Jeremy Lin inspires hoop dreams
BOSTON -- Across the river from Harvard, where this freight train first took off, a young man sips on a pint of beer, watching Jeremy Lin on a flatscreen from a barstool. It is Greg Maneikis' 23rd birthday and tonight -- well, all weekend -- he'll celebrate, temporarily prolonging the annoying question of what he's going to do with the rest of his life. He recently graduated from Boston College, recently got laid off from a job at a restaurant, and substitute teaches at his old high school to pay the bills.
About the only consistent thing in Maneikis' life right now is basketball. He plays at least three times a week, and lately, when he's driving to the hoop, people in the gym have taken to calling him Jeremy Lin.
It's flattering, but Maneikis doesn't get it. Half-Chinese, half-white, he spent much of his life yearning to blend in with the jocks. He never advertised his Asian American roots. He saw how some of the Asian American kids got treated in his old Irish-Catholic neighborhood in Dorchester. They got stuffed into lockers and ignored on the playgrounds. As a kid, sometimes people thought he was Hispanic, and he didn't mind that. It gave him more cred on the court.
One day, when Maneikis was maybe 11, his uncle came down to watch his baseball game, and a neighborhood girl spotted his uncle and asked, "Who let the ch--- in the park?" Maneikis had a couple of choices. He wanted to hug his uncle and admonish the girl. But he didn't say a thing. "Looking back on it, I wish I'd had the courage to say, 'Screw you, that's my uncle.'"
He takes another drink of his beer and checks the time. Soon, the place will be packed with teammates and family.
Maneikis plays for the Boston Hurricanes, a basketball team made up entirely of Chinese Americans. There are hundreds of these Asian American basketball teams throughout the country, but they didn't get much attention until Lin came along. It's kind of funny. In four weeks, Lin's sudden emergence as a worldwide story has brought sports fans face-to-face with some of the same racial and cultural stereotypes that players on teams like the Hurricanes have wrestled with for decades.
"I love his fearlessness," Maneikis says as he stares up at the TV. "Like, look at that shot he just put up right there. He saw this as his last chance. He's playing his own game. I like that."
Normally in Boston, the last thing any Celtics-loving establishment would want is a New York team on its TVs. But Lin trumps city rivalry. In one month, he's global and he's everywhere. It's trivia night at Regina Pizzeria, and one of the teams is named Jeremy Lin, City of Sin.
The love, even in this well-educated corner of the world, goes well beyond the fact that Lin is from Harvard. He is the underdog, but it's more than that. He looks different from everyone else on the court, yet seems so comfortable and confident with that.
All over the country, something has changed in the past month. There have been stories of inspired pickup games, of young, timid men throwing elbows and taking charge. Maneikis can feel it, and it moves him, too. Maybe he'll train harder. Maybe he'll figure out what he's supposed to do with the rest of his life.
"The hardest thing about being an Asian American on the basketball court is you're basically invisible," Maneikis says. "Even if it's something as simple as pickup ball, you get one shot. If you mess up in that chance, you're not going to get the ball again.
"I just feel like I'm talented enough where maybe I could play overseas. Seeing him succeed really inspires me to want to give basketball another shot. I see him doing what he's doing, and I think, 'Why can't I?'"
Changing stereotypes, one assist at a time
The stereotypes have been around for decades -- Asian Americans are hard-working and agreeable; they're maniacal about school, not sports; they become engineers and mathematicians; they sure as heck can't play basketball
Then along came Lin, Harvard graduate, stereotype-buster. His emergence has produced one of the most exhilarating -- and, for some, uncomfortable -- months in the history of the NBA. The first three weeks, there were labels, insensitive puns in headlines, tweets that referenced his anatomy, then apologies.
Perhaps a sports world so keen on prototypes didn't know how to cheer for someone as different as Lin, a 23-year-old American-born point guard whose parents are from Taiwan. There have been just three other Asian Americans in the history of the NBA, and none of them came within galaxies of the hysteria that surrounds Lin.
But to say that Lin provides the same inspiration and sense of identity to all Asian Americans -- even all Asian American basketball players -- would be a stereotype, too. He means something different to everyone. He is appreciated for varying reasons. He will impact people in different ways.
In Boston, on the small, worn-out courts where a group of young Asian American adults play basketball, he represents hope, hype and unfulfilled dreams.
The old man
Asian American leagues have been around for almost a century, and were intially a response to segregation, says Catherine Ceniza Choy, an associate professor in ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. Today, thousands of people still play on Asian American teams from the East Coast to California. In some cases, it's their only chance to play basketball. The club that is now known as the Hurricanes got its start back in the 1970s when Boston's Chinatown merchants decided to sponsor a group of kids to form a traveling team.
For Sammy Moy, Maneikis' uncle, it was the perfect outlet for a boy with boundless energy and something to prove. It made him feel part of something. Uncle Sam is considered a legend in Asian American circles. There are short YouTube clips of him hustling and swishing 3-pointers.
He's 44 and plays for the Hurricanes' master team now. He can't let basketball go. Maneikis doesn't really call him Uncle Sam anymore; he's almost like a cool cousin. When Greg and his brother Charles were kids, it was Moy who used to take them to Hurricanes' practices and encouraged them to play basketball.
