Jeremy Lin's Got Game

Dubbed superhuman and savior, the Harvard basketball star is actually just like the rest of us.

April 16, 2010

Jeremy Lin drives past an opponent. (Photo by Derek Lieu)

Jeremy Lin is home for the holidays. It’s a laughably warm December in Palo Alto, CA — perfect basketball weather. On days like this, you’d expect to find the undeniably talented 21-year-old Harvard guard — the most hyped Asian American college basketball player in recent memory — out on the court playing a pickup game.

Instead, he’s taking on a five-on-five of a different sort. Tactical offense, towered defense, axe-wielding orcs — we’re talking about Warcraft III, the ultimate in early-2000s geekdom.

“No one would think he plays [Defense of the Ancients],” says Alex Shau, a friend of Lin’s since kindergarten. But, Shau notes, he’s got game. “He’s good. Actually, there weren’t many things he wasn’t good at.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Lin, already an inspiration for Asian American ballers everywhere, shines in competitions of many kinds. He has endured the most anticipated, watched and dissected season of his life and if all goes to plan, he will have a fighting chance in this year’s NBA draft, a prospect that less than a handful of Asian American players have achieved.

Friends and colleagues say this is just a natural progression of Lin’s mythic origin story. “He wasn’t tall until high school,” Shau says of the now 6-foot-3 athlete. But even on the elementary school playground, “[he] was going in and dominating everyone.” Picture Peter Parker squaring up against your common thug. “The other guy always seemed like he was in a slowed-down time warp,” Shau says.

Now finishing his fourth year on a decidedly meaner playground, Lin has been praised for his all-around capabilities, with notable digits in assists and steals. Fans like Harvard alum Vivek Viswanathan revel in Lin’s seemingly superhuman performance, as in the final seconds of a recent game: The score was tight, man-to-man defense, Lin with the ball at the top of the arc with no open teammates.

“He just stepped up into his defender’s face and launched a three-pointer right over him,” Viswanathan says. The shot swished in. “It was pandemonium in the best kind of way.”  
It’s a performance that his burgeoning fan base has come to expect — but not necessarily why they come. Peel away the superpowers and the high-flying dunks and you’ll find an upbringing similar to that of many Asian Americans. For many, Lin’s appeal is precisely this commonality — a kid who grew up chatting online, taking piano lessons and falling asleep first at sleepovers.

“[He] comes from a similar background to all of us,” says Shou Chang, a San Francisco Bay Area resident who remembers watching Lin lead Palo Alto High School to the state title in 2006, an upset win against national powerhouse Mater Dei High School. “[He] played high school sports like we did, went to college like we did, shared the college experience like we did — and he showed that you can make something happen if you work hard.”

This every-Asian-American-man quality is inspirational proof against Asian American players’ nagging fears that they are ill-equipped to play competitively, says Donald Lee, a referee in a Bay Area Asian American basketball league. “Here’s a guy who’s not Yao Ming, not 7-feet tall,” Lee says. “But he’s playing against other people. It shows that Asians can play against other races.”

Lin may be demonstrating this for years to come, if not in the NBA then at least on a professional team in Europe — if he choses to go pro. He’s hinted at attending seminary as an alternative and giving back to the Chinese church in Mountain View he grew up in (he’s a devout Christian).

While the buzz around Lin is palpable, no one can decisively say whether he will reach the big time. Aran Smith, president of NBA draft projection site, says “NBA scouts project him to go un-drafted,” but he’s sure to get a shot to compete for a roster spot in the Las Vegas Summer League, which allows prospects to practice against other newly drafted players.

Along with the heightened level of attention comes a bevy of stereotypes; Lin told NPR in February that he hears slurs on the court, mainly from heckling fans. Supporters like Lee say it’s unacceptable: “If you [say a racial comment] against a player who is black, you wouldn’t get away with it. Why do you get away with it with an Asian player?”

It’s a tough question, and Lin seems to have little inclination to seek an answer.

“I don’t think he’s trying to change the world,” Shau says. “He just likes to play basketball.”  

Derek Lieu is a freelance writer and photographer working out of Los Angeles. This is his first article for Hyphen.

Magazine Section: