February 26th, 2012
06:00 AM ET

Opinion: From role player to team leader: Jeremy Lin and the rise of Asian American leadership

Editor's Note: Scott Kurashige is a fourth-generation Japanese American and author of The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles. He is associate professor of American Culture and History and director of the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Program at the University of Michigan.

By Scott Kurashige, Special to CNN

(CNN) –When I was growing up, one of the most admired athletes among my friends and family in the Asian American community was baseball player Lenn Sakata, part of the Baltimore Orioles 1983 World Series champion team.

Never heard of him? That’s understandable.

One would have to be generous to call Sakata a “modest” success with his .230 batting average in eleven seasons playing professional baseball.

But examples of Asian American pro-sports prowess were so scarce, that we all rooted for Sakata.

The fourth-generation Japanese American was the archetypal role player, never doing anything flashy or heroic but proving he belonged in the major leagues.

And that was enough for us to be proud, especially the older generations of Japanese and Asian Americans whose struggle for acceptance had been thwarted by government acts that denied Asian immigrants the right to become naturalized citizens and forced Japanese Americans into internment camps.

Thoughts of Sakata have popped into my mind repeatedly while watching the meteoric rise of Jeremy Lin, the NBA’s first Taiwanese-American player and the league’s first Asian American marquee star.

Before his breakthrough game on February 4, Lin seemed destined to a career that would parallel Sakata’s at best.

Perhaps understanding this, Asian American fans cheered wildly when Lin played garbage time minutes last season for the Warriors.

Since then, Lin has repeatedly exploded expectations while performing under tremendous pressure on and off the court.

Now anything seems possible.

Because his story is unprecedented, it has opened our eyes to a new day filled with new possibilities.

“Linsanity” is a watershed moment in my lifetime.

I grew in multicultural Los Angeles during the 1970s and in the aftermath of the civil rights movement when racial integration was still a relatively new phenomenon.

My friends and I were generally too young to know that many Asian Americans had joined the fight against discrimination. We just knew we had a right to live in neighborhoods and go to schools that had previously been restricted to whites.

But we also knew that for this arrangement to work, we had to respect our limits: get a good education, find a well-paying job, and make a decent living. All this could be achieved if we worked hard and made practical choices in life.

As kids, many of us played sports, especially basketball, with a fierce passion—all-day, year-round, in Asian community leagues and high school, both boys and girls.

Social reputations were won and lost on the court.

We made friends with people of all races but still endured more than our share of racist harassment and taunts. In this context, the basketball served as a "racial proving ground."

In elementary school at recess, we played "Japs versus"–as in the Japanese American minority, reclaiming an epithet, takes on a team made up of the white majority and all the other racial and ethnic groups. The incredible thing was that we always won–despite the other team was led by my good friend, Travis Bice, who would go on to win an NCAA championship at UNLV.

Perhaps because we knew the deal—our athletic lives would fade as we became accountants, pharmacists, and the like—the games of our youth took on heightened meaning.

And so with his every crossover, spin move, and buzzer beater, we live vicariously through Jeremy Lin.

Overcoming a lifetime of racist taunts and “Asian Profile-Lin” (to borrow from Spike Lee), he has achieved our impossible dream.

Opinion: Will Jeremy Lin's success end stereotypes?

When Lin proves wrong the scouts and coaches who thought he lacked the “speed,” “strength,” or “explosiveness” needed for success, his feats resonate symbolically with Asian Americans who have not only endured similar slights in sports but have also found their career options and advancement stunted by stereotypes connoting weakness, passivity, and a lack of charisma.

But “Linsanity” has taken off by such leaps and bounds that it has made the wildest dreams of our youth look quaint by comparison.

As the underdog winner who remains eternally humble, Lin is arguably the most likeable personality in all of America at this moment.

Companies would kill for a Lin endorsement, and his narrative has been claimed as a model of success by educators, businesses, and, of course, politicians. Both President Obama and Sarah Palin have embraced “Linsanity”.