He wanted life to be easier for them. Every day when Moy was a kid, the townies used to shout racial slurs at him as they got off the buses. He was usually the last one picked on the playground, the last one anyone expected to be good, and when the game was over and Moy had run his body into the ground trying to make a good impression, the only compliment he'd ever get was that he wasn't too bad for an Asian guy.
It's what keeps him going. Even now, when Moy plays pickup games with Greg, he fouls his nephew incessantly. He makes him work for everything.
He says Lin is validation that Asian Americans can indeed play basketball. He loves the way Lin is confident and fearless. Those are rare traits for Asian Americans on the basketball court, he says.
He loves that Lin is going places he never could.
And still, he continues to battle the stereotypes, even in his own family. "I was telling my mother about Jeremy Lin," Moy says. "When I said he graduated from Harvard, she said, 'Then how come he's playing basketball?'"
Brandon Sang was never as hardcore as Uncle Sam. As a kid growing up in Queens, he'd get pulled out of practices to attend SAT classes. Sang didn't play high school basketball. He sized up the boys in his class and knew he didn't stand a chance. His freshman year at Northeastern University in Boston, he was playing pickup ball when someone asked if he wanted to join the Hurricanes.
It was more than a basketball team. It was family for a homesick college kid. He and his teammates would go out to eat, grab drinks and talk about their careers. Sang moved back to New York after he graduated, and he's a financial data analyst now.
But he still plays for the Hurricanes whenever they're in the area. He can still talk to his teammates about anything. Like what he was feeling the night of Feb. 4 when Lin went from the 15th player on the New York Knicks' roster to sudden stardom.
It was the day before the Super Bowl, and the city of New York was riveted to a Manning brother and a football team on another supremely unlikely late-season run. Sang was eagerly waiting for the game, when, perhaps out of boredom, he checked his cell phone for the Knicks-Nets score.
"Oh, wow," Sang thought. "Jeremy Lin just dropped 25 on the Nets."
Sang had tried to keep tabs on Lin since Harvard. A few years ago, when Lin was still in Boston, he came down with a group of guys and scrimmaged the Hurricanes. He dominated in the second half, but Sang still felt as if they had a few things in common. Like Lin, Sang's father was an immigrant. Like Lin, Sang loved basketball.
But school always came first for Sang, and it turns out that Lin, too, occasionally had to make choices between sports and his formal education. When Lin was a freshman at Harvard, he took a required writing course. The rules were rigid. A student could miss only two classes in a semester, and Lin was at his limit when the Crimson had to leave on a Thursday for a game at Cornell.
"The teacher said, 'You're going to have to choose -- the game or your class,'" says Doug Miller, a former co-captain at Harvard with Lin. "It was kind of funny. Jeremy said, 'We can't reschedule the game, I'm sorry.'"
Lin eventually worked something out and did extra work to make up for the lost class. Sang likes the fact that Lin is an example that an Asian American can have it all, academics and basketball.
When Sang sees Lin succeeding in the NBA, it makes him feel proud. He can't believe his mom is into Lin, too. She'd never watched an NBA game prior to the past month. Now she texts Sang when the Knicks play and recently asked her son what a pick-and-roll was.
"I just feel like being an Asian American, you can relate to him a lot more," Sang says. "I see so many people just watching basketball right now because of Jeremy Lin."
Jason Lam is watching. He is, according to several teammates, the player who seems most proud of his Chinese roots. He met his wife at an Asian American tournament 11 years ago. He was stretching and getting ready for his next game; she just walked up to him and started talking.
Lam, 33 with a 5-year-old daughter named Audrey, calls himself the elder statesman of the Hurricanes. He knows his best playing days are behind him. The previous Saturday, in a used-but-new-to-him SUV, Charles Maneikis packed in half the team and drove 3½ hours to Hillburn, N.Y., for the Asian Hardwood Classic. It's one of the biggest events of the year, with a hotel stay, real refs and an actual audience, albeit sparse.
Lam couldn't drive up until Sunday, the day of the tournament, because he had to work. He brought Audrey with him.
Lam started playing basketball when he was 7, and it became one of his greatest passions, despite the fact that he rarely felt as if he belonged. His role models were Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan, but there was nobody who looked like him. Yes, there was Yao Ming. But he was 7 feet tall and wasn't American.
Lin is just the fourth Asian American to play in the NBA, and two of them -- Raymond Townsend and Rex Walters -- sort of blended in. They had Caucasian fathers and admittedly didn't look Asian American. (Townsend, who wore his hair in an afro in the early 1980s, says he was often mistaken for an African-American). "He's given the Asian American community," Walters says, "something they've never had."
Lam moved to the United States in 1982, when he was 3 years old. His parents, who didn't speak English, worked long hours to feed the family, so Lam didn't see them much as a kid. Basketball filled a void, but it also raised some fresh barriers that left him uncomfortable in his new home.
He was mocked incessantly. "When I used to step on the basketball court, people would say, 'This is not a martial arts tournament. What are you doing on the basketball court?'" Lam says. "Sometimes, you thought, 'Hey, what am I doing on the basketball court?'"
