February 13, 2012

Like most sports fans (and many non-sports fans, for that matter), I’ve been caught up in Linsanity.

That’s the term fans use to describe Jeremy Lin’s stunning breakout performance as point guard for the New York Knicks.

For those who haven’t been following their social media streams, Lin emerged from the Knicks’ bench to dominate several games, including a 38-point, 7-assist performance against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. Under Lin’s leadership, the Knicks are on a five-game winning streak headed into Tuesday night’s game.

What’s unusual about Lin’s story is that he is a Harvard graduate and an American of Taiwanese descent. There haven’t been that many Harvard graduates in the NBA. And, as best as I can tell, there have been only three or four Asian Americans in the league before Lin.

Add in Lin’s apparent good-guy humility and devout Christian faith, and his story resonates with a lot of folks, regardless of their appreciation for his fluid jump shots and acrobatic drives to the basket. (For an explanation of this watershed moment, read Jeff Yang’s exuberant piece for The Wall Street Journal.)

Lin’s story certainly resonates with me. As the son of Chinese immigrants — and an NBA fanatic — I can’t help but feel a sense of pride when I watch Lin play. He excels in an arena where I haven’t seen many people who look like me (except for my Asian brothers and sisters cheering in the stands).

So I’m going to enjoy Linsanity for as long as it lasts. In the meantime, with my journalist’s hat on, I’d like to sketch out three things we can learn from covering this phenomenon.

Even as Lin breaks stereotypes, let’s watch out for subtle stereotyping in our coverage.

I’ve seen Lin described as a quiet and thoughtful young man, as a hard worker. All of this may be true, and who wouldn’t want to be described that way? These are positive traits, and they speak to Lin’s good character.

The problem, though, is that many of these traits are typically ascribed to Asian Americans in a stereotypical way. We in the media often don’t go beyond these surface descriptions to try to understand who the individual is.

The fact of the matter is that Lin appears to be a natural leader – not just a quiet, hard worker. It would be interesting to explore how he has established that leadership on a team of NBA stars in such a short time.

I’ve also seen Lin described as a “shifty” shotmaker. I’m sure the writer’s intent was good; he was trying to describe how Lin uses various feints to get open shots against his defenders. But the writer also needs to be aware of the history of describing Asians as shifty — using deceit to gain an advantage.

The other problem is that when things don’t go well for Lin (and if Lin has a lengthy NBA career, there will be plenty of ups and downs), this shorthand may shift into the negative. I can imagine these statements: “He’s so quiet, he has trouble communicating with his coach and his teammates.” “He’s so thoughtful, he’s overthinking the game and turning over the ball too much.” “He’s a hard worker, but he’s got limited skills, and eventually they’ll figure out how to guard him.”

The great Yao Ming, for example, was knocked for not having enough of a mean streak for cultural reasons. When things don’t go well for Lin, let’s not fall into such simplistic thinking.

Let’s not pigeonhole Lin into restrictive categories.

Ivy League graduate. Asian American man. Devout Christian.

These are all categories that fit Lin, and I’m sure they are all important components to who he is as a human being. But they aren’t the only things that define him. We need to be cautious about stereotypes that linger underneath these labels.

When you think of “Ivy League grad,” what stereotypes come to mind? Brainy, elitist, arrogant? “Asian American man”– inscrutable, passive, reserved? “Devout Christian” — judgmental, moralistic, holier than thou?

I doubt that Lin has any of these traits, though he may have a bit of several of them. People are multidimensional, and it’s our job as journalists to capture some of their complexity. For a nuanced look at Lin as an Asian American Christian, read Michael Luo’s thoughtful essay for The New York Times.

In upcoming profiles, let’s avoid limiting Lin to these boxes. For example, someone likened Lin to the “Taiwanese Tim Tebow,” and I’m not even sure what that means. It seems reductive in the worst manner.

Instead, let’s find out what challenges and obstacles Lin has truly faced in his young life, and how he overcame them. Then we can begin to understand who Lin truly is and why his story may very well transcend the sports story.

This is a feel-good story, so humor should be a part of it. But let’s be careful about using humor that crosses the line.

Perhaps one reason journalists are ga-ga over Jeremy Lin is that his last name inspires a seemingly endless litany of play-on-words headlines: “Linning Time,” “Linning Streak,” “Lingenious,” “Lin the Knick of Time” and, yes, “Linsanity.”

And the signs that fans hold up at basketball games have been pretty creative, too: “Who says Asians can’t drive?”, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Point Guard,” and “Me love you Lin time.”

All of this is in good fun, but at some point, the headlines will grow tiresome, and the signs will cross the line into racism. Already, there’s controversy over one fan’s sign at the Knicks-Lakers game: “The Yellow Mamba,” a play off Kobe’s nickname, “The Black Mamba.”

Let’s not kill the joy. But let’s also be aware that what’s funny to some can be offensive to others, especially when it comes to racially-tinged humor.

Jason Whitlock, a columnist, found that out when, after Lin’s dominance against the Lakers on Friday, he tweeted: “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight.”

The Asian American Journalists Association swiftly called for an apology, arguing that the tweet didn’t “hold up to the conduct of responsible journalists, those in sports or otherwise, who adhere to standards of fairness, civility and good taste.” (I serve on the national advisory board of AAJA, but I was not involved in the Whitlock matter, and my views in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the organization.)

On Sunday, Whitlock apologized, saying that he had given in to one “part of my personality – my immature, sophomoric, comedic nature…” As AAJA pointed out, “I debased a feel-good sports moment. For that, I’m truly sorry.”

Jeremy Lin’s fast rise to fame is fascinating, because it emerges from the intersection of so many important issues: race, religion, education, sports, marketing, pop culture, social media. His is a fantastic sports story, but it’s so much more than that, too. And it will be interesting to see how this story plays out.

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Tom Huang is Sunday & Enterprise Editor at The Dallas Morning News and Adjunct Faculty member of The Poynter Institute, where he oversees the school’s…
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