Asian-American Inspiration: How Jeremy Lin Is Changing Hoops Culture

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Mike Segar / Reuters

New York Knicks Jeremy Lin passes as he is guarded by Sacramento Kings DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans during their NBA basketball game in New York , February 15, 2012.

Sports fans everywhere are caught up in the mania surrounding New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin. But Lin’s impact is most personal, and most satisfying, among a subset of Asian Americans: those who, like Lin, grew up with a true passion for basketball, but are often stereotyped on playgrounds, in pick-up gyms or in rec leagues as guys who can’t really play the game. Now that one of their own, Lin, has made the NBA – he’s not only Asian-American, but a guard, and not a seven-footer like Yao Ming — these Asian Americans hope that Lin can change views in a place where race or ethnicity has always affected behavior and mindset: the basketball court.

(PHOTOS: The Rise of Jeremy Lin)

In this week’s TIME magazine (available here for subscribers), I explore Lin’s cultural resonance among these Asian-American “ballers,” while also detailing Lin’s remarkable journey to the NBA and chronicling his influence around the world. (In Taiwan, where the president implored his new cabinet to act Lin-like and work together as a team, Lin is known as “The Little Guy from Harvard,” even though at 6’3” he’s taller than most people in Taiwan. It’s a term of endearment.)

Asian-American hoopheads hope that Lin’s example (besides his on-court success, he also has an economics degree from Harvard) will encourage more Asian-American kids to pursue their basketball dreams. “Sports like basketball are a huge part of our culture,” says Bernard Chang, a prominent Chinese-American comic book artist in Los Angeles who played basketball at the Pratt Institute. “Success will help us stake our claim as Americans.”

(MORE: Linsanity Goes Global)

A few reporting nuggets that didn’t fit into the print story:

  • Oliver McNally, a Harvard senior who played alongside Lin for two years, says the biggest difference he has noticed between Lin’s Ivy-League days and his NBA run is that Lin is louder now. “He was a great leader,” McNally says. “But he wasn’t a big voice guy. I watch him now, and he’s barking orders. And people are following along. It shows amazing growth.” In most circumstances, a player is more confident to be vocal with his college team. But when he gets to the pros, he defers to the veteran pros. Not so for Lin.
  • When Lin was at Harvard, McNally tried to honestly project Lin’s pro career. McNally’s conclusion: backup NBA guard. Lin is playing beyond the expectations of his closest friends.
  • When Linsanity broke out, front offices around the NBA debated whether Lin could sustain his outstanding play. One skeptical NBA exec made a lunch bet with an office mate. Would Lin score 16 against the Lakers? He took the under. He hasn’t paid up yet. He’s thinking Chili’s.

MORE: Jeremy Lin Makes Us All Americans