TORONTO — My 4-year-old and 7-year-old nephews regularly practice jump shots in their backyard, and they watch the N.B.A. attentively enough to know that the Toronto Raptors’ best player, Kawhi Leonard, wears the No. 2. In the fall, the older nephew will join the Chinese Canadian Youth Athletic Association here to play basketball. One day both will learn more about the 2018-19 Raptors championship team, and they will find out about Jeremy Lin, and they will ask me questions about him.
I look forward to that day.
Yes, Lin played just 27 minutes in the playoffs. Yes, only one of those minutes was in the finals. But hours after he and his teammates had finished dancing and drenching Oracle Arena’s visitors’ locker room with Champagne last Thursday, Lin posted a photo on Instagram that showed him posing with his parents and his brother.
The Larry O’Brien trophy was there, too.
“First Asian-American ever to be an NBA champ!! Promise Ill never stop reppin Asians with everything I have!” Lin wrote. It was a momentous occasion, but many people don’t see the importance of it, given how little Lin played. They’re missing the point.
Lin’s story has always been about more than his playing time or his performance on the court. It has been about representation and visibility for a race of people rarely recognized or seen on a basketball court, especially at the N.B.A. level.
Posing with the Larry O’Brien trophy, and the glow of validation it signified, mattered. Every championship team has reserve players who are part of the group but don’t make an impact on the court. But not every reserve player carries with him the responsibility and burden of being the most prominent Asian-American basketball player in the world. If Lin’s story were only about basketball, it would have been over long ago.
“I used to run from it, because that’s all anybody ever wanted to label me,” Lin, who is of Taiwanese descent, told reporters after his Raptors debut in February. “It was like, ‘Oh, he’s Asian, he’s Asian, he’s Asian.’”
Even though Lin is one of the best basketball players in the world, he has not been shielded from the stereotypes that other Asian-Americans face in everyday life, like dealing with racial slurs and being forced to prove that they belong. Lin has said he often is not recognized by security guards at N.B.A. arenas.
They couldn’t miss him in May.
He arrived at the arena for every Raptors playoff game in apparel that celebrated Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. He wore clothes from Asian-American designers like Phillip Lim. One day, he put on a black T-shirt that said simply, “Phenomenally Asian.” Another outfit featured a T-shirt with the phrase “It’s An Honor Just To Be Asian,” which was popularized by the actress Sandra Oh.
Seeing Lin in that particular shirt meant something to me. To see him show pride in who he is on a national stage helps me (and many others) know that it’s O.K. to think of yourself as equal. To be proud of who you are. That feeling doesn’t always come easily when you’re part of a minority group. You often have a sense that glass ceilings exist, whether those created by others or the ones we set for ourselves because of our experiences of being treated differently from others.
Throughout my career, I’ve always felt that accomplishing the same things as my peers resulted in my getting only half the credit and recognition, partially because of who I am. When Lin arrived in Toronto, I was flooded with interview requests from radio hosts and fellow writers. It was an honor to speak about Lin’s career path, but later I became disappointed that those same publications and radio shows saw me only as someone who could bring value when it came to discussing this topic that was unfamiliar to them, when in fact I am more than capable of having a conversation solely about basketball.
It felt a lot like experiences Lin has described, of people wanting to talk to him only about being of Asian descent. As Lin, 30, has grown comfortable with his outsize influence and responsibility, we have watched him speak out about racial stereotypes and call out the comedian Chris Rock for making Asian jokes as the host of the Oscars in 2016.
There are Asians around the world who have been moved to pursue their own basketball careers, and to start basketball leagues, because of Lin, even with his Linsanity days likely forever behind him. Lin is more than basketball.
After the Raptors won Game 6 of the N.B.A. finals in Oakland, Calif., for the franchise’s first championship, the team flew to Las Vegas to keep the celebration going. As his teammates partied into the wee hours, Lin joined his friend Ryan Higa on a podcast and reflected on his journey this season.
“There were times in all honesty where I felt I had to tell myself I deserve a championship,” Lin told Higa. “As a competitor who plays and has played my whole life, I’m not used to not playing, so I was like: ‘This is tough. Do I really deserve it?’”
Lin said he was able to reconcile those feelings because he knew that no matter how many minutes he played, he was part of the day-to-day process of a team that came together and won a title, outlasting all 29 other teams in the league.
The celebration shifted to Toronto on Monday morning, as double-decker, open-air buses filled with players, coaches and family members, then departed the Raptors’ practice facility to start the championship parade. Seated with his family and close friends, Lin wore a throwback Raptors jersey that spelled the team’s name in Chinese characters.
On the parade route, he spotted a fan with a Jeremy Lin jersey. From high up on the bus, Lin asked the fan to toss the jersey and a marker. Lin promptly signed the jersey and threw a perfect pass back to the fan, now the owner of his own championship memorabilia.
These images, too, will live forever, of an Asian-American who went undrafted in 2010, turned into a worldwide sensation in 2012 and became an N.B.A. champion in 2019. The trophy will never note how many minutes he played. One day, another Asian-American player will be on this stage again. And it will be because Lin helped pave the way.
Alex Wong is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.