Illustration by Brian Walker
Illustration by Brian Walker

This was the week when the productivity of Asian-Americans across the country slowed to a near-halt: There were YouTube clips to be watched and re-watched, memes to start and articles to be forwarded. The reason was the unlikely ascent of Jeremy Lin, the Taiwanese-American point guard for the New York Knicks.

It all began last Saturday, when the undrafted, second-year Harvard graduate came off the bench to score 25 points in a victory against the New Jersey Nets. He was rewarded with a start on Monday night -- the first of his career -- and he proceeded to hang 28 points on the Utah Jazz. It seemed unlikely that he would maintain this pace, for the only other player to score 20 points and record eight assists in his first two career starts had been LeBron James. But on Wednesday night, Lin scored 23 points and dished out 10 assists. The Knicks won their third in a row, this time against the Washington Wizards.

Although Lin isn’t the first Asian-American to play in the National Basketball Association, he has already become the most famous. At some point, a new Lin-centric lexicon emerged to capture the feverish excitement of Knicks fans, Asian-American and otherwise. New York had come down with a case of “Lin-sanity.” He was, to borrow Charlie Sheen’s cherished word, “Lin-ing.” All he did was “Lin” -- a riff on a DJ Khaled song.

The details of Lin’s ascent cohered into a folk tale. The hard-working, devout son of Taiwanese immigrants, he hadn’t been highly touted out of high school or college. He had been underestimated, time and again, by coaches and scouts. His Asian heritage had been the subject of ridicule from fans and opponents alike. Yet he had survived, and here he was, excelling in one of the world’s most legendary basketball arenas.

Most Exclusive Club

To make it to the NBA means you are a member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the land. But to gain recognition for your underdog tenacity and become a cult hero in a city like New York: This is an honor that might outlive you. Novelty T-shirts were printed, posters made, tickets sold. Lin even felt secure enough in his status with the team that he got his own apartment. (He had been sleeping on his graduate-student brother’s couch in Manhattan.) If only the rest of the economy could be stimulated by such a stellar half-week.

Perhaps all the chatter among fans about Lin being a fundamental piece of the Knicks’ future has been premature. The Lin-inspired (Linspired?) three-game winning streak came against middling competition, and who knows how he will do against the Los Angeles Lakers tonight. It remains to be seen whether Lin’s aggressive game can blend with Knicks stars Amar’e Stoudemire, who left the team this week to attend the funeral of his brother, or Baron Davis or Carmelo Anthony, both of whom are out with injuries.

I spent much of the week e-mailing with friends about Lin’s future. It felt like a time rich with possibility, the moment right before Lin’s narrative would be set as either a novelty enjoying a hot hand or a legitimate NBA player.

For a few days, I didn’t mind the articles that approached Lin’s background and demeanor clumsily. I smiled as Anthony, in one oft-forwarded YouTube clip, honored Lin by bowing before him. I was pleasantly surprised that I never heard a gong or the adjective “inscrutable” all week. All of this reminded me of how rarely I encounter news involving Asian-Americans unless I seek it out.

Maybe this was part of our fascination with Lin, for whom there was no precedent. It’s a strange sensation seeing someone who looks like you in an unfamiliar space, particularly a space that radiates with the glow of minor celebrity. Perhaps this explains why I still recall a moment 13 years ago when a seldom-used, Korean-American guard on the University of California, Berkeley’s basketball team entered the late, meaningless minutes of a blowout victory and valiantly, selflessly drew a foul from the opposition’s star player.

Few Parallels

Lin’s rise is far more significant. For the Asian-American athlete, there are few parallels with Jackie Robinson or Billie Jean King or others who stepped forward to break some kind of barrier and reshape society’s sense of what was possible. The promise of these milestones is that they might ultimately mean nothing -- that Asian-American athletes like Lin might continue to prove themselves good enough, and that someday their presence will seem normal and unspectacular.

It may seem like a strange moment to obsess over, a minor achievement given the broader history of Asians in the U.S., and a fatally macho one at that. But the lure of identity is, at root, an imaginary one.

For now, I want to preserve this strange thrill of an Asian-American from near where I grew up starring for the Knicks; I want to temporarily shield this experience from deeper inquiry about cultural capital, politics or the meaning of meritocracy. It’s here that the irrationality of identity merges with the irrationality of fandom. We hope against reason and find meaning in the ephemeral; each new series is an opportunity to start anew. Clear thinking is the enemy. There are nicknames to be invented, menu items that need renaming and raps to be written.

(Hua Hsu, an assistant professor of English at Vassar College, is completing his first book, “A Floating Chinaman.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Hua Hsu at huhsu@vassar.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.