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Faith in Sports, “Linsanity” Edition

What is the clearest sign Jeremy Lin has made the whirlwind journey from anonymous bench player to basketball phenomenon to pop culture obsession? The Forbes headline, “Jeremy Lin Is Raising Ticket Prices Across The NBA,” would have made no sense even to sports fans before last Saturday, February 4. Another good candidate would be the New York Times’s in-house political statistician Nate Silver’s piece headlined, “Jeremy Lin Is No Fluke.” Perhaps the most telling one is Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s article at GetReligion.org, “Jeremy Lin, The Knicks’ Tim Tebow?”

First, some background for those still unfamiliar with the condition afflicting the sports world known as “Linsanity.” Jeremy Lin is the Knicks undrafted, Harvard-educated point guard. He is the first American-born Taiwanese or Chinese-American player in the NBA. On February 4, he came off the bench against the New Jersey Nets and scored 25 points to lead the Knicks, who were then 8-15, to the win. But that doesn’t really describe the extent of Lin’s performance. The miserable Knicks have been without their superstar forwards Amar’e Stoudamire and Carmelo Anthony. Lin didn’t lead the Knicks to victory so much as carry the team. Lin immediately became a starter, and the Knicks won the next four games with Lin at the helm, including a 38-point performance Friday night against the Lakers and then scoring the winning bucket on the road at Minnesota.

Lin is also a devout Christian, wants to be a pastor, and has been sleeping on his brother’s couch in downtown Manhattan. He has created a charming, bookworm’s handshake with Landry Fields, another Knicks player who is Lin’s best friend on the team, that goes as follows: The two shake hands, then Fields presents his hands palms-up like a book; Lin makes a motion as if he is flipping through the pages of the book; Fields “closes” the book; and the two make goggles with their hands and make a motion as if they are putting glasses on; then they nod, point to God, and walk away. He is modest, refusing to take the credit he is obviously due, instead telling reporters how great his teammates and his coach are. In other words, it is virtually impossible not to like Jeremy Lin.

And that last point is worth considering further. “Linsanity” has picked up so much steam because the Knicks and their fans desperately needed a good story. No one—not the Knicks’ management, owners, players, or head coach—has been anything but a disappointment this season. The Knicks were not 8-15 because the roster was made up of a bunch of undrafted young journeymen from Harvard. They stacked the team with high-priced stars and a high-priced coach and were terrible anyway. In addition, the Knicks’ owners also own Cablevision and Madison Square Garden, the cable television giant and New York sports channel, respectively. MSG has pulled its channel from the lineup of Cablevision’s rival provider, Time Warner, in an attempt to significantly raise the price it charges Time Warner. As a result, many Knicks fans in the New York area cannot watch the team. (Before the arrival of Jeremy Lin, this actually might have been considered a humanitarian gesture.) So the fans are justifiably irate at the Knicks’ ownership, management, and team. Linsanity could not have come a moment too soon.

But there is one possible obstacle awaiting Lin, whose ascent to popular stardom has been so complete that fans are showing up to games wearing Jeremy Lin masks. In a word, that challenge is Tebow. The vehemence of Tim Tebow’s critics was at times shocking, and we don’t need to review it here. Bailey’s GetReligion article was largely examining New York Times reporter Michael Luo’s personal essay in which he explained why Lin’s popularity was so mesmerizing and inspiring to him. (Luo is also an Asian-American Christian and a Harvard grad.)

Luo contends that, in comparison to Tebow’s, Jeremy Lin’s “is a quieter, potentially less polarizing but no less devout style of faith.” Yet Bailey takes a look at Lin’s Twitter stream and finds Lin is actually quite vocal—he quotes biblical passages and talks about church services and his love for God. The more obvious differences, then, are the commercial Tebow filmed about his mother’s decision to carry Tebow to term despite the risk (she was diagnosed with amoebic dysentery) and his habit of dropping to his knee to say a prayer on the football field.

Another difference is the polarizing nature of the Tebow debate had as much to do with his faith as with his abilities. All season, even as Tebow led his team to the playoffs, often thanks to his own fourth-quarter heroics, NFL fans were still split over whether Tebow was actually any good. Statistically, it was an open question. And many contended that Tebow’s game-saving comeback drives would have been unnecessary if he would’ve thrown the ball better throughout the game—that he was, in effect, saving the team from himself. Add to this the fact that Tebow won the Heisman trophy, which brings certain expectations that Lin, as an undrafted bench player, came without. Whatever Lin does in the future, his first four games as a starter broke Allen Iverson’s record for points in that span, making it difficult to argue that you didn’t see what you thought you just saw this past week.

It’s an open question where Lin’s season goes from here, especially when the team’s so-called “stars” come back and the Knicks must integrate them into an offense they won’t recognize but will be expected to lead. As for Lin’s faith, we can only hope he can express it without attracting the taunting bigotry that greeted Tebow. Perhaps Tebow even paved the way for Lin by exposing his critics’ behavior, which they would hopefully be too ashamed to repeat.



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