Sunday, February 19, 2012
“Linsanity in February: Hoop Dreams and the High Mountain”
19 February 2012
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
St. Joseph’s Chapel
I’m going to begin this morning with two very powerful words: Jeremy Lin.
You may have heard something about him in the last couple weeks. He has riveted attention on the NBA and the New York Knicks with a nearly unprecedented run of points and assists as a fourth string point guard who took the Knicks on a seven game winning streak with their two best players out of the lineup. So much for the superstars. Only a handful of players in the history of the league have had this kind of statistical impact in their first games as professionals, but no one has had the emotional impact. Many of you know about the Linsanity, Linderella, and, my favorite, Linsane in the Membrane. And if you haven’t heard about the exploits of this first Asian American in the NBA, you just haven’t been paying attention. Lin’s best game was probably the game against the Lakers when our unassuming and humble point guard dropped 38 points on Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. But how about the last second three point shot against the Toronto Raptors?
Who is this guy? Where did he come from?
How did this happen all at once?
On this last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, we have truly had an epiphany in the world of professional basketball; Lin’s appearance as a star in the basketball cosmos is a lightning strike, a sudden breakthrough. Jeremy Lin is our collective hoops epiphany. But I don’t want to ruin the storyline with the truth: what Jeremy Lin is doing is not a surprise at all. He has been doing it his entire life; it’s only now that we are noticing. The question is: what took us so long? Jeremy Lin led his high school team, Palo Alto High School—Mr. Saxton’s alma mater, to a 32-1 record and a state championship in California, my home state where I once played the game with my own hoop dreams wearing very short shorts in the 1980s. 32-1. He was the Northern California Player of the Year and first team all state. Surely all the college world would come calling on this spectacular point guard. No, not exactly. No one noticed. Total silence. Jeremy Lin was not recruited--never offered an athletic scholarship, not even by Cal or Stanford in the Bay Area. So he tried to sell himself with his DVD to the Ivy League, and initially there was little interest; but Brown and Harvard eventually came around after watching. He also had a 4.2 GPA (that’s out of four not six, Kent slackers). Also, it’s not like a 6’3”, 200 pound point guard doesn’t have the right body. So what was wrong with Jeremy Lin? The answer is absolutely nothing. The question is what makes us unable to see who and what a person is.
The unavoidable answer to that question is race.
After an extraordinary career at Harvard University, the old stomping grounds of Father Schell, Lin went undrafted by all of the professional basketball teams. After getting signed as a free agent, Lin was then cut by two NBA teams who would do most anything to get him back right now. Jeremy Lin could be very angry about his journey. But he is not. Instead he is playing his heart out; he is on fire, playing with passion and heart. And Lin is humble and down to earth, articulate, ready to give credit to his teammates and always God, but not himself. Before his breakthrough as the Knicks point guard, he was living on his brother’s couch because he wasn’t sure if the Knicks would keep him. In your dorms, you probably have more space than Jeremy Lin. Even now, he doesn’t have a contract for next year, but he will get one.
How has Lin been able to handle this adversity? How has Lin been able to stay so level-headed during the Linsanity? Lin is a committed Christian and has been active in Christian student fellowships since his days at Harvard. Jeremy Lin believes that God works in mysterious and miraculous ways, and every now and then we wake up and notice. God is capable of redeeming anything that we human beings screw up in the real world, and we do that really well.
Ok. I have been coaching basketball for fourteen years, and I have coached many Asian players. I currently have four players; from Hong Kong, China, Korea, and Japan—Phil, Ning, Danny, and Ryohei (who is probably sleeping through chapel right now). I love all of you guys, though Ning is definitely the best. Ning is also the best trombone player in the state of Connecticut. The trombone is a very sonorous instrument. But for all my players: I know what Jeremy Lin means to you. He is like watching your lives, your potential, freely in motion, finally, going to places you never dreamed of going but in your actual dreams. But Jeremy Lin is wide awake, and so are all of you, bringing Madison Square Garden and New York City and the world to its feet. I find myself watching Lin with strange tears in my eyes sometimes, and I am not an Asian American, though my two sisters-in-law and nephew and niece are. And they are my family, all of us together. I also think my fearsome foursome would make me an honorary Asian, unless they’re sleeping through chapel (like Ryohei).
