A few years ago, there was buzz about an Asian American basketball player from Harvard named Jeremy Lin. His name bounced around mostly Asian American pop culture and news sites, including my very own blog:
I remember thinking, I hope he’s able to fulfill his dream and play some minutes on an NBA team.
Fast-forward to now, the Summer after Linsanity when he electrified the Nation, with terrific gutsy gameplay and one hell of an underdog story, while earning the league minimum. This summer, as Lin became a free agent, an unexpected fiasco emerged around what team and what contract he would be offered, and in the recent weeks Lin has become the most debated and visible Asian American public figure in my adult life.
During the height of Linsanity in February and March, when those of us basketball fans and Lin fans could scarcely believe what was happening, Boston-based spoken word artist and activist (and father of a darling set of twins) Giles Li contacted myself and Beau Sia, with an idea for the three of us to collaborate on poetry about Jeremy Lin. Since the three of us live in separate cities spread out across
Lin’s knee injury put our plans on hold, and we had planned to release the videos when the Knicks offered Lin a contract. Well, anyone who has been following the news knows what’s unfolded in the last two weeks. Giles has recently released his video, a hit amongst many Asian Americans and basketball fans.
I spoke to Giles about the video and his feelings on Lin, as an artist, as a lifelong Celtics fan, as an Asian American, and as a father.
How long have you been a Jeremy Lin fan? When did you first hear about him?
I live in
By the time he had that great summer league game where he outplayed John Wall, Jeremy Lin was on a lot of people's mock draft boards, some even had him as a late first-round pick. Alas, he wasn't drafted and I figured he'd missed his shot. At that point, it didn't even register as a disappointment for me. A lot of talented players don't make it to the NBA.
There was a great high school player in
What was it like for you during Linsanity?
First and foremost, it was weird to root for a Knicks player because I'm a lifelong Celtics fan and they're in the same conference. I don't have that problem anymore.
But as much as I was excited and energized by Jeremy Lin and his story. I could feel myself subconsciously bracing myself for the inevitable backlash, which would have more than a little to do with his race. There were plenty of Asian Americans who were prematurely trying to cut him down to size too, probably because they didn't want to be seen as Jeremy Lin fanboys.
But what was joyous about that moment in sports history is that his story was so familiar to so many of us. Scouts and coaches and players took one look at his face and assumed he was not on their level, and that was his biggest obstacle. It wasn't lack of hard work or talent or practice or connections or even luck that stalled his career, it was primarily the fact that people looked at him and couldn't imagine that guy actually being competitive enough to make it at the highest level. And he proved so many people wrong and still couldn't shake all the doubters.
And that's common for us as Asian Americans isn't it? People are more comfortable assuming from the jump that you're not good enough than actually assessing you as a person and deciding for themselves based on evidence.
Beautiful poem, and Ash did a great job with the video. How did you two end up working together?
We've been friends for a long time, and we have been planning to work together for at least five years, but we never found the right project that we both could be invested in the right way. Actually, Ash did that amazing video for your "No Offense" poem last year before he and I could figure out how to work together. But because for the last 10 years, many of our conversations have been about basketball, this just seemed like the right time to finally get it going. I think the piece I wrote is pretty strong and honest, but Ash's work on the visuals was really flawless - that's why it's started to catch on with people online.
What is kind of interesting to me is that this piece was written and mostly shot when Linsanity was still a thing. It was written from the point of view that mainstream American was finally able to attach something "Asian American" to a universally positive feeling. That was a first in my lifetime, and it made me happy that it was happening while my kids were still little, that maybe the world they grow up in will be more informed by that positivity.
But unsurprisingly, time has proven me wrong - and this American culture fell back into treating Asian Americans the way it prefers - as targets of vitriol and hatred. And now that the cultural context and media landscape has changed, it has become a much more sad piece to me. My kids growing up as Asian Americans may feel every bit as invisible and devalued as I often did.
As a parent that hurts a lot.
A lot of people, especially Asian Americans, seem to really be resonating with your poem and video. I've been reading a lot about Jeremy Lin, and one thing that strikes me, is that a lot of people's mindset and vocabulary are still stuck in very white-Black paradigms when I feel like this is a phenomenon very specifically informed by Lin being an Asian American. I feel like your poem is a much more nuanced exploration of race and identity. Care to comment?
Even at the height of his popularity, when there wasn't much backlash against him yet, there was already a backlash against all the "new" fans he was bringing into the fold.
There was an idiotic assumption among some non-Asian folks that Asians and Asian Americans never paid attention to basketball until Jeremy Lin hit. As I said, I've been an NBA fan my whole life, and the reason is that both my father and mother raised me that way. The mainstream narrative was about how unusual it was that the American-born child of Asian immigrants played basketball; that's not unusual. What is unusual is that he kept going for it after countless people took one look at his face and told him he wasn't tough enough, or wasn't athletic enough, or wasn't competitive enough.
And as spoken word performers, we both know this, but there are very few fields in which Asian Americans can start making a name for themselves and not be met with some surprise. And again, we both have experience with this: sometimes that surprise is tinged with doubt, anger, or disbelief.
And during the height of Linsanity, a lot of the commentary was tinged with the same stuff. There was a widespread assumption he would fall to earth, that he'd eventually reveal himself as a so-so player, but if you look at his history as a basketball player, he has produced at every level. He was a legitimate top-tier college player, he was a successful summer league player, there was actually more evidence of him being better than average than there was of him being worse than average. The assertion that he was a below-average guard was based almost solely on his race.
I read Devin Gordon's piece on the GQ blog about race and how it's not being named as a factor in mainstream discourse around Jeremy Lin, even though it's affecting everyone's perceptions of him. I appreciated that he did that; at the same time, it took a well-known mainstream white journalist to give that point of view legitimacy. As Asian Americans, we almost aren't allowed to talk about race politics because we're met with that same doubt, anger, and disbelief that our experiences with racism carry any water.
But anyway, I'm not trying to prove anything to anyone. Mainly, I believe Jeremy Lin is important to the world in which Asian American parents are raising Asian American kids. That's the main reason why he matters to me.
Watch Giles' video here:
Giles Li is a father of two who serves the immigrant community in