New York City was experiencing unseasonably warm weather in February, but it was even hotter inside Madison Square Garden. The New York Knicks were scorching, and it had nothing to do with climate change.
There was a new phenomenon about to go global: Linsanity.
Jeremy Lin, the undrafted Harvard graduate, helped propel the Knicks to a seven-game win streak, which included a 99-88 win over the Utah Jazz where Lin had 28 points and 8 assists.
It is the feel-good sports story of the year – a story with ups and downs, highs and lows, even laughter. But as with any fairytale, there is an ugly side to the saga.
Lin is only the fourth Asian-American to ever play in the NBA and much focus has been on his Taiwanese ancestry.
As Lin’s profile rose in the media, something unexpected also crept into the spotlight – America’s casual use of racist jokes involving Asian stereotypes.
During a game broadcasted on the Madison Square Garden Network, a camera zoomed in on an audience member holding up a homemade sign that had Lin’s face and an open fortune cookie with the words, “The Knicks Good Fortune.”
On the night Lin scored a career high 38 points against the Los Angeles Lakers, FoxSports.com writer, Jason Whitlock, tweeted, “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight.”
Whitlock later issued an apology. Fox Sports did not reprimand him.
Tricia Sugiyama, Asian-American Program Coordinator at the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs at the University of Utah, said she is not surprised by how fans and sports pundits have perpetuated negative Asian stereotypes for laughs.
“I think it’s part of the whole ‘model minority’ stereotype,” Sugiyama said. “People openly mock Asians because they’re seen as less vocal. They won’t fight back.”
A “Saturday Night Live” skit, which aired on Feb. 20, perfectly illustrates general American attitudes toward using certain racial stereotypes publicly, Sugiyama said.
In the short clip, three sportscasters are sitting around dishing out racially tinged puns as they discuss Lin. But when a fourth commentator makes similar remarks directed towards an African-American player, the others scold him for his comments.
The issue Lin’s race and how the media treats it came to a head when ESPN published the headline “Chink in the Armor” for a story that questioned Lin’s abilities after the Knicks lost a game, breaking their win streak.
The story headline was published on ESPN’s mobile site and was pulled about a half-hour later.
Generally speaking, the phrase “chink in the armor” has no racial implications. But many found it to be in poor taste when used in reference to the on-court performance of an Asian-American athlete. ESPN ultimately fired Anthony Federico, the copy editor who posted the headline.
“I think the phrase was probably used inadvertently,” said Michelle Crowson, a graduate student and instructor of Asian-American Studies at the U. “But to say it was just a mere mistake is a bit too optimistic.”
While she is not a sports fan in general, the story of Lin has captivated Crowson like so many others. For her, it is not about Lin’s underdog story. She’s more interested in how Lin’s story is exposing and dispelling Asian stereotypes in the mainstream media.
“Following it all as it unfolds in the media has been so fascinating for me,” Crowson said.
There is a distinct difference in how the mainstream media portrays Asian stereotype depending on gender, she said.
“Asian females are seen as submissive,” Crowson said. “Other times they use their sexuality to their advantage – the dragon lady.
“Asian guys are generally shown as nerds. They’re not good at sports,” Crowson said. “They’re also shown as being asexual. They’re rarely the romantic lead.”
Lin has broken some of these Asian male stereotypes by simply having made it to the NBA.
“In our society, athletes are seen as the physical ideal. They have a certain romantic or sexual aura to them,” Crowson said. “He’s become sort of a sex symbol. I don’t think Asian American men have had a role model like that. Lin’s impact on the mainstream is incredibly powerful.”
For Derek Leo, a freshman at the U and a student of Crowson’s, Lin is someone who young Asian-Americans like himself can look up to.
“He’s like the ideal. He’s smart and athletic,” Leo said. “Not only can he play ball but he graduated from Harvard, too.”
Leo is a second-generation Chinese-American. Both of his parents immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong.
His family settled in Tooele, a town of 30,000 in Utah’s west desert, where they have owned and operated a restaurant for the past 40 years.
“I was one of like three Asians in my graduating class.” Leo said. “It’s not very diverse out there. But it’s not really something I’ve thought about until recently.”
Leo considers himself an athletic person. He does not recall having any Asian-American athletes to look up to as role models when he was growing up.
He was familiar with Michael Chang, the former Chinese-American tennis player who holds the record for being the youngest to win the French Open. Chang was 17 when he beat Stefan Edberg in the final match at Roland-Garros in 1989.
And Leo knows about Michelle Kwan, a Chinese-American figure skater who has won two Olympic medals and she’s a five-time figure skating world champion.
But Leo doesn’t care for tennis or figure skating. While he recognizes that these Asian-American athletes have accomplished great feats in their respective sports, Leo is an NBA fan.
Even though he roots for the Boston Celtics, he still has vested interest in Lin’s success, which he believes will be short-lived.
“Honestly, I think Linsanity will die down and he’ll wash up,” Leo said. “I mean it already kind of has.”
On March 31, it was announced that Lin would undergo knee surgery, which would sideline him for the rest of the season.
“When I read that news, I was so bummed out that my shoulders just dropped,” Leo said.