Cashing in on the Jeremy Lin show

This link between culture and politics should not be underestimated.

At Michael Jackson’s memorial, the Reverend Al Sharpton asserted that the King of Pop paved the way for mainstream America’s eventual acceptance of an African American president.

Though prone to overstatement, Sharpton was onto something.

By becoming the first transcendent Asian American cultural icon, Jeremy Lin has begun to create a whole new dialogue about the place of Asian Americans in our society.

His ability to defy conventional thinking challenges us to question “commonsense” assumptions and look for other sources of immense Asian American talent hiding in plain sight.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Scott Kurashige.

soundoff (52 Responses)
  1. stroyde

    >As the underdog winner who remains eternally humble, Lin is arguably the most likeable personality in all of America at this moment.

    Ah yes, that absolutist asian-think that always reveals itself. Out of 300 or so million people, Jeremy Lin IS arguably tops in in the personality department. Laughable.

    March 1, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Ryan

    2 Peter 2:1-3

    ...There will be false prophets... 2 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

    One of the jobs of the elders of each church is to keep guys like these out so the Gospel is not blanketed to those not yet saved and the Name of Jesus not dishonored. I suggest the problem is churches with leadership structures that do not have the accountability of the plurality of elders centered on the Scriptures. If all churches did, this article would not exist.

    On behalf of Christ and His Church I apologize to all who have to witness these kinds of men but also please remember, standing before God on Judgment Day with the excuse of "But these hypocritical leaders in Your Church kept me from surrendering to You" will not work either. Jesus came and died to save us from selfish junk like what these guys are doing. All of us are individually held responsible to respond to Jesus by believing in Him and repenting of our own sins, with or without the likes of guys like these mentioned in the article.
    Jesus is still Lord and you are invited into His Kingdom.

    February 26, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ryan

      My post below should have been posted to the article about bad preachers in the pulpits, not this article about Lin. Some weird computer glitch happened. Please disregard this. Thanks

      February 26, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Mike

    I see humans as I see dogs. They all look the same to me.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Texas Hank

    Yup, he's Asian American and all that, but I get inspiration from him as a guy who persevered till the end.
    He's a "Man For All Seasons ( Basketball season, anyway)."

    February 26, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Zoundsman

    Lin may blossom or may fade, but it's too late- the genie is out of the bottle. Asian Americans have indeed been
    successful in many walks of life, but what's also important is to remember there are hundreds of thousands of
    ordinary folks that are not super achievers like the stereotypes. That's good enough-to see 'em as human beings.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
  6. BigJohn4USA

    First off I'm not an NBA fan, college hoops yes. When I see Lin I see hustle for every minute he's on the court. Most NBA players hustle when they have the ball or in the playoffs. Hard work and enthusiasm beats skill and sloth any day.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Steve

    When Tiger started dominating golf nobody was crying race. People just saw his awesome talent at the time. Hey, a time will come when an white sprinter will dominate the 100 meter dash, not in my lifetime I know(Usane Bolt), but the day will come. Hopefully by then we won't even be thinking about race. It won't even cross our minds. I can still dream!

    February 26, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Tyrone

    Such BS. this little kid knows nothing. Its us blacks who rule the NBA. he'll be gone soon and replaced by a good black player

    February 26, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • steve

      whatever happens to Lin, whatever he goes on in the NBA or is a flop, he will always have a job and he will always know who is DAD is. Enough said.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:33 am | Report abuse |
      • Jonnychops

        I'll see your racism, and raise you ... more bigotry?!

        C'mon, don't fall for the troll's head fake. The NBA is a multicultural quilt, or haven't you been paying attention to how it's now truly global and representative or all shapes, sizes (and skin tones).

