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Pamela Tom Headshot

Jeremy Lin Takes Potential to New Heights

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It's our morning ritual. When we bring in the morning newspapers, I put the Wall Street Journal in my briefcase, sort through the San Francisco Chronicle and leave the "Sporting Green" section on the breakfast table for my husband. Until now.

The miraculous appearance of point guard Jeremy Lin starting and scoring 76 points in three winning games for the New York Knicks -- and then 38 points against the Los Angeles Lakers -- has turned me into a NBA fan.

The fact that Lin is only the fourth Asian-American player in the league's almost 66-year history also turns the spotlight on the issue of professional American athletes of Asian descent.

I'm sure Lin would rather be known as a great basketball player with no regard to ethnicity. After all, he is already an all-American success story, growing up in California's affluent Silicon Valley, attending Palo Alto "Pali" High near Stanford and graduating from Harvard University. He is smart in the classroom and in the game but somehow, coaches and recruiters continued to overlook his potential.

Potential and Lin's ability to persevere on potential alone is why Lin is the best kind of role model, and our new American hero.

As an Asian American, I have to admit I've been negligent in preserving my Chinese heritage. I don't formally celebrate the Lunar New Year now that all of my cousins live in different places. I cook the same sole "stir-fry" for my kids and when we want real Chinese food, we resort to dining out. At the same time, I am so proud to be Chinese and have always been sensitive to the perception and stereotypes of Asians in America.

Asians continue to be stereotyped in film and TV as either subservient domestic help or sinister gangsters. The familial emphasis on education and demonstrated success of Asian students -- instead of admired -- is sometimes a source of envy as Asians are admitted to high-ranking universities in greater numbers than other so-called minorities. At schools like UC Berkeley where Asian students comprise 40 percent of the undergraduate population based on merit, the removal of affirmative action gave less represented minority students reason to scorn classmates of Asian descent.

Back to the basketball court, it is Lin's success on the floor that gives us hope that equal regard is now a little more within reach. My nephew has always been a gifted athlete but the only place he could play basketball during high school was in the Asian leagues where size didn't matter. Perhaps because Asians see little hope for success in professional sports is why we see so few of them even trying. Lin stands 6'3" but I have to wonder if during Lin's long push for recognition in the world of pro basketball, his parents didn't encourage him to seek a more traditional career path. The point is, all kids -- white or of color -- should be encouraged to work toward and discover their own potential.

I volunteer as a parent recruiter for a private boarding school. My job is to interview prospective students to see if they are well rounded as well as well educated. While playing an instrument or participating on the debate team is not uncommon, the Asian applicants are often lacking in their pursuit of sports. Their parents aren't athletes, perhaps because they were never given the opportunity to excel in sports, and therefore their children receive no encouragement on the home front.

The Jeremy Lin story is special if it can propel one child to embrace his or her potential in the world of sports. We can't ignore the prerequisite of size in some sports but athletes such as 5'9" Doug Flutie beat the odds back in the late 1980s. We should embrace real skill and talent.

I actually became a college basketball fan before Lin got off the Knicks bench. I've been attending Cal Berkeley basketball games this season where #2 guard Jorge Gutierrez is the star. The 6'3" guard from Chihuahua, Mexico is a strategic dynamo of a player. At 15, Gutierrez crossed the border illegally and lived in poverty in a one-bedroom apartment away from his family -- all to play basketball in the United States.

Many I've asked say Gutierrez doesn't have what it takes to play pro ball. I say it ain't over 'til it's over. His rags-to-riches story and unrelenting determination to make his potential pay off landed him at the #1 public university in the country. At Cal's Haas Pavilion, the fans chant "Jorge!" throughout each game.

Potential is personal. Potential is a gift. Potential is something none of us should ever abandon, despite setbacks and rejection. Who can predict Jeremy Lin's future on the court but no matter when the spotlight fades; he is a shining example of potential. He stands outside the three-point line in life and scores more than straight wins. He scores recognition. He's living his dream. And ours.

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