Game On: The rise, fall, and—hopefully—future of “Linsanity”
Jeremy Linn photo by Dave Saffran/MSG Photos; cap courtesy of New Era
“Linsanity” became part of the cultural lexicon very quickly—a matter of days, in fact. And almost as quickly came the backlash toward Jeremy Lin, the first American NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent. Coach Mike D’Antoni was replaced, fans in Chicago (and elsewhere) mercilessly taunted Lin with chants of “Overrated,” the New York press decided to proclaim the end of a (short) era, and and finally, in late-March, came a season-ending torn meniscus.
But make no mistake, Lin has indeed had success—astonishing success for an undrafted Harvard grad whose previous stints with the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets showed only minor promise. His performances—scoring twenty-eight points against the New Jersey Nets in his breakout game in February, crushing Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers with thirty-eight, defeating Toronto on a last-second three-pointer—have already become part of modern sports legend. Soon, Spike Lee donned Lin’s actual high school uniform, Barack Obama said he’d “been on the Lin bandwagon for a while now,” and Buffalo’s own New Era began selling caps bearing the “Linsanity” legend.
Yet by March 16, the back page of the New York Post showed an illustration of a tombstone bearing the words “R.I.P. LINSANITY: BRIEFLY BELOVED BROADWAY SMASH HIT.” (That is so Post.)
It is, of course, facile to call “Linsanity” finished, or to assume a twenty-three-year-old’s starpower has already worn out. Ken Hu, president of the Chinese Club of Western New York (www.cc-wny.org), the largest Chinese ethnic organization in the area, believes the interest will last, and on a worldwide scale. “There is a more powerful force behind the scenes,” he says. “I think the rise of Asian economies globally is having a significant and lasting impact of America’s view of Eastern culture. [It’s why] the rare success story of an Asian basketball player in NBA has caught such a spotlight. The reason it didn’t happen thirty or fifty years ago is not because there were no such stories, but there were no such interests and opportunities presented then.”
Hu says some members of the CC-WNY were already following Lin’s progress before that fateful February 4 game against the Nets; however, “the way he came out to reach stardom and to the ‘Linsanity’ level nationwide still surprises me. As a Chinese American, I think the story relates well. The traditional view is that Asians are hard-working, tech-savvy professionals, such as professors, engineers, scientists, doctors, instead of sports stars. So Lin’s success is a stereotype-shattering event, in a very positive way. Think about it: a religious Asian kid from an Ivy League school can lead his team to defeat Kobe Bryant’s Lakers at Madison Square Garden.” Hu believe’s Lin’s success, like that of Tiger Woods and Danica Patrick, “has changed people’s view. [It] will have a profound and far reaching effect.”
Hu hopes the story will continue to resonate with Asian youths, even locally. “Most Asian parents want their kids to excel in school academically; it’s evidenced by Lin’s Chinese name, which means ‘excel in books.’ His success will have a big influence on Asian parents promoting kids playing in sports. The effect will reach outside the Asian community.”
But will this impact be felt here, in Western New York, a city whose NBA team left town in 1978? It will take time, Hu believes, but it is possible. Buffalo News sports columnist Jerry Sullivan, a noted roundball enthusiast, is not so sure. “I don’t think Lin’s arrival will have any effect on NBA interest here,” says the man affectionately known as “Sully.” “There’s a solid core of older fans who hate the sport, and this isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. Whatever rise in interest [there might be] will come from young fans. I find a clear divide in WNY between older fans and young kids. The younger generation seems to like the NBA; my son and his friends follow it. I don’t think they’re stuck on antiquated notions about the game being so much better and more well-played in the old days. They like dunks, and remarkable athletes, and celebrity.”
Lin is officially a celeb, like his teammates Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire; as Sullivan put it in a February 13 News column, “Within a week, Lin was the hottest thing in pro sports.” With a rise comes expectation, and, in this case, an unsurprising fade-out. “It’s sad that the Knicks have fallen since the original surge of interest in Lin,” Sullivan says. “I think some of the buzz has already worn off. I do believe the frenzy about Lin had a lot to do with it being in New York City. It’s the center of the media universe, and basketball fans there have been dying for something good.”
Whatever the long-term impact, Spree’s Media Watch columnist Alan Pergament believes “Linsanity” may actually have brought about the Time Warner-MSG accord. “Before the deal, I blogged about Lin’s probable impact [on his website, stilltalkintv.com],” Pergament says. “After the deal, I gave Lin credit. In short, the dispute was all about the New York City market. Once Lin got hot, New York hoops fans wanted MSG back, and practically forced the two sides to make a deal. In December, before MSG went off the air, I told my blog readers they should root for the Knicks. At the time, I thought Carmelo Anthony could force a deal. It turned out Lin did what Carmelo couldn’t do.”
Whatever Lin’s future brings, Sullivan agrees with Hu that the international nature of modern basketball has been proven: “Basketball has become much more global in the past twenty-five years. This is one area in which basketball, hockey, and baseball are ahead of the NFL. The NFL is the one sport that draws almost exclusively from American players. I don’t think the product is as good as people think because of it. But in America, and in Buffalo, especially, the NFL is king. A lot of narrow-minded people here are missing the boat on the NBA.”
It is this narrow-mindedness that caused some to make ethnically charged jokes as “Linsanity” broke, and it is this same mentality that has led to cries of “it’s over.” Perhaps the only way Jeremy Lin can mature as an athlete is if the international publicity machine averts its gaze, for at least a little while. As Hu puts it, “Jeremy Lin is only twenty-three years old, fresh from college. He has a long road ahead of him in the NBA. He does not need that much media attention to succeed—please, give him a break.”
Associate editor Christopher Schobert was born two years after the NBA left Buffalo, and still holds a grudge.