        March 4, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
  9. earl richardson

    This shows once again what the typical American is like . Very self deficating !
    For years the NBA put America on the map of great sporting excellence due to the predominantly black
    make up. but all of a sudden a non black comes along many decades late and he is suddenly elevated aboved tried and tested super stars ! this is an insult to DR J – Magic – Jordan Shaq etc.
    As the saying goes 1 swallow does not make a summer- Lets wait and see whether this Mr Lin has Lingivity Ahem ..
    Longivity.......................... Nuff Said

    February 26, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Go Knicks!

      February 26, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jonnychops

      Self-defecating? Ooooooooooookay then.

      By the way, this is ALREADY a great story because, ethnicity aside, he's as underdog as they come and has shown enough on the biggest stage in sport to prove he is, at the very least, a legitimate starting point guard in the league.

      I won't mock your feeble grasp of the English language (oops, seems I've already done so, passive aggressively). I will, however, correct you as you erroneously state that this isn't newsworthy.

      March 4, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Geno`

    Really? i think this is total crap. You mean to tell me a BASKETBALL PLAYER is representing all Asian Americans as a whole for leadership? ITS ENTERTAINMENT NOT POLITICS, NOT ANYTHING IMPORTANT at all. People put too much emphasis on irrelevant things. All the things Asian Americans have done in American history and we sit here and say a basketball player is doing so much? i mean its not like this people do it for free...basketball players have outstanding salaries. Its not like he is trying to make a difference in the world. He is just another professional player trying to capitalize on having the spot light, and he is idolized for it? it show that people have lost sight of what really matters in this country. to where athletes are given so much praise for doing something that is purely for our entertainment. Lets see leadership in changing how this country operates or thinks about each other. Lets see someone take the helm and stop the federal reserve and other banks from destroying this country and business all together. Lets see leadership in things like that. basketball is entertaining yes..but it is just a ploy to keep people off track and out of more important affairs like politics, the country is ran FOR US..while we sit and speculate over Jeremy Lin....GTFOH.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • r

      I agree. I want to see an Asian American President or Governor (aside from Bobby Jindal because most people don't associate Indians as Asians) and then you can talk about leadership. Lin is a great story and I wish him continued success allowing other Asian American athletes to not give up....

      February 27, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Report abuse |
  11. hlmelsaid761

    positive development.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  12. K-town Texas

    Living vicariously through a man of an ethnic background that's different from yours and one your people would consider on a lower level? Really? This is about as disgusting as the other CNN writer who wrote an article a few weeks back talking about Lin being a "true asian-american sport icon" and not "someone from overseas or mixed blood".

    That the man is a capable basketball player and doing an amazing job for having been a nobody is an achievement he should be able to enjoy without having to be singled out just because he doesn't look like everyone else on the court. You and yours perpetuate the racism just as much as anyone claiming he's popular just because he's asian, and frankly it's hard not to argue with it.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Tyler

    Boring article. Everybody else has moved on already.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
  14. AH

    This article is racist. It uses the word "role" which may be a sneaky way at alluding to rolls, specifically "egg rolls." I am deeply offended. This has got to stop!

    February 26, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tyler

      Very true

      February 26, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
      • dboygetmoney

        I agree... The "R" word has no place in today's society..... MESSAGE!!!!!!!!

        February 26, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Too much time on your hands... especially for someone who's making greater capita per person than Angela and all other Asian-Americans.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
  15. whybs

    Over-intellectualizing racism is dumb. Two things define true equality: economic & political representation in corporations & public offices. Asian Americans have neither. Asian Americans have been one of the largest student populations at top-tier U.S. schools (business, technical, acting/filming, etc.) for decades.

    Let's not kid ourselves - don't expect an Asian U.S. president in our lifetime!

    February 26, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tyler

      Nope, "Asian-AMERICANS" have not. But international students like those from India, Pakistan etc. have.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Money and power isn't everythiing.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Angela Kim

    I think most Americans are jealous of Asian-Americans. We're smarter and we earn more income per capita in the US than any other group. 🙂
    Go Lin!!

    February 26, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • paul

      is that why you leave your shthole of a country and come to america?

