Beyond the Linsanity Spectacle: Everyday Asian American Sporting Cultures

—Constancio Arnaldo

It’s been four years since Jeremy Lin burst onto the global spotlight as a basketball superstar, facilitating a rise in what mass media called, “Linsanity.” This was a moment in which the undrafted Taiwanese-American NBA point guard playing for the New York Knicks captivated the imagination of the sports world. As the first player to average at least 20 points and 7 assists in his first four NBA starts, Lin’s spectacular play, racial background, and model minority narrative thrust his life into larger debates about masculine identity, national belonging, and questions of Asian American athletic ability. During his run, Lin’s athletic feats symbolized Asian American athleticism and reaffirmed ideas of sport as a system of meritocracy. Because New York is one of the preeminent global marketplaces, Lin became an overnight sensation as his presence highlighted Asian Americans as consumers of sports.

Indeed, Lin performed feats of athleticism not usually associated with Asian and Asian American bodies. He was crossing people over (or in basketball vernacular “breakin’ ankles), dunking, and prolifically scoring against NBA superstars like Kobe Bryant, John Wall, and Deron Williams. These feats no doubt challenged the stereotypes of Asian and Asian American athletes in general and Asian American men in particular. Jeremy Lin was a baller. Asian American men and women participated in these discourses using his name as a play on words to connote sexual virility, while also reaffirming visions of hypermasculinity: “Jeremy, I want you Linside me,” and “You are the Lin beneath my wings.” While Lin’s basketball skills and body challenge prevailing ideas about Asian male emasculation, racist, gendered, and sexualized ideas about him prevailed.

Jeremy Lin was seen as an outsider and “foreign” to the basketball court and his athletic performance generated larger conversations about athletic ability, and racial and gendered expectations. After injuring his knee during the 2011-2012 season, coverage of Jeremy Lin waned. And alongside this, the Linsanity phenomenon faded even after he signed a multi-million dollar contract with the Houston Rockets for the 2012-2013 season. Linsanity, it seemed, was over as his career did not quite work out in Houston. He was then traded to the Los Angeles Lakers before finally signing with the Charlotte Hornets for the 2015-2016 season. Coverage of him waned and he seemed destined to fade into obscurity, becoming a footnote in NBA lore as simply a two-week phenomenon. More recently, however, Lin has enjoyed a quiet “resurgence” and is playing well enough to keep his basketball career afloat. Away from the large media markets like New York, Houston, and Los Angeles, Charlotte, it seems, has served Lin well. Although he is no longer a starting point guard, his skills are good enough to provide quality minutes as a backup point guard.

In the moment of Jeremy Lin’s fading iconicity, we must not forget that beyond his spectacle, there are thriving Asian American sporting cultures throughout the United States—in the form of leagues, tournaments, and community spaces. These are important spaces for Asian American communities to claim their place in the fabric of American society by participating in quintessentially American cultural forms. In other words, Jeremy Lin’s ascendance as a basketball star in the 21st century American national imagination in particular, and the global marketplace more broadly did not just happen overnight. Asian American communities have had differing levels of sporting participation dating as far back as the nineteenth centuries and continues to this day. By studying the quotidian practices of sport in Asian Pacific Islander America, we can show the various relationships to sport and multiple, contradictory, enlightening, and problematic constructions of American identity, race, gender, class, sexuality, and ability. For example, in my work on Filipina/o American sporting cultures in Asian American Sporting Cultures (New York University Press, April 2016), Filipina/os were introduced to sports by U.S. colonists, who believed that sports would “civilize” the inferior Filipina/os. Filipino boxers took up boxing as transnational sporting migrants, fighting in the United States and in Australia. Narratives like this stress the everyday encounter with sports and the larger implications woven through pedestrian sporting practices. A greater media and scholarly focus on the stories of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans can unpack and unravel how we take sport for granted as a meritocratic space. In our co-edited collection we demonstrate how Asian American communities have used sport to challenge dominant racial ideologies, as sites for national belonging and performing Americanness, while also bringing with them their own distinct sporting histories, contemporary experiences, and their own politics.

Sports continue to be a part of Asian Americans’ everyday lives. However, the ebbs and flows of media attention on Jeremy Lin fail to account for the important stories that run through so many lives. Studying Asian American sporting cultures can also give us insight to the importance of understanding race and masculinity beyond the basketball court. David Leonard’s chapter in our volume reminds us that celebrating Lin’s Asian Americanness was done so because of its proximity to blackness. Indeed, blackness on the basketball court is valued and thus, Jeremy Lin’s skills were measured in relation to this value. Black masculinity on the court is contained, celebrated, and commodified. Off the court, as Stanley Thangaraj has shown in Desi Hoop Dreams (NYU Press, 2015), it is devalued, marked deviant and out of place in the larger society. We see this in the rise of anti-black racism and the subsequent emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The movement has seeped into the NBA consciousness as players have used their voices as a platform to speak out. Because of this, we see potential for crafting solidarity among Asian American, African American, white, and European NBA players. We already see some examples of this. When African American Eric Garner was fatally choked to death by a white cop, NBA players, Jeremy Lin included, wore black t-shirts with the words “I can’t breathe” to show their solidarity against police brutality. As Asian Americans, we can stand with the #BlackLivesMatter movement by engaging in critical discussions about police brutality, speaking out, and understanding that racism has historically and contemporarily shaped our lives on and off the basketball court, football field or baseball diamond.

Celebratory renditions of Lin’s basketball excellence have enabled questions about the Asian American community, identity, and parameters of belonging that extend beyond black and white. At the same time, we need to question the extent to which privileging his narrative fails to capture the diversity of Asian American sporting cultures. Lin comes from a middle-class background, attended Harvard and is a faithful Christian. In this realm, he fulfills stereotypes of the model minority. Although Lin’s success provokes needed critiques about Asian American masculinity as a failed masculinity, it inevitably leads us to more questions about identity and belonging. Lin embodies an Asian American version of a respectable, muscular Christianity. What happens to the diverse religious, gendered, and sexual identities within Asian and Pacific Islander America such as the queer Filipino American men in Martin Manalansan’s Global Divas (Duke University Press, 2003)? And while sport is an important cultural realm to engage with debates about race and gender, it continues to reproduce normative expectations and static renditions of Asian American athletic prowess. In fact, Asian American female athletes have served as icons for the community but have received far less attention. Athletes like figure skaters Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwon, or diver Vicky Manalo Draves have long been a part of the Asian American sporting landscape. As athletic icons, their accomplishments have largely gone unnoticed. While these athletes did not have same kind of intense and instantaneous media attention that Jeremy Lin garnered, we are still left to consider how their obscurity in the pantheon of Asian American iconicity has not been met with the same verve as Lin. Sport then, remains a masculine institution.

The fading of Linsanity does not mean that Asian American sporting cultures will soon fade away. At the time of writing this blog, Jeremy Lin was thrust into the starting lineup to play against the Lebron James-led, Cleveland Cavaliers. Although the Charlotte Hornets were considered the underdog Jeremy Lin led his team in scoring and assists with an impressive 24/8 stat line. Although he does not generate the same attention in 2012, Lin continues to matter, at least in part to his team. For Asian Americans, sports mattered historically, and continue to matter in 2016.

Constancio R. Arnaldo Jr. is Visiting Assistant Professor of Asian/Asian American Studies at Miami University, Ohio. He is co-editor of Asian American Sporting Cultures (NYU Press, forthcoming April 2016).
Website | + posts