The sports world has a historically fraught relationship with complexity. Like caramel on ice cream, opinions of athletes are often formed quickly and harden fast. “Look at his stride—he’s got a hitch.” “She’s too slight—won’t be able to get anywhere on the field.” “With that wingspan, he’ll be able to impose his will on defense.” Whether you’re torpedoed all the way to the bench from opening tryouts or you make the varsity as a freshman (high school’s highest status, just under “Olympian demi-god”), coaches often chart the general course of your fate in a few practices, a swatch of sessions, and that’s that.
At least that was the case for many of us. Call it athletic election, the determinative council taken by underpaid youth coaches in Applebee’s restaurants around the country. This was true of my experience in basketball, the game that captured me in the 1990s as it did so many others. I was very short and slight, and what was worse, I wore Rec-Specs, basketball goggles. I was like the world’s shortest and whitest version of Horace Grant. Nevertheless, growing up in rural Maine, I hustled, dribbled with my left hand until my fingertips bled, and generally tried to become a good player. Each summer, my parents paid for me to go to one of those ridiculously overpriced basketball camps. I heard the rousing speeches, the motivational oratory that promised greatness to anyone who would just work for it, and I bought it. I was all in. Maybe you were like me.
But it wasn’t to be. Though I practiced constantly, my stint with the game did not pay off. As sports have been for so many youngsters, basketball taught me some things about the world. It left me cynical, rendered me a romantic for the life I couldn’t have, and showed me that in this world, underdogs may get a standing ovation if they’re lucky, but it never lasts.
After all, Rudy made the vaunted Notre Dame football team, but he only played for a minute.
Subverting the System
But once in a while someone comes along who subverts the system, who breaks the rules and somehow shatters the athletic will of decree. Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks appears to be such an athlete. As I write this, he has led the Knicks to their fifth consecutive victory. He has scored the most points in that time of any rookie starter ever. He has singlehandedly ignited New York City and has become a social media phenomenon of the kind only Tim Tebow has recently approached. All this after he was cut from the Golden State Warriors six weeks ago and then the Houston Rockets shortly thereafter. He was picked up by the Knicks, buried on the bench, sent down to the NBA developmental league (to my home state—the Portland Red Claws!), and was just about to be waived for the third time in two months when Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni, out of tricks and a great candidate for firing, threw him into a game against the New Jersey Nets. The rest, as they say, is history, though history is a fickle thing.
But wait—go back further. Lin is not just a prima donna, silver-spoon athlete turned underdog. He’s an underdog’s underdog. He was unrecruited out of high school despite leading his small school to a state championship against Mater Dei, a national powerhouse. He went to Harvard, tore up the Ivy League (and embarrassed UConn in the process), and promptly went undrafted. He made an NBA roster after outplaying John Wall, the number one pick in the 2010 draft, in summer league, but even then he had essentially no prospects for long-term success.
Jeremy Lin is an elite athlete. He is 6’3″, broad-shouldered, jumps three feet in the air, and moves with fluidity and grace. He has excellent ball control, absorbs contact expertly, and understands how to control the flow of a game. In all of these ways, he is not like you and me. He was given amazing physical talent by God, and he is spiritually grateful for it, and is making good on it.
But Lin’s NBA saga shows us that even though the world of NBA athletes looks untouchable, a promised land of chartered jets and plush hotels, it’s actually fickle in the extreme. Read Chris Herren’s recent and withering Basketball Junkie and you’ll get a sense for how things can go awry at seemingly any instant for a professional athlete. Turn an ankle? Your spot could be taken. Coach doesn’t like you? You get buried on the bench and never get a chance to show what you can do. Teammates freeze you out? Buy a ticket to Europe. Elite sports are like elite politics and entertainment—it looks so comfortable, so secure, and in reality it’s anything but. Insecurity and paranoia reign; underdogs get kicked to the curb.
All of which makes Lin’s success so beautiful. Fellow Knicks Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony are super-athletes, the finest of the fine-tuned. They each make more than the GDP of many developing nations. Yet they can’t co-exist on the court. Because each is accustomed to superstardom and its plush trappings, they are failing miserably as a tandem. The turmoil caused by their friction has created an opening for Lin. In God’s grace, he is making the most of it, and doing so while explicitly giving glory to his maker.
I see in Lin an underdog who, though unlike me in many ways, is living my dreams. He is an athlete who was tagged, in many places and from many voices, as One Who Would Not Lead the Way. He is not supposed to be here. He should be doing what weekend warriors like me do, playing overheated pickup basketball in cheaply furnished athletic clubs that feature courts best suited to peewee leagues. He wasn’t recruited. He wasn’t drafted. He wasn’t wanted.
Yet here he is, torching Deron Williams and Kobe Bryant and Kevin Love, and all the while sleeping on his teammate’s couch.
You don’t need to like sports to enjoy this story. You don’t need to dream about which zone defense to employ against a sharpshooter to identify with Lin. All you need to be is a normal person in this world. All you need to be is written off at some point in your life. If you’ve encountered prejudice, hardship, and injustice in some form, you can find some joy in this unlikely tale of unappreciated talent overcoming unjustly stacked odds. If you have had family members speak ill of your abilities, coworkers demean you as an employee, or people write you off as a thinker because you’re a Christian, well, Linsanity is for you, and you, and you.