But instead of discouraging Lam, it fueled him. Lam figures Lin probably went through some of the same things. Lam doesn't want to dwell on decades of slights. He has different dreams now. He manages a hotel by the airport, and his hopes are simple: He wants a healthy family and a good life for his kid.
He's getting there -- fast. Sometimes, Audrey runs around the house screaming, "Linsanity!" She will have role models, people who will show her she can do anything she wants.
Long before he played for the Hurricanes, a team he joined mainly because of Uncle Sam, Charles Maneikis watched the Boston Celtics when he was a toddler. Every time the Celtics scored a basket, he and his little brother Greg would clap.
He didn't need an all-Asian American team to make him feel as if he belonged. Charles always seemed to fit in. He matriculated at Boston Latin, and was captain of his high school basketball team, which was no small feat. Boston Latin, an exam school, is steeped in academic excellence. Five men who signed the Declaration of Independence went there. It has been around since 1635, is the oldest public school in the country, and always sends large numbers of graduates to Harvard.
Charles, who went to Stonehill College, is two years older than Greg, and has a goatee and freckles. He says he does not have much of a connection to his Asian roots. When the jocks used to make fun of the Asian kids, and use racial slurs, they never thought it would faze Charles even though he was standing right there. They didn't see him that way.
"I didn't realize my mom looked Asian 'til I was 15," Charles says. "Then someone saw my mom, and they said to me, 'Wait, you're Asian?' And I said, 'How did you know that?'
"I always saw her as a white woman."
The only Asian Americans he hangs out with are the guys on the Hurricanes. He doesn't stop to think about how Jeremy Lin is breaking down stereotypes. Maybe it's something kids think about, he says. But he's almost 25 years old, and is comfortable with who he is.
But Charles is the one who labors to keep the Hurricanes together, organizing trips, doing fundraisers, emailing teammates to get headcounts. Sometimes, he has to hound them. They're adults now, caught up in their own lives. It's a pain, but he keeps doing it.
"I do it because my uncle did it for so long," he says. "The club's been around for so long. I feel like if I stopped caring, there'd be no club."
The commuter train barrels past just outside Regina Pizzeria, but Greg and Charles don't notice because they're used to it. Eddie Lee, the coach of the Hurricanes, has arrived to wish Greg Maneikis a happy birthday. They call Lee "Kilo" because he's big. In his high school playing days in the '90s, Kilo was tough. He played against Chris Webber and a handful of other big names and apparently held his own.
Lee, who's Korean American, wants to tell the group, which includes Uncle Sam, a story. Lee was standing outside earlier in the day when someone drove by and shouted, "Jeremy Lin sucks!" He thought that was funny, that it's assumed that every Asian American is a Lin fan.
Lee's a bit of a smartass, and he wonders if people have been a tad too sensitive over the past few weeks. He says he saw a poster today of an angry Asian guy that he thought was funny. It read, "You play b-ball? Why not A-plus ball?"
"It's funny," Lee says. "It's a joke. I think it's for public consumption. We shouldn't have a monopoly on being able to laugh at Asians. There's a little ignorance going on, but let's talk about it. Don't turn it into, like, a hate crime."
His father ran a dry-cleaning business, which is a stereotype, but it's true. In basketball, he says there are some annoying stereotypes, that Asians are small and slow and don't know what they're doing on the court, but those have been debunked for years.
Lee is well aware of what a man like Lin can do, and he follows him. But he worries about all the hype and expectations. He wants Lin to succeed, but needs to see more of a body of work. There is a pragmatic side to Lee, but there is also a side of him that wonders what could've been. He went to Boston University, and wanted to walk on to the basketball team. But his parents wanted him to focus on school, and then there was that doubt that creeps in, that tells so many Asian Americans that they probably can't do it.
He sets up scrimmages with all kinds of teams -- white, African-American -- because he wants the Hurricanes to be challenged and be good. "I'm sure Greg probably told you stories about pickup," Lee says. "It doesn't matter if you play with African-Americans or whites. You get one shot. They'll pass you the ball one time, and if you f--- up, they're not going to pass you the ball the rest of the game."
Lee checks the TV above him and sees the Knicks are getting smoked. The friends finish up their pizza, and the conversation shifts to LeBron James.
The final four minutes of the game against the Heat fly by; Charles looks at his phone and announces Lin's stat line -- 1-of-11 from the field with three assists and eight turnovers.
Greg quickly and rather passionately points out that the Knicks are playing the most athletic team in the NBA.
When Uncle Sam leaves, Greg is the biggest Lin defender in the room. Charles says he doesn't have a problem with what Floyd Mayweather Jr. said about Lin in a tweet last month, that the only reason he's getting this much hype is because he's Asian. Charles says he believes it's 90 percent true.
Greg believes that Lin is an inspiration. So they agree to disagree, and by the end of the night, it's clear that at least two people at the table aren't convinced that Lin will be a force in the NBA for years to come. But they'll keep watching.
They can't stop watching, because deep down, they hope he can pull it off.