The seemingly meteoric rise to stardom of New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin has become the subject of news stories, the theme of conversations among millions of basketball enthusiasts, and captured the imaginations of youth in classrooms across the United States. The Asian American basketball player, after stints in the National Basketball Development League, and being waived by teams like the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, joined the Knicks earlier this season. After a few injuries and poor performances by other point guards on the team, Jeremy Lin seemed to stumble out of relative obscurity onto the floor of Madison Square Garden. He's quickly became one of the most popular basketball players in the world, particularly in middle and high schools across the United States.
The popularity of Jeremy Lin among African American and Latino youth is connected to the fact that these youth, like Lin, have been overlooked despite their untapped potential, hidden talents, and innate abilities. While Lin may have been overlooked because of unfounded racial stereotypes about his athletic ability on the basketball court, the many urban youth of color who identify with him are often misperceived as lacking academic ability because of their race and socioeconomic status. This positioning of groups of people as either academically or athletically gifted based on stereotypes about their racial backgrounds limits the opportunity for these populations to be seen as more than what they are perceived to be. This is particularly the case with youth of color who are pushed into athletics and away from academics, and then critiqued when they choose athletics over academics as they get older.
For many urban youth, Jeremy Lin's story is a perfect example of how one can transcend the categories they are placed in, and do more than they are expected to. For others, Jeremy Lin is a hero simply because he is a good basketball player. For both of these groups, particularly youth of color who exhibit athletic prowess earlier than other students because they may happen to be taller or bigger than their peers, the Jeremy Lin story becomes a way to share some valuable insights that they will need over the course of their lives.
1) You can be more than you are told you can be
One powerful conversation to have with youth through the Jeremy Lin story is the possibilities for their lives beyond what schools, coaches, or the world at large thinks of them. The fact that Jeremy Lin does not "look like the average basketball player" does not inhibit him from being an amazing athlete. At the same time, being a basketball player did not inhibit him from being a graduate of an Ivy League institution. Parents and educators must have conversations with urban youth about what society views them as, and how powerful it is when they break from those stereotypes and become truly fulfilled. Using the national phenomenon of Jeremy is a great way to begin this conversation.
2) Be aware of racism in its subtle forms
While the Jeremy Lin story has captured public interest because of his success, it has also called forth some of the most vile pieces of our collective subconscious related to race. Everyone from basketball fans to news reporters have celebrated Jeremy Lin by making racist statements or tweets or even making fan signs that are racially insensitive. As parents and educators, it is important to not allow these moments to pass without discussion. Youth have to realize that racist statements, whether they be directed towards African Americans or Asian Americans are not okay. Furthermore, youth have to understand how and why signs that associate any group of people as caricatures of who they are is wrong. Over the course of their lives they must be aware of these issues, and not be a piece of the machine that propagates this ignorance.
3) Know how to interact with humility and pride
One of the most refreshing aspects of the Jeremy Lin story is the grace with which he handles news interviews, and the fact that he consistently gives as much credit to his team as he takes for himself. Oftentimes, youth watch the basketball games and the sports highlights, but do not spend enough time watching the ways that the player interacts with the public. This major piece of who the player is, presents many points for conversations with youth about poise, humility, and how to handle admiration and praise
4) Be the cool nerd: Embrace your multiple selves
More important than having a conversation with youth about being both a scholar and athlete is the importance of embracing both pieces of who you are proudly and publicly. Jeremy Lin and his teammate Landry Fields, who graduated from Stanford, provide a great example of how this is done with their "nerd handshake" that consists of putting on glasses, leafing through pages in a book and even a thinkers pose. While the power of the handshake to build solidarity is powerful, the public display of nerd or academic culture on the NBA sidelines is a point of conversation with youth about it being okay to show off your academic prowess.
5) Know that every successful ride has its fall. Be prepared for it
The last conversation point for youth is that the rise of Jeremy Lin will inevitably have some fall. Over the course of Lin's playing time with the Knicks, the seven-game winning streak that he helped to orchestrate eventually ended. As soon as that happened, there was some immediate media backlash against him and his ability as a basketball player. For all children, presenting this rise and fall as an inevitable cycle of life is necessary. This can become the beginning of conversations about persistence, believing in oneself and always working to be better despite what others may say.