The Magazine

Unselfish Basketball

Why Jeremy Lin's progress strikes a chord.

Jun 11, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 37 • By FRED BARNES
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There’s a big hole in the National Basketball Association playoffs. A riveting storyline went AWOL. A level of excitement that might have gripped the final playoff series this week is sadly absent. What’s missing is a single player, Jeremy Lin, the most unlikely NBA star ever. If you’ve not heard of him, you’re worse off for having let the most thrilling weeks in sports in 2012 pass you by.

Jeremy Lin

Newscom

Here’s a short version of the Lin phenomenon. A high school standout in Palo Alto, California, Lin failed to get a basketball scholarship to Stanford, his first choice for college. He settled for Harvard and became an Ivy League star, but wasn’t picked in the 2010 NBA draft. Signed as a free agent, Lin was a benchwarmer for the Golden State Warriors and played for the minor league Erie BayHawks before resurrecting the forlorn New York Knicks in February. As an unexpectedly brilliant point guard, he turned the Knicks into a contender for the championship. The sports world went berserk.

Then, in March, he injured his knee, had surgery, and was lost for the remainder of the season. Lin-less, the Knicks were crushed in the opening round of the playoffs by the powerful Miami Heat. Would they have won with Lin? Maybe not. But they’d have put the Heat to a stiffer test—and extended the mania known as Linsanity for a few more weeks.

Sports crazes are not new. Last fall, there was Tim Tebow, who led the Denver Broncos to the pro football playoffs. Baseball fans were enraptured in 2004 with the Boston Red Sox as they won the World Series after an 86-year drought. 

But Linsanity was different. The currents that ran through it were not limited to basketball. Lin is a second-generation Asian American, his parents having met in Virginia after emigrating from Taiwan. He’s an evangelical Christian whose faith has played a big part in his basketball success. Even the basketball angle has a twist. It’s not the conventional one of a talented young athlete’s emergence as a superstar.

Timothy Dalrymple has woven these strands into a highly readable book, which he wrote in a few weeks. He had the advantage of having interviewed Lin at Harvard, focusing
particularly on his Christianity. Dalrymple was an elite athlete himself, a gymnast with Olympic aspirations, until a neck injury ended his career. He’s now managing editor at Patheos.com, the religion website.

When the 2011-12 season began, ESPN ranked Lin 467th out of 500 NBA players. It took an extraordinary set of circumstances for him to start for the Knicks: a desperate coach, a string of losses, injured players, unhappy fans. With Lin as point guard, the Knicks won seven straight. Those were the unforgettable “Seven Games of Linsanity.”

His numbers set records. “After his first eight starts, Jeremy had garnered 200 points and 76 assists,” Dalrymple writes, “compared with Isiah Thomas’s 184 points and 51 assists, Magic Johnson’s 147 points and 57 assists, and John Stockton’s 80 points and 82 assists.” Just as impressive was his skillful leadership.

To many fans, that Lin is an Asian American was noteworthy. To Asian Americans, it was a breakthrough.  “What’s unique about Jeremy is the way he explodes the negative images of the weak and timid Asian American, even as he embodies what is best in Asian-American culture and brings that with him into his success,” Dalrymple says.

It took more than talent for Lin to reach the NBA. He struggled, unlike the greatest players in the game. “Michael Jordan never had to beg the coaches to give him a chance,” Dalrymple writes. “Kobe Bryant has never asked a chaplain and friends to pray that he would not be cut from the team. Lebron James had the size of Goliath and the strength of Samson by the time he was sixteen.” While theirs are “stories of transcendent talent and superhuman abilities, Jeremy’s is a parable of perseverance, a story of a mere mortal who suffered and sacrificed and strove every day to improve.”

The role of Lin’s faith can be difficult to understand—until you see him play. Lin became a serious Christian in high school and was active in Christian groups at Harvard. His faith translates into this kind of basketball: “Play the game in the way it should be played, play in a manner that reflects his deepest moral and religious commitments, and trust that God will take care of the outcome.”

It’s unselfish basketball. You don’t see an overabundance of it in the NBA. But when you do, it’s as beautiful as a team sport can get. It requires humility and discipline and teamwork. Of those, Lin has plenty. The good news is he’s only 23 and, assuming his knee heals, he’ll be back next season.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.