      February 26, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
      • whybs

        Unless you are a pure Indian American, ask your ancestors first, mental midget.

        February 26, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • whybs

      Right! Almost all of my white female friends said the same, jealousy! Women know! Whereas my white male friends would say things like, "Asians are smart but..."

      February 26, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tyler

      Yeah, what Paul said. lol

      February 26, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tyler

      BTW Angela. That's not true. Naturalized U.S. citizens are at the top.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • AH

      I'll bet I make more than Angela and Asian-Americans on a per capita basis.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
      • Mike

        Yet, in the end, everyone's weight is equal in dust. So, it doesn't even matter. We all being dying since the day we were born.

        February 26, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tyler

      The truth hurts, whybs. huh LOL. Don't show it that much.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • stroyde

      The number of Jenny Hyun type asian nazis out there is a lot bigger than most realize.

      March 1, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Report abuse |
  17. nwatcher

    We will know this country is making racial acceptance progress when someone's race is considered last when listing their contributions and successes. Nothing wrong with a great sense of pride in someones successes who looks like you – but we should be able to talk about Lin as a great American success story without preceeding every statement with 'Asian' and thereby perpetuating the very thing we wish to minimize in terms of labels/prejudices.

    ....Go JLin!!!!

    February 26, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Jerome Horowitz

    Sorry, but Lin is so last week. Or yesterday. Or 45 seconds ago – whatever that ad says.
    He had a couple of average games, and now the Knick fans are writing him off.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jonnychops

      Not at all. He continues to gel with STAT and 'Melo. His turnovers are slowly but surely coming down. His intensity and penetration, his enthusiasm and sick, slick passing, continue to energize the team. Couple that with Baron Davis looking sharp again, Novak and others coming off the bench to rain shots ... and this is as deep a team in the league, a squad that will definitely contend deep into the playoffs.

      No Knicks fans are writing Lin, or our beloved Knickerbockers, off at all. You've been served, now begone.

      March 4, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
  19. Craig

    Lin's a great story about an underdog succeeding, nothing more, nothing less, everything else here is just a ridiculous stretch

    February 26, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • shut_up

      he will only succeed when he has been in the sport for several years. dont crown him queen yet, the other teams are learning him and he just had 9 turnovers and scored 2 points against a good team. doesnt sound like a genius yet?????

      February 26, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
      • Craig

        wow, have some anger issues? He's achieved something that 99.9% of the population can't achieve, don't remember crowning him anything. Sounds like someone is very jealous!!!

        February 26, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Report abuse |
      • SSSHHH

        Labron is that you? angry you're not the center of attention any more?

        February 26, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
  20. David

    @ Scott Kurashige - I agree with your sentiments, having shared in a similar narrative to yours. But labeling Lin a "cultural icon" is drastically premature, I might say a clumsy overstatement. He hasn't completed even a half a season in the league, yet. We reserve the "icon" label for individuals with an immense, enduring, impactful body of work. Lin will always have his "torching the Lakers" moment, but icon? No way. The second element I find troubling around some in the Asian American community is the woeful ignorance of others who are trying to pave roads in underrepresented industries - like entertainment (filmmaking, performance, theater, etc. There have been many who have fought stereotype and odds of every stripe to succeed and are rarely, if ever, recognized or supported not only by the mainstream media, but by peers in the Asian community.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Report abuse |
  21. Terry

    Getting kind of tired of hearing about Mr. Lin.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
  22. Jon

    I agree Lin has accomplished and overcome much. I laud his effort, play, and humilty. I keep wondering, what about Yao Ming? Among my ESL students, he was quite the hero, but he also had fame in the wider sports world. He may not have been sensational, and was prone to injury, but he was still a worthy opponent.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
  23. smith

    This is not making any sense.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:53 am | Report abuse |
  24. Mike

    Nothing controversial in this article to troll at...

    So.. FIRST POST!!

    February 26, 2012 at 11:45 am | Report abuse |