But this kind of thing has happened before. Jackie Robinson was once an undeniable force of inspiration and hope for Black Americans as the first African American player to play major league baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson combined power and speed in a way the game had never seen before. One of his signature moves was to steal home from third base. Stealing home, the very idea says it all. We need to make new room in our home, and in our hearts. I belong too, Robinson and Lin are saying. I have a home. I too am a child of God. Jackie Robinson was a daring and taunting artist, and blacks saw their potential in his artistry and magnificent talent, in his absolutely electric movements, and in his tremendous heart that wouldn’t quit. I’m going to steal home. Watch me do it right now. And they and we watched him with strange tears in our eyes. Jeremy Lin is a kind of Jackie Robinson, and you too may have felt the love vibes because of his play, no matter your race.
All of this brings up some really important questions. Jeremy Lin was overlooked as a basketball player because he is an Asian man. What is overlooked in your character? What part of your abilities, talents, and heart is undervalued by the world? This idea terrifies me right now. If the basketball world can overlook a superstar because of race, what are we missing about each other? On more than one occasion, Lin has been stopped from even going into the gymnasium, at the players’ entrance. He has been told that volleyball night is tomorrow night. This same experience has happened to Tim Lincecum because he is too small to be a pitcher, and to Danica Patrick because she is a woman in the world of car racing; and once upon a time it happened to Dominic DiMaggio, brother of Joe DiMaggio, because he wore glasses as the center fielder of the Boston Red Sox for thirteen years. People said he looked like an “assistant professor of biology.” Now what is wrong with that? In the 1940s and 50s, he was nicknamed “The Little Professor.” But for children who wore eyeglasses, he was their ultimate hero. They were Linsane for their assistant professor of biology.
The problem is how we see each other, or rather how we fail to see each other because of the categories that separate people into groups by race, religion, country of origin, socioeconomics, or sexual orientation. The problem may not lie with you, but I believe many people give up their dreams because the values of the world are askew; they’re messed up. The world is messed up. It was actually painful for me to declare that my major was English Literature, and then to decide to go to divinity school because somehow that wasn’t manly enough. Now my earlier confusion makes me want to scream—at myself, for believing in the values of the world. It was so easy to think like everyone else, and I refuse to do it anymore.
How then should we live right now? What abilities of the people around you could you do a better job of drawing out? How can we bring the people around us up rather than taking others down out of bitterness or insecurity? Jeremy Lin never became embittered by his experience. In a way, he converted adversity into challenge, pain into joy, discrimination into opportunity. This is the power of the blues in music--converting suffering into hope through the medium of music. Basketball is the blues for Lin, the power that trespasses from pain into pure joy. He is truly a sight to see, a marvel, on the basketball court. Tipoff is at 1:00 today against Dallas. Don’t miss it.
So where does all of this leave us this morning? February is perhaps the toughest month at Kent, and at any New England boarding school. How do we get through the next two weeks? The natural desire and inclination is to skip over the hard and gritty parts of this week and finals. And what you really want is a montage. Cue the inspirational music and condense your actions and training and exercise into sound bytes. You can have flashes of Coach Herr or Minneman or maybe one of the Robotics instructors nodding their approval as you find your “eye of the tiger.” Personally, my montage music would be “Welcome to the Danger Zone” from Top Gun. Despite the fact that the film came out in 1986 (same year as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), it is still so fresh and cheesy, like a great pizza pie. But the thing about a montage and its music is that it’s not real. Adversity and pain need their full exposure and experience for us to grow.
The gospel from Mark, which is the Transfiguration—Jesus on the mountain, seems like a montage, but it really isn’t. Jesus has been doing the hard work in the messed up world, teaching and healing those in need, and many people failed to notice him because they wanted a warrior revolutionary to overthrow the Romans. They failed to see who he really was. He too wasn’t manly enough. And the moment on the mountain with Jesus and his disciples is absolutely pointed to Jerusalem where Jesus will die a painful and humiliating death on the cross. Yet Jesus also sees all of this as a triumph by seeing further into the Easter miracle that has not yet happened; he sees more deeply into the nature of a God of love who can redeem everything that we screw up in our blindness and limited imagination and poor, misplaced values. Christianity is the faith of resurrection, the ultimate power of the blues, of joy through pain. And February is the month when the good and the bad are all mixed up, when finals week bleeds into spring break and sunshine somewhere, if not in New England. Keep the faith. Find your own faith. Keep working hard, harder than you did yesterday, with the right music to inspire you in the full experience of your life. You might not get a montage this year, but, like a second generation Chinese and Taiwanese basketball player from Palo Alto, California, you might find the God of all creation that will keep you going, especially when things are tough. May God bless all of you, my four Asian players, my sisters Jocelyn and Jennifer, and Wally and Ella. And may God bless Kent School and the New York Knicks.