For the first time since the Seattle SuperSonics played at the Seattle Center, and maybe not even then, Eric Eun and about a half-dozen of his friends, all of them young, Asian-American men, left work early on a Wednesday afternoon, and drove to Eun’s yellow, split-level house in Lynnwood to watch the New York Knicks play the Toronto Raptors.
This was no impromptu, casual affair. Eun ordered several pizzas, filled up a cooler with soft drinks and adult beverages, and set out bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Moreover, this was just one of several such gatherings of the week. All took some planning and preparation, and technical prowess.
The Wednesday (Feb. 15) NBA game in Toronto was broadcast only in the respective local markets, so Eun piggy-backed a live, streaming feed over the Internet. He arranged for a friend of a friend in New York, who worked for the information technology department of a large, well-known corporation, to stream the New York broadcast to a straw website, which Eun linked to, essentially copying and pasting the broadcast to his laptop. He then transmitted the feed to his flat-panel TV using an HDMI cable. The video was fuzzy, sometimes stalled and stuttered, making it difficult to follow quick passes or to tell whether the ball went through the rim.
The point is, watching this game was not easy. Eun and his friends, all of them overnight Knicks fans, wanted to watch this game something awful. None had followed the Knicks until a few weeks ago for any reasons beyond the fantasy basketball league many of them participate in. This game against Toronto was not a playoff game. The Knicks had a losing record (they are now 16-16) and no Seattle connection like a player with Northwest roots.
After Seattle lost the SuperSonics franchise to Oklahoma City four years ago, “I said I wasn’t going to watch basketball again, but now I’m watching,” said BK Choi, 29, one of Eun’s friends and not the only one embittered by the departure of the Sonics.
The reason for all the fuss and sudden devotion was Linsanity, the catch-all term used to describe the remarkable ascension of and mania surrounding the Knicks’ Asian-American point guard Jeremy Lin, who, with his team, beat the defending champion Dallas Mavericks 104-97 today (Sunday, Feb. 19) on national television. Until Friday, the Knicks hadn’t lost since Lin joined the lineup as a virtual unknown. Even the relatively conversant basketball fan probably had never heard of him before Feb. 4.
The days after Feb. 4 unfolded like the script of a Disney movie about an unassuming kid who found a pair of magical high-tops that suddenly allowed him to play like Michael Jordan. Lin is the son of Taiwanese immigrants, attended Harvard, and went undrafted after his college career, making his story all the more irresistible.
Linsanity is the most popular of the dozens of puns invented since Lin started playing for the Knicks eight games ago and became the biggest story in the sports world, if not the world-world.
Lin, the No. 1 topic of choice in sports-talk media, is the story in obvious circles, among Knicks fans, NBA and basketball fans in general, and New Yorkers. But he has also become a story in larger, more faraway circles. He is a Harvard story. He is a Bay Area story – Palo Alto is his hometown. He is the story in Taiwan, where his parents once lived, and in China, where his grandparents lived. He, like the Denver Broncos’ overtly religious quarterback Tim Tebow (to whom Lin is often compared), is a devout Christian and is a story in that context too, although he has been a far less divisive figure than Tebow probably because Lin expresses his religious commitment more discreetly.
Among Asian-Americans, Lin is probably the most posted topic on Facebook. He garnered a top-10 list on David Letterman’s show the other night. A few days ago, President Barack Obama referred to Lin as “the kind of sports story that transcends the sport itself,” according to his press secretary Jay Carney, who recalled a conversation about Lin with the president aboard Marine One.
The reach of Lin’s story, beyond sports and beyond his country, is a story in itself. But the effects of Linsanity are perhaps most profound among Asian-Americans, especially males. It is safe to say the Knicks have suddenly gained fans in every town with Asian-Americans, or for that matter Asian-Canadians, like the thousands who cheered for Lin, an opposing player, in Toronto on Asian Heritage Night at Air Canada Centre.
Owen Lei, the only Chinese-American at Eun’s gathering, said those new Seattle-area Knicks fans are easy to spot. He and a friend were in a local sports bar last week hoping to find a broadcast of the Knicks game.
“I just looked for a big group of Asians,” said Lei, a former reporter for KING-5 television, which he quickly found. Sure enough, the group of men and women were watching Lin.
Lei is at heart a Lakers fan — he is from Los Angeles but will root for the Knicks to win against any other team. Here in Seattle, absent a local NBA team, he can be unequivocal about his basketball loyalties.
Seattle’s brand of Linsanity is different in that it fills a void other major cities do not have. Until Seattle can wrestle away another franchise, perhaps the Sacramento Kings, the Knicks will more than do for now, at least for the 280,000 or so residents of Asian descent who live in King County and who have found a surrogate team as exciting as any in recent memory.
Just about every other posting by Eun’s Facebook friends is about Lin, he said. Eun is a second-generation Korean American who grew up in the Washington D.C. area. Granted, he has a lot of Asian friends. One of them happens to be married to a first cousin of Jeremy Lin, suggesting that in the world of Christian, Asian Americans, the degree of separation is on the order of two or three.
“When we look at Jeremy Lin,” said Eun, 35, the director of a Christian ministry in Shoreline, “he could be any one of our friends … when we hear him speak, he could be anyone in our church group. He’s just like one of us … and he’s doing well in an industry where the stereotypes work against him.”
Almost all of the men in Eun’s living room on Wednesday were, like he, second-generation Korean-Americans. They all worked white-collar jobs, as architects, photographers, office managers, medical technicians. All counted themselves as basketball fans. Most grew up in Seattle and follow the Husky men’s basketball team; some have season tickets. All used to be Sonics fans, albeit increasingly cynical ones who could not help feel the communion between the team and fans withered after the Gary Payton-Shawn Kemp era of the 1990s.
Eun said he had barely watched NBA basketball the last 10 years. His interest fell off a cliff when Michael Jordan retired for good in 2003 after playing two seasons with the Washington Wizards. His departure represented the end of an era for Eun, who arrived in Seattle about the time the Sonics left town.
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