Fever for NY Knicks' new star rages in NBA-less Seattle

For American basketball fans of Asian heritage, there's never been a player like Jeremy Lin.

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Jeremy Lin in the game that Eric Eun and friends watched from his Lynnwood living room.

For American basketball fans of Asian heritage, there's never been a player like Jeremy Lin.

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.

“Back then (the Dream Team era) it felt like it wasn’t about the money,” he said. “The attitude was different. Players loved to compete. It was about a love for your team, a love for your city … guys would play hurt and play sick. …You watch Lin and it feels like that again.

“I can’t stop reading about him because his story is so compelling. I feel like I know more about him than a guy should know about another guy.”

The reaction to Lin by Asian-Americans has some precedent but no true comparison. Very few Asian-Americans play or have played big-league professional sports. There are more than a few if you count athletes of mixed heritage, like wide receiver Hines Ward, and golfer Tiger Woods, whose mothers are Asian. But those fully of Asian descent are rare. Dat Nguyen was the first and only Vietnamese-American to play in the NFL — he retired in 2006. Japanese-American catcher Kurt Suzuki is the only active Asian-American in Major League Baseball. Both could be described as having solid if not spectacular careers.

Neither became household names the way Lin has in just a few weeks, perhaps because neither played in the media hotbed of New York, perhaps because neither impacted their teams as quickly or as powerfully as Lin did his, and perhaps because an Asian-American dominating the NBA is simply more remarkable because of how sharply it bends stereotypes about race and sports.

Had Lin continued on his initial trajectory in professional basketball — he played briefly for the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets before being cut by both teams, and played several games in the NBA’s minor league — he would have likely joined Wat Misaka as a footnote in NBA history. (Misaka, a 5-foot-7, Japanese-American, became the NBA’s first Asian-American player in 1947, playing three games for the Knicks, coincidentally, before his pro career ended.)

Lin is arguably the first true, Asian-American sports star, distinct from Asian baseball stars like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, and former NBA center Yao Ming. When Ming played against Shaquille O’Neal, Eun said, “I rooted for Shaq.”

The Asian heritage of Ming and Suzuki resonated with Asian-Americans, but not so deeply as to overcome pre-existing allegiances to players they were more familiar with and fond of. To Eun and other Asian-Americans, Ming and Ichiro were still foreigners, just as Eun was when he visited Asia.

“When I go to Korea, they think I’m Filipino,” said Eun, who does not speak Korean and can’t walk and talk the part.

He watched with some chagrin when South Korea held a parade for Hines Ward after he was voted the MVP of the Super Bowl in 2006, thinking it was a little hypocritical that he was being celebrated by a country that probably would have otherwise rejected him for being half black (Ward’s father is African-American).

When he watched Ming, he saw someone he could not relate to, a giant who grew up in communist China, reared from birth to play basketball in a society Eun did not understand. He looks at Lin as one of his own, despite the fact that their parents came from two completely different countries. America, not Asia, is really what the two share.

For that reason, when Lei saw a fan (who was probably Taiwanese) on TV holding up a Taiwanese flag at a Knicks game, “I wished he was holding an American flag.”    

“When we talk about African-Americans,” Lei said, “we talk about how their roots were stolen from them, and we emphasize the ‘American’ part. When we talk about Asian-Americans it’s different. Other people see us not as much as Americans who happen to be Asian, but Asians who happen to be living in America.”

The unique burden of Asian-Americans is the stubborn perception that, no matter how many generations they have lived in America, they are still viewed as equally foreign, a subtle, soft form of racism that perhaps does not always qualify as racism but is off-putting nonetheless. A perfect example is the fortune-cookie poster shown by the Knicks television network MSG after the team’s victory over the Kings on Wednesday night. The sign, made by a fan, showed Lin’s face, tongue sticking out, over the image of a broken fortune cookie, with the words, “The Knicks Good Fortune.” "The MSG network was widely criticized for its decision to broadcast the image of the sign.

With about two minutes remaining in the game between the Knicks and the Raptors, Eun lost the feed he had been streaming. The Knicks were behind by four points. As Eun struggled to reestablish the feed, his friends started firing up the ESPN mobile site on their smart phones looking for live updates on the game.

Some begged — “please, God!” — for the feed to return. Some read updates from their cell phones. “Lin just sank a free throw! It’s tied 87-87!”

Eun’s attempt to recover the feed failed. Everyone in the room stared at their smart phones. One of them shouted, “Lin sinks a three! It’s over!”

Lin’s three-point shot with less than a second left gave the Knicks a 90-87 victory. Someone quickly shouted for Eun to tune his television to ESPN so they could watch highlights from the game, and the winning shot.

“I’m not leaving, until I see it,” Choi said. So they all stayed put, rapt, waiting for evidence of a victory, searching various sports channels for a re-cap of a game, whose outcome they already knew, acts of a true fan. For a time, it seemed as if Seattle had an NBA team again.

This story has been updated since it first appeared to include the results of the Dallas game.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at hugo.kugiya@gmail.com.