To ‘Linsanity’ and Beyond! Asians and Asian-Americans’ Prospects in the NBA

While the play on the “Lin” word may have run its course, Jeremy Lin’s seemingly improbable story is timeless. It’s a classic, feel-good story of a hard-working, resilient, and God-fearing underdog who refuses to give up on his dream. It is about remaining focused and being mentally and physically ready at all times for that one moment when opportunity comes knocking. It is about performing beyond anyone’s wildest expectations to break all sorts of National Basketball Association (NBA) records, leading a losing team to consecutive wins, and propelling one’s status to stardom in a span of a New York minute. And, it is about winning the hearts and respect of so many people from across all walks of life, while keeping grounded and humble amid all the ‘Linsanity.’

This is the story about Jeremy Lin best told by his actions; waxing poetry with every perfect pass, sophisticated pick and roll, and calculated swoosh of the basketball into the net. Here is a great basketball player who has been overlooked time and again because “he doesn’t fit the mold” of a typical NBA player. A first-generation American born to Taiwanese parents who immigrated to the U.S. so his father could complete his Ph.D. and “watch the NBA,” Lin excelled in school and was admitted into Harvard University. But even as a rising basketball star in Palo Alto High School in California—being named first-team All-State and Northern California Division II Player of the Year—he wasn’t good enough to be recruited by any elite basketball colleges. And now, this undrafted player who was cut by the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, is playing in this year’s NBA Rising Stars Challenge, and living out his dream as a starting point guard for the New York Knicks.

Just as phenomenal is Lin’s effect on humanity beyond the 94-feet of basketball court where play after play, victory after victory, he has opened the door wider for other Asians and Asian-Americans who excel and deserve to play professional sports in the U.S.A. As a child growing up in the Philippines where basketball has reigned supreme since the game’s inception, I religiously watched the kind of basketball that Rafe Bartholomew talks about in his book, Pacific Rim. The Philippines registered as one of the world’s earliest basketball powers, and while the national team has not competed on the international stage since the early 1980s, Filipinos’ love affair with the game is alive and well.

Yet despite the Filipino grassroots’ love of basketball, there has never been a Filipino NBA player, and only two Filipino-Americans have played professional basketball in America in the 1980s: Raymond Townsend played for the Golden State Warriors, and Ricardo Brown played for the Houston Rockets.

Aside from All-Star Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets, there have only been a handful of other Asians and Asian-Americans playing in the NBA. The first player of Asian descent to play in the NBA is Japanese-American Wat Misaka, also the first minority to play in the NBA. A first-round draft pick by the New York Knicks, he is credited for playing three games, the same year when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American baseball player in 1947. Yi Jianlian, from China, was a sixth-pick in the 2007 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks, and is currently playing for the Dallas Mavericks. Sun Yue, another player from China, was drafted the same year as Yi as the 40th pick by the Los Angeles Lakers, appearing in three games.

Other notable NBA players of Asian descent include: Rex Walters (Japanese-American), Wang Zhi Zhi (Chinese), Mengke Bateer (Mongolian-Chinese, member of 2003 Champion Spurs), Yuta Tabuse (Japaese), and Ha Seung Jin (Korean). There have also been other players who were drafted, appeared in the NBA D-League/summer league/training camp rosters, or worked out for NBA teams but never appeared in an NBA regular season game. Some examples are Yasutaka Okayama (Japanese), Liu Wei (Chinese), Sean Chen (Taiwanese) and Sun Ming Ming (Chinese).

The Miami Heat coach, Erik Spoelstra, whose mother was born in the Philippines, is the first and only head coach in any of North America’s professional sports league who is of Filipino descent. He has a lasting impression of the Filipinos’ fanatical love of the game when he participated in a sports envoy program organized by the U.S. Department of State and the NBA.

“You’d be driving down a street, see the extreme poverty all around, but you’d still see basketball hoops everywhere, on sides of buildings, on store fronts, in the middle of the street. Kids would be playing barefoot, or in sandals, the hoops would be bent, and everyone was playing, everywhere you went,” recalled Spoelstra. “The kids would come to the [basketball] camps with no shoes, but they knew all about the NBA, and not just about the star players. They knew everyone.”

The heart of a winner lies in every kid who never gives up on his or her dream. One of those street children could realistically grow up as the next NBA superstar. Thanks to Jeremy Lin, that dream is one step closer to reality.

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Lover of all things basketball and a lifelong fan of the Chicago Bulls, Kristine Tungol Cabagnot, Esq. is an attorney with The Tungol Law Office and blogger at Fil-Am Ako. She welcomes your questions and opinions at kristine@tungollaw.com.


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