When frighteningly fickle hoops fans are chanting “MVP” after your first career start, then you know you might be something special. When you become the first player since Lebron James to have at least twenty points and eight assists in your first two NBA starts, then you know the sports world will take notice. When you provide an infectious glee to a group of teammates who look at you with naked, near tearful gratitude like you’ve dragged them from basketball purgatory, then you know you have made an impact. When you are also the first American-born player of Chinese/Taiwanese descent ever in the NBA as well as a Harvard graduate, and you play with a black-top flair that defies preconception and prejudice, then you know you’re poised to draw unbridled attention. When you do it all in New York City, then you have to know that the hyperbole will not be constrained or contained. Welcome to Lin-sanity, otherwise known as the feverish outpouring of adulation heaped upon the new starting point guard for the New York Knicks, Jeremy Lin.
Lin has become a magnet for attention. He’s, on one hand, part of a tradition of NBA players who don’t fit in stereotypical boxes and then attract eyeballs. Remember Jason “White Chocolate” Williams, the tattooed Caucasian with game courtesy of Rucker Park. Seven-foot three-point shooters like Dirk Nowitzki or diminutive players like Muggsy Bogues, Spud Webb or Earl Boykins or tall point guards from Magic Johnson to Shawn Livingston always drew initial attention just because they possessed the shock of the new. No sport is as naked as the NBA, with faces and bodies on full display for crowded fans and HD cameras and when we have someone who breaks a superficial mold, attention will always follow.
But Lin already represents something more significant. When Jack Johnson became the first African-American heavyweight champion, using a style both cerebral and severe, he defied racist conceptions of white supremacy as well as stereotypes that decreed African-Americans didn’t have the intelligence to apply strategy and smarts to sport. We can say the same about Jackie Robinson when he did more than just break baseball’s color barrier and win the Rookie of the Year in 1947. Robinson also played with a grace under pressure that challenged white—and even many black—preconceptions about mental toughness on the highest stage. In addition, he did so while playing with an energy that forever changed the game. Or consider Martina Navratilova. Yes, she blazed trails just by being an out and proud LGBT champion tennis player. But she also played with a muscled strength and swagger that changed women’s sports forever. The Williams sisters owe as much to Martina as they do to Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson.