New York Knicks' point guard Jeremy Lin's explosion to fame is a rosy, rags-to-riches story. Everybody likes to see an underdog make it. But underneath the sugar-coating, the inspirational, feel-good story, is some plain, old-fashioned racism.
Quite simply, Lin was overlooked for so long because nobody wanted to gamble on a Asian player. That was definitely the case when he was trying to get into college.
Racial stereotyping is something college coaches don't talk about honestly. But two scouts who funnel players into colleges, often with under-the-table deals, do. They remember Lin very well, when he was a very talented player in high school in Palo Alto, Calif.
Recalled one scout: "He was a good shooter and he could pass and he had decent size. You look for good floor vision and he had that. He was quick enough and he had good moves to the basket. His defense was pretty good. He was coachable--real smart and learned quickly. He wasn't athletic, like some of the black kids, but his quickness and smarts made up for that.
"A lot of kids who weren't as good as Lin got scholarships. He got killed by racial stereotyping. He could have played in the Pac 10 or the WAC or a lot of conferences. He was good enough for somebody to take a chance on. Hell, he played in Stanford's backyard and he's smart enough to get in the school. They were stupid not to sign him."
What haunted Lin, said one of the scouts, was the perception that, because he's Asian, he can't be a good player. "The coaches said they didn't want to waste a scholarship on an Asian guy who's a pretty good player.They would say they had nothing against Asians. It wasn't that they didn't like Asians. It's just they didn't think an Asian could turn into a good college player. Nobody could point to a great Asian player in college or the pros. Nobody could see him turning into a really good player.
"Here's the point. If he's the Asian Michael Jordan that's different. If he's a great player, nobody cares what color he is. But back then, he was just a good player. If he was white, with the same skills, somebody would have taken a chance on him. You saw plenty of white guys like him in college ball. But no Asians. Because he's Asian, nobody wanted to take a chance on him."
Since each school has so few, basketball scholarships are gold. Coaches don't want to make a mistake. "Lin was a gamble that nobody wanted to make," explained one scout. "Coaches love stats. Show me one great Asian player, they'd say. Nobody could do that. Yao Ming (the Houston Rockets' center) would come up but everybody said he didn't count. They said he was freak because he was so tall and he wasn't a guard, so he didn't belong in the argument."
So Lin wound up at Harvard which, like all Ivy League schools, doesn't offer athletic scholarships and would covet a bright, skilled player like him. He merely added another stereotype to his resume. Not only is he an Asian but he also comes from a conference that has produced just a handful of pro players.
Concluded one of the scouts: "Going to Harvard made it even tougher for him to get to the pros. But he was a gutty, gritty kid. He was a smart kid who would go through a brick wall to get what he wanted. You could see that quality in him then. That's why he's setting the world on fire now."