to our generation that it's been sort of fractured and diversified since, you know, being born and growing up here, that we start to talk about these differences and what it means to be Asian-American.

CONAN: Let's go to Angela, Angela with us from Brookline in Massachusetts.

ANGELA: Hello. Thank you for taking my call. The feeling that I have is one of great pride. I am American-born to parents from Taiwan. And to see Jeremy Lin and his success is really just turned into - I have a sister who works in the broadcasting business in Hong Kong, and it's just wonderful to see how the phenomenon of his rise from virtually nowhere, take over the headlines of the world. The point is everyone loves a winner. And the fact that he is American-born of Taiwanese parents, went to Harvard, not just any Ivy League school, is - really fills our hearts with pride. And I certainly hope that his rise continues, that the star doesn't fade. His achievements on the court - and I have watched him played - is really simply phenomenal, and hope that he can keep it up.

CONAN: Well, as a long-time and long-suffering New York Knicks fan, I can only echo your hopes, Angela. Thanks very much for the call.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ANGELA: OK. Thank you so much.

CONAN: And, Chuck Leung, you saw Jeremy Lin play first when he was in high school in Palo Alto, there in the shadow on Stanford.

LEUNG: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: And he was in the champion - state championship game. And even though he played a huge role in his team winning that game and winning the state championship, I wonder even, at that point, did you think anything like this might happen?

LEUNG: Absolutely not. I had no idea that this would happen. I mean, seeing the way that he played, you know, some of his weaknesses, which sort of persist to this day, where evident even back then. You know, he didn't have sort of that elite athleticism that, you know, you expect to see in the NBA. He wasn't a great shooter. There are times when, you know, he's maybe a little bit tentative. But I think what really sort of showed was his willingness to kind of rise to the moment. You know, when there were - it was a tight game and they were, you know, on the verge of maybe breaking down, he was the one that stepped forward and was attacking and really took control of the game and swung it around in their favor.

CONAN: Chuck Leung, thanks very much for your time today.

LEUNG: Thank you.

CONAN: It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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