Asian-American Ivy Leaguer Has Tall Hoop Dreams

Harvard University is known for its top notch academics, but not exactly as the hotbed of hoops excellence. It has been more than 60 years since the nation's top-ranked academic institution has been invited to compete in the NCAA March Madness tournament. But that could change this year, thanks, in part, to star basketball player Jeremy Lin, who some say has a shot to going to the NBA. Host Michel Martin talks with Lin about his skills on the court and some of the racism he's faced as an Asian-American player.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now we know the Super Bowl is this weekend, but hoops fans have their eyes on a couple of different prizes. NBA All-Star Weekend is coming up and, of course, the big dance, the NCAA tournament March Madness. So today, we have two stories to talk about the past and future of this all-American sport.

In a few minutes, we'll tell you about a new documentary that details the NBA's Jewish roots, the key role that Jewish players and coaches played in the early years of the game.

But first, we want to tell you about an interesting young man who might be a part of basketball's future. Now Harvard is known for its top flight academics, but it is not exactly known as a hotbed of hoops excellence. It's been 64 years since the nation's top ranked academic institution has been invited to compete in March Madness. But Harvard is hoping to snap that streak this year, thanks to its star and team co-captain, Jeremy Lin.

Now, here's another thing that makes Lin stand out besides his play. He's Asian-American, which makes him somewhat of a novelty in the sport. This has not gone unnoticed by many members of the press and by spectators. And we will talk more about that with Jeremy Lin. He's is here with us now at the studios at Harvard. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Mr. JEREMY LIN (Basketball Player, Harvard University): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Well, you may have figured out that I am an alum and I also played on the women's team for a year, so I know very well - how should we put this, lackluster tradition of the Harvard program in recent years. So, what's so different this year?

Mr. LIN: I just think that, you know, we've kind of been building towards this for a couple of years now. We had coach Amaker and his staff come in a few years ago. And they've gotten two huge recruiting classes and they're starting to change the culture and we're just trying to get as many wins as possible this year to put Harvard on the map.

MARTIN: Did you go there intending to play basketball?

Mr. LIN: Yeah, I went to Harvard with the intention of playing basketball but obviously I didn't know how it all turn out or whether I would stay for the entire four years.

MARTIN: Where do you think your love of the game comes from?

Mr. LIN: My parents, you know, my dad loved playing basketball and so do my brothers. And we used to play all the time growing up and I just fell in love with it at an early age and, you know, I have had a little hoop in my house ever since I was, you know, a baby. And so, I was exposed really early on. I just kind of fell in love with the game that way.

MARTIN: Your dad is from Taiwan originally. You're born here, but your dad is from Taiwan. Why do you think he loves the game so much?

Mr. LIN: I've asked him and he just says, he loves the game but he's not exactly sure why. He saw it on TV and he just describes it as sweeping him off his feet and he just really enjoyed the movements, I guess, and how the game was played and eventually he started playing himself.

MARTIN: You know, you coming out of high school despite the fact that your team won the state championship, you were largely bypassed by colleges with a powerhouse basketball programs including Stanford, which is not far from where you grew up. Do you have any idea why that is?

Mr. LIN: I think it's multiple reasons. First, I was really skinny, and I wasn't that tall, you know, me being Asian-American that may have had something to do with it. I'm not exactly sure to what extent.

MARTIN: You think so on a negative way?

Mr. LIN: Yeah, I believe it impacted my recruitment but I don't think that's a sole reason. I think, there are a lot of other issues as well.

MARTIN: But why, why would it, why would it you think there's a stereotype that, you know, Asian-American guys can't play the game? I just can't bring myself to say that movie title, you know, like, that involves jumping, you know, I just can't. But do you think it has something to do with people just not thinking that, I don't know, what do you think?

Mr. LIN: I think in America, basketball is predominantly for, you know, black and white people. And so, I think it is just, yeah, I mean, I guess people aren't used to it and people don't expect it. And maybe there's a stereotype there that, you know, maybe there are some discrimination there. I'm not exactly sure of what everyone's thinking, but I think in general Asian-Americans are seen or looked down upon on the basketball court.

MARTIN: And forgive me, because this can't be, you know, the most fun thing to talk about. I understand that your ethnicity is noticed by some spectators. I am told that you actually still get slurs on the court. What do the people say?

Mr. LIN: Yeah. I mean, I get Asian jokes and, you know, when other fans try to heckle us, I don't really hear from other players very much. That was more of the case when I was in high school, but in college it's mostly just the fans and they say just stuff about, you know, stereotypical jokes in terms of go play the orchestra or yell out beef and broccoli or sweet and sour chicken. And they call me sometimes, I heard Chinese import, go back to China, slanty eyes, can you see the scoreboard. So pretty much everything you can think of.

MARTIN: Are you surprised by this at this day and age? I mean, it is (unintelligible) there haven't been standout Asian players. Basketball has become international sport, are you surprised by this?

Mr. LIN: At this point, I'm not surprised just because I'm used to it. But I think when it first started happening, when I was in junior high and high school, I was definitely surprised and kind of shocked because all my Asian-Americans friends growing up played basketball with me and there are other Asian-Americans that I knew that were playing in a lot of rec leagues that I was in. But it seemed like the higher the competition got, the more racial slurs came my way, I guess.

MARTIN: Well, I'm sorry to hear that.

Mr. LIN: Sorry.

MARTIN: If basketball doesn't workout or even if it does, is there's something else that you're interested in that you think you might like to do?

Mr. LIN: Yeah, I would like to get into ministry, potentially be a pastor. I would like to attend seminary somewhere down the line and also to work in inner-city communities to help with underprivileged children. Right now, my dream after basketball is to be able to go back to my hometown and work for the church that I grew up in which is the Chinese Church in Christ, located in Mountain View. And also, there's a lot of ministry that can be done in East Palo Alto, which is right across the highway from my house.

MARTIN: Jeremy Lin is a senior guard for the Harvard University Crimson basketball team. He is studying economics and sociology and he was kind enough to join us from the studios at Harvard. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to join us. Good luck.

Mr. LIN: Thanks for having me.

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