The iconic image of Jeremy Lin, America’s newest sports star, is Lin making a shot and sticking out his tongue as he backpedals on defense. The tongue wag came from Michael Jordan, and it tells you everything about Lin’s story: the combination of passion, a hard-working desire to succeed and pure love of sport that is so often absent from the money-driven, bottom-line oriented sports culture of the 21st century.
The Jordan tongue is one of the iconic images from my own childhood. Every NBA Finals game, every win, every championship parade, it all comes back to the front of my memory with that tongue wag.
Clearly, Jeremy Lin was watching the same thing as I was back in the 1990s, sticking out his tongue in silent mimicry, dreaming of becoming a sports star. Dreaming of one day sticking out his own tongue on the Madison Square Garden floor to the roar of thousands of fans.
That image of Lin shows it all because his wagging tongue says, “I made it.”
Sports fans are constantly reminded, berated, that sports is a business. During the NFL lockout, the most common sound bite was, “you have to remember, this is a business.”
The NBA lockout was the same: commentators and pundits endlessly reminding us that the game is now about money, power and future leverage. Undoubtedly, at the league level, that is true because most owners and athletes care about their paychecks. But stories like Jeremy Lin’s remind us that, at its core, sport is about desire, passion and dreams.
We fans love Jeremy Lin because he is like us and he reminds us daily that sport can be about dreams rather than money. He plays, in a sense, like we would play: mixing exceptional basketball IQ and unmatched effort with just enough athletic ability to get by at the professional level. Lin may be better than we could ever be, but his style and his story are the closest reasonable facsimile we have to our own lives.
His story is compelling because we can identify with it at a visceral level. We can live vicariously through Lin’s passion as he lives his dream and imagine, with just enough believability, that we are living our own dream.
That vicarious experience is what makes Lin’s story so compelling, so deeply appealing, for fans in every city in this country. He reminds us that sports don’t have to be about ticket sales, player-owner splits and the bottom line. Those stories may make the headlines on most days, but stories like Lin’s remind us that sports can be about something else: about making it to the pinnacle. Every night he stars in the Garden, every time he wags his tongue, he shows us that it is possible to turn our own hopes into realities.
Lin is living his sports dream, in a sense, for all of us. And in the process, he is reminding us why we came to love sports in the first place.