When I was a teenager, I thought nothing in the world would be cooler than being a professional sportswriter.
See, as a young boy, I was an extremely shy kid and more than a little introverted. More often than not, I could usually be found with my head buried in a book or furiously writing stories in a tattered journal that accompanied me at all times. I was a studiously sullen kid with few friends and I recall spending a large part of my adolescence alone in my room with a good book and the door shut.
My quiet time, as my mom called it.
Eager to ensure that I get some exposure to fresh air, my mother signed me up for every sports league in town. To the surprise of everyone (most notably myself,) sports came naturally to me and I turned out to be a fairly gifted athlete. Soon I was playing competitive junior tennis in tournaments all over the east coast. I was an all-star pitcher, shooting guard, and soccer player. Eventually, I even excelled to the point where colleges began recruiting me for my athletic prowess.
In a way, sports saved me.
While that might be a slight exaggeration, it's a fundamental truth that sports did drastically alter the arc of my life. Growing up as a young Asian-American book nerd, I wasn't exactly brimming with confidence. Having been raised in a predominantly upper-class white environment, I was often bullied and made to feel as if I were inferior or "different."
But it's true what they say...sports level the playing field.
With every successful moment on the court or on the field, I found myself brimming with ever-growing levels of confidence. I became absolutely sure in my abilities and never once doubted that I was equal to the task at hand. Surprisingly, I found that I absolutely loved the competiveness that would allow me to reach higher and higher levels. I feared nothing. I yearned to hit the winner that would finish off my opponent. I wanted to be the one taking the last-minute shot with the game on the line. I craved having the pressure of being alone in the spotlight.
Eventually, this all leaked over into my personal life. I became much more confident, self-assured, and outspoken in all facets of my life. I learned to overcome my insecurities of being an outsider and I found myself being accepted in ways that I never had before.
But once a literary nerd, always a literary nerd.
So after discovering that I possessed a modicum of athletic skill, I soon become an avid fan of not only all sports but also sportswriting. I was fortunate to have grown up in an era when sportswriting was at its highest level of craftsmanship. There was no doubt in my mind that it was a genuine form of literature. The exquisite and resonant long-form pieces written by guys like Frank Deford, Roger Angell, Charles Pierce, David Halberstam, and George Will were as good as anything I'd ever read by Hemingway, Faulkner, or Joyce.
More than anything, what these writers taught me was that sports are not only a prime venue for the expression of human beauty and physical accomplishment but can also reflect transcendent themes in life and society. At the end of the day, I truly do like to believe that sports is human life in microcosm.
Or as George Sheehan once eloquently put it, "sports is where an entire life can be compressed into a few hours, where the emotions of a lifetime can be felt on an acre or two of ground, where a person can suffer and die and rise again on six miles of trails through a New York City park. Sport is a theater where sinner can turn saint and a common man becomes an uncommon hero, where the past and the future can fuse with the present. Sports is singularly able to give us peak experiences where we feel completely one with the world and transcend all conflicts as we finally become our own potential."
So yeah, I fucking love sports.
But where am I going with all this?
Ever since the Jeremy Lin phenomenon began (and for you readers who don't know about "Lin-Sanity, read this non-sports fan guide for a full update,) my e-mail box has been flooded with messages and my phone has been ringing off the hook. Everyone from friends, casual acquaintances, media outlets, and readers of this site have reached out to me.
"Yo, man! How about your boy J-Lin?"
"We'd love to hear your thoughts on Jeremy Lin and his significance to Asian-America."
"You watch the Knicks last night? Lin-sanity rules again!"
As both a proud Asian-American man and an avid sports fan, I have to admit that the Jeremy Lin story fascinates me. Here was an undiscovered player barely drafted into the NBA who has singlehandedly, in the span of one week, lit the basketball world on fire, reignited the moribund Knicks franchise, and become a national and cultural phenomenon that has taken the country by storm.
At first, I wasn't going to write about Jeremy Lin because part of me just wanted to yell out, "So what? You don't think Asian guys can play hoops? In this day and age, are we really so surprised by the ascendence of an Asian-American baller?"
As a society, have we become so inundated with the emasculation of the Asian-American male that when one of us displays incredible physical prowess, we're shocked beyond belief?
But this was naive of me.
Seeing a fellow Asian-American man dominate in the predominantly rarified world of professional basketball was confusing. I found myself having feelings of pride that I couldn't easily explain. Jay Kang of Grantland put it much better:
"What I was trying to describe was the very strange, specific, and rare pride one feels when watching one of their own succeed in a forbidden field. Basketball, more than any other professional sport, is an exhibition of the human body and therefore lends itself to heavy racial codification. The experience of seeing an Asian American body within that arena chased away all the standard emasculating stereotypes, at least for a while. Yes, Yao and his cohort of gawky, jump-shooting countrymen had already played in the NBA. But they didn't count. For this particular revenge fantasy, our hero needed to be able to understand every single racist thing said to him on the court and respond by dropping 30."
There have been other Asian-American athletes who have excelled in other sports, only to elicit little or no response from the community. Across the Bay from Lin’s hometown of Palo Alto, baseball stud Kurt Suzuki just turned in the best season of any position player on the Oakland A’s. A little way down the 101 in San Luis Obispo, Chris Gocong’s Philadelphia Eagles jersey hangs in the locker room at Cal Poly. Hines Ward was Super Bowl MVP and a possible Hall of Famer. So why does Jeremy Lin, shooting guard for the Harvard Crimson, captivate us in a way that few professional athletes ever have?
I'm not exactly sure.
Maybe we, as a nation, truly do appreciate the underdog story. The amazing thing about Jeremy Lin's rise to cultural significance is that, in many ways, it seems to have transcended race. Everyone from Harvard grads to blue-collar workers to faithful Christians to workers who have been dumped by their bosses to those whom have never been given a chance...everyone seems to have found a connection with a nerdy point guard who just weeks ago was more likely to be found bagging groceries than electrifying sold-out arenas.
There's no comparison to what Jeremy Lin has accomplished over the past two weeks.
Certainly not from the point of view of race.
And a lot of it is about race, isn't it?
As Bill Simmons wrote in Grantland today,
"There's been a subtle racism lurking behind everything that's happened these past two weeks; you can't help but notice it when they show someone holding a "Yellow Mamba" sign in the stands, or with the people who crossed the line on Twitter (that's still going), or even the late-night monologue-type jokes like "Of course Jeremy Lin would go well with MSG" or "Who said Asians couldn't drive?," which sound relatively harmless until you think, Wait, nobody would be making 'black' jokes if Lin were black."
At the end of the day, I'm an avid sports fan. And as a sports fan, I want to see Jeremy Lin succeed. It's a great American underdog story that truly does transcend sports.
But more importantly, as an Asian-American man, I want to see Jeremy Lin succeed because it's one more step towards knocking down stereotypes about Asian-American men.
I never had a role model who looked like me when I was growing up. I wish I had. Maybe the path would have been easier. Maybe it would have been the same.
At the end of the day, I'm a 43-year-old Asian-American man who has struggled with my identity for much of my life. And while I don't believe that professional athletes are role models or heroes, I do believe that there's something to be said about inspiration. No matter one's color, I think we can all agree that Jeremy Lin is a great inspiration.
Still, I look forward to the day when nobody thinks twice about an Asian-American basketball player dominating the NBA. I look forward to the day when nobody thinks twice about an Asian-American leading man, an Asian-American rock star, or a studly Asian-American playboy.
But until that day?