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Linsanity: The Point God of Sports Memes

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Seeing as how Linsanity has reached the peak of its crescendo (for now), shall we set aside our newly minted "All I do is Lin" t-shirts and rose-tinted glasses (or for Knicks fans, your "homer" glasses) for just a minute? Put on our dunce caps and disapprovingly stare out from our hipster shades while uttering phrases like "regression to the mean" (translation: he'll come back down to earth) or "small sample size theater" (stat-geek parlance for blind dumb luck) in our best Bernie Bummer voices?

Or, if you're like me, proclaim that Linsanity is the best thing that's happened to sports fandom in quite some time, Tebowmania included.

That's not just a broad swipe at quarterback/golden deity Tim Tebow, either. Unless you're suffering from a rare form of color blindness, you've noticed that Jeremy Lin is not only Asian American (Taiwanese-American to be precise, but let's not confuse the issue just yet), but positively Tebow-like in his frequent and frequently effusive public declarations of faith. But whereas Tebowmania brings out the worst of our jingoistic, foam-finger-waving, faith-abusing tendencies as sports fans, Linsanity triggers a range of responses that treads lightly on the tightrope of rational fandom -- even in the face of globalization, quick-draw Internet memes, and the bully pulpit that is the comments section of most popular sports blogs.

A quick (though not entirely random) perusal of the interwebs lends credence to my case. At New York Magazine, former Deadspin editor and rabble-rouser Will Leitch mentions the bizarre ritual of Lin exchanging bows with his Knicks teammates, leading some commenters to indignantly trot out the "what, you think all Asians look alike?" chestnut while others gamely assume the role of race pacifiers. Rembert Browne at Grantland compiles two separate lists of Knicks announcer (and former floor general) Walt "Clyde" Frazier quotables from Lin's breakout performances, with superlatives ranging from the Confucian ("showing much sagacity") to the bumper-sticker-variety ("true. slick. shrewd."). A sign of respect or the ramblings of a dotty old man? Probably both. Later in the column, Browne suggests a string of nicknames for Lin, which to his credit, aren't racially loaded (yay), though that doesn't quite stop him from proposing that fellow Knicks fans bring violins to Madison Square Garden as a rallying cry (boo).

And then, there's blogger Timothy Dalrymple's well-meaning ruminations on the "soft bigotry of low expectations," which depending on who you ask in the comments section, argues that a) Lin's Asian-ness sets a low bar for how people perceive his success, or b) perpetuates new racial stereotypes by rejecting old ones (which is actually an age-old conundrum: think of Roger Ebert's now-legendary rant amidst a sea of screaming banshees at Sundance).

For Asian Americans like myself, it's easy to see the birth of Linsanity as some long-gestating version of karmic retribution: too many years spent as a long-suffering Clippers fan; too much time spent considering the brittle legacy of Yao Ming; too much pride spent feeling the sting that accompanies every reference to Yi Jianlian's private workouts with Le Chair. But now that Lin's arrived, in all his swaggering, blue-tongue-wagging glory, there's no long-simmering anxiety about his status as cultural milestone. For every ignoramus who brands him the "Yellow Tebow," there's a savvier fan willing to make the argument that Lin is part of a new breed of point guard: possessing a sneaky, rather than explosive, athleticism, a mastery of court angles, and an ability to mask his deficiencies (weak left hand, unreliable jumper) with an almost preternatural flair for the dramatic (otherwise known as the clutch gene). For every "to bow or not to bow " kerfuffle, there's a more meaningful conversation to be had about the role that blind stereotyping plays in defining and assessing talent. For every one of us eager to claim Lin in our racial draft, there's Lin himself, shrugging off the portentous hype because he's too busy making love to pressure to tangle with Asian American identity politics.

Tebowmania is dangerous because at its worst, it presents sports fandom as a false binary of sorts: either you believe he's the "chosen one" (whatever that means), or you're a hater whose "un-American" rooting interests reveal a hopeless "sin-icism." Not so for Linsanity. Instead we draw upon an endless scrap heap of perspectives, complete with the priceless .gifs that keep on giving, the Internet memes that keep on topping themselves, and the irrational joy that comes from claiming someone as family even if you've never even met them. Unlike Tebow's predetermined narrative, Lin's trajectory feels truly liberated from the polemical thinking of sports punditry and idolatry, making it all the easier to bask in the glow of his success.

That is, of course, unless he craps the bed against the Lakers on Friday night, prompting a demotion to the bench, and an eventual flame-out of the league altogether. What, didn't you know that all Chinese people are frontrunners?