Before Linsanity came Dragon-mania

The Dragons attracted attention for succeeding with a roster made up mostly of Asian-Americans. Courtesy of the Nelson family

There's a part of Jeremy Lin in all of us Asian-Americans. He can be celebrated because of his storybook run with the New York Knicks. And so can we, by necessary extension, because we're like him.

We're otherwise compelled, mostly, to make sure you don't see us.

Our history in this country restrains us. Better to assimilate than to be interned again, as the Japanese-Americans were during World War II. Or better to build the railroads, like the Chines- Americans did, dutifully but anonymously, than to be enslaved.

Our culture also restrains us. The Japanese proverb, "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down," speaks volumes about the imperative of conformity.

A natural tension in being a conforming Asian-American is that the essence of being simply American is buying into individual endeavor. It's for this reason that I once started a girls' basketball team in Seattle, Wash., called The Dragons, composed initially of only Asian-Americans, including my oldest daughter, Sassia, who gets Japanese bloodlines from me and Chinese from her mother. The team was an outgrowth of an all-Asian organization that promoted physical activity, participation and racial pride, through basketball.

My assistants and I hammered home the message that it was OK to compete and excel -- to stick out like a nail without the usual worry of the hammer coming down. It wasn't easy. Many of the players had immigrant parents from cultures that still strongly believed that girls existed solely to become women who ran households.

The Dragons were fast, precise and smart, embodying some of the usual Asian stereotypes. Yet, from the beginning, people told me that my little Asian girls eventually would be eclipsed by kids who outgrew them. Because we were playing in age-based competitions, as mandated by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), all of our kids, like Lin, were born in 1988 -- which according to the lunar calendar is the Year of the Dragon, just like 2012, considered the luckiest and most powerful year in the Chinese zodiac.

So before Linsanity, there was Dragon-mania.

The Dragons attracted considerable attention for succeeding with a mostly Asian-American roster. In 2001, we qualified for and played in AAU Nationals, not at Harvard, but close enough on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn. That year a local TV station did a piece on the team, as did the Northwest Asian Weekly, which in a story titled, "Not Your Typical Dragons," wrote, "the team enjoys the opportunity to overcome the stereotype that Asians can't play ball."

We typically jumped all over teams at the start of games. While I like to think that tendency was due to my brilliant defensive pressure schemes, it had at least a little to do with the other teams sizing up our "cute little Asian girls," as some mothers would squeal about them, and thinking they couldn't play.

That experience makes me wonder if the fact that so many NBA teams so inexplicably passed on Lin had anything to do with a subtle racial factor. He has so many of the qualities I know the NBA covets in a point guard -- size at 6-feet-3, basketball IQ, court vision, the ability to play at pace and the ability to beat defenders off the dribble. But the fact that Lin is Asian perhaps, just ever so subconsciously, set off an expectation that he didn't have "it."

I recently was in New York City with Sassia when Linsanity truly was beginning to erupt. The morning after Lin lit up the Lakers for 38 points, she and I walked to a sporting goods store near Grand Central Station and were one of the few who were able to acquire what then were massively rare No. 17 Lin t-shirts. We swelled with Asian American pride the entire weekend, though Sassia couldn't help seeing MSG in headlines as poking fun at monosodium glutamate widely associated with Chinese food. I explained that MSG also was shorthand for Madison Square Garden, home of the Knicks.

You tend to see things a certain way because of where you've been. I see a thin line between "yellow mamba," which is meant as a compliment, and "yellow peril," which is not. That's because I grew up hearing people call my mother a "Jap," and a lot of my friends' parents once were hauled off to camps for the crime of being of Japanese descent. It likewise was fun for the Dragons to be the "great Asian team," until someone suggested the girls learn to play with rice balls instead of basketballs. Or someone jeered them with mock-Asian, "ching-chong, ah-so" gibberish.

Linsanity will test an Asian-American's ability to take the bad with the overwhelming good. None of the original Dragons grew much, if anything, past 5 feet, just as people said they wouldn't. But because they played basketball, learned to exceed expectations and excel, as well as extend themselves individually while working as a team, they haven't grown up to become quiet little Asian girls, as so many stereotypes suggested they would. My daughter and her old Dragon teammates are competitive and self-assured.

Maybe not exactly like Jeremy Lin, but enough to take on the world, succeed, and be willing to be counted. And maybe doing so, they will help change their culture as well.

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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at glenn@hoopgurlz.com.