Lin’s success is of course particularly poignant for many Asian Americans. I’m not an Asian American, of course, and so I don’t know in my bones what this phenomenon means for this often overlooked group. The words of New York Times writer Michael Luo capture what I can’t on this point:
The feelings the Lin phenomenon instill in me are orders of magnitude greater because he is an Asian American, like me, whose parents were immigrants to this country, like mine. He grew up, like me, in the United States, speaking English; his Chinese, like mine, could use improvement. He went to my alma mater. And, yes, he is a Christian, too, but with a brand of faith, shaped by his background, that I can relate to much better than many I have seen in the public arena.
Others can continue this conversation better than I can. But suffice it to say that Jeremy Lin’s story has a resonance far beyond mere dribbling and cutting. One hopes that it is not a passing fancy and that this cultural development in the secular arena prompts conversation of the kind we need to have. Evangelical churches can better represent voices like Luo’s and Lin’s and so many others who have no major platform but who are loved by God, bought by Christ, and members of his kaleidoscopically beautiful family.
God of the Small (Who Are Great)
It never happened for me, the basketball thing. I was born an underdog, and I remain an underdog. It is for this reason that I so appreciate stories like Jeremy Lin’s and Tim Tebow’s. Not because I think sports are ultimately important; they really aren’t. They deserve far less attention than many of us give them, and that realization should be a part of our ongoing discipleship in Christ. But when we see Jackie Robinson stealing bases he once couldn’t touch, Tim Tebow defying pundits who swore him off before he threw a pass, and Jeremy Lin torching teams who couldn’t be bothered to waste a late second-round pick on him, we are getting just a little taste of something bigger, something shaking, something trembling and mighty and earth-defying (Hebrews 12:18-29).
God seems to love pinning it all on an unknown, an upstart, the competitor who does not draw praise for its “ridiculous upside.” He picks tiny Israel to dominate the nations, a band of fishermen to drive his ethereal kingdom, and sinners like you and me to handle matters that the angels long to look into (1 Peter 1:12).
Most surprising of all, he brings redemption to the wicked through a carpenter, a man who nobody esteemed and no one especially wanted to follow (Isaiah 53:2-3). There was nothing in him that magnetically drew people; no one recommended that he teach the local Narazeth iteration of How to Win Friends and Influence People. All the way to the cross, his simple claims to deity drew disbelief; this is the man who’s supposed to save the Jews? Gasping for breath as his internal organs succumbed to gravity’s pull, he felt the scorn of the impenitent thief (Luke 23:39-43). He paid for sin and died the atoning death. Even when he returned, he was doubted. Even now, he is doubted. Even now, we doubt him.
Because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross, there will be a day when there are no underdogs. All the pain and hurt and jealousy and envy and unjust ignorance will fade away, or more accurately will be scorched by the force of his righteousness. In heaven, we will experience perfect equity. All will have a voice. All will use their talents. None will be overlooked; none will be cast off. Perhaps these events from the sporting world are meant to be a little reminder of this soaring reality. In an age bewitched by skepticism, the Lord guides humble servants like Lin through a bewildering array of trials, empowering their gospel-driven witness as they go. Maybe this is a reminder that all is not as it should be. Soon, things will change. No injustice will remain; no stone will be unturned.
Of Basketball Dreams and Eschatological Hopes
When I played high school-basketball, we were supposed to go slow. Though we had a fleet of athletes, we walked the ball up the court and pounded it inside. There were two or three guys designated as scorers, and they walked on air. The rest of us hustled and grubbed our way onto the court, trying not to get yelled at and benched. For a player who worked tirelessly on his game, this was a frustrating experience, still the most pervasively difficult of my young and relatively happy life. Many can relate to my athletic travails, insignificant as they were.
Still, there were exciting moments, and a few small victories. A few times, I was able to break free of the system and steal a pass. Racing downcourt, trying to evade defenders, jumping with a head full of steam—these were some of the freest moments of my life. There is nothing quite like the kinetic joy of a fastbreak. If you’ve ever led one, you know.
When I see Jeremy Lin tearing around the court, defying expectations on a play-by-play basis, singlehandedly increasing the exposure of Asian Americans in this country, I feel a little something of that same pleasure. It’s a vicarious thrill, of course, but I am genuinely happy for him.
All this freewheeling fastbreaking and superstar-defeating is a pale reflection of a much greater triumph to come. Christians can sanctify anything, but these victories driven by a guy nobody wanted three weeks ago speak softly, I think, of an underdog triumph, a cosmic salvation, no mind could have conceived.
Jesus is underrated now. His gospel is underestimated. His people are killed all day long across this world (Psalm 44:22). When he returns, though, no tongue will deny his greatness.
Until then, unexpected figures and voices will speak in his name. Undrafted basketball stars, survivors of failed abortions, embattled local churches, and people just like you and me will not be silent, but will tell the world of the man no one esteemed, the savior no one wanted, and summon them to the hope found only in him.