You know you've arrived when A) you lead an apparently moribund NBA franchise on a winning streak and upstage the Super Bowl champion, B) you put up numbers that prompt comparisons with legends of the game and C) your heritage is notable enough that a lame reference to it gets an ESPN headline writer fired. And we forgot this one: D) All of the above, which applies to the New York Knicks' Jeremy Lin.
Unless the rock you've been sleeping under stops the sound of arena cheers from penetrating, you know that Lin is the greatest national sporting sensation since Tim Tebow. But in at least one way, Lin stands out even more: He's Asian-American, with a now well-told story about his Chinese heritage and Taiwanese immigrant parents, though Lin was born and raised in California.
Sound familiar? Actually, it does, in the case of Michael Chang, who won the 1989 French Open at the age of 17 and remains the youngest man to claim a Grand Slam tennis title. Like Lin, Chang's family fled mainland China for Taiwan after the Communist takeover and eventually moved to the U.S. Chang also grew up in California in a devout Christian family. Humility is a trait shared by the tennis champion and the rising NBA star. And on the playing surface, both athletes are known for their quickness and determination.
A number of elite American athletes have Asian roots. Tiger Woods is part Chinese and part Thai. Nine-time U.S. figure skating champion Michelle Kwan is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Short-track speed skating standout Apolo Anton Ohno is the son of a Japanese father. And going way back, Korean-American Sammy Lee won two Olympic diving gold medals for the U.S. in 1948 and '52.
There have been more Asian-American athletes than you may realize. Rex Walters, who preceded Lin in the NBA, was half-Japanese. So were former USC football stars Johnnie and Chad Morton. Roman Gabriel, one of the NFL's prototype modern quarterbacks, is the son of a Filipino laborer. Hines Ward, Tedy Bruschi and Will Demps … the list goes on.
And like all Americans, despite their common Asian ancestry each has a unique story. Yamaguchi is a fourth-generation Japanese-American whose grandparents were interned in camps during World War II. Former Cowboys linebacker Dat Nguyen was conceived in South Vietnam but born in a refugee camp in Arkansas. Ward was born in South Korea to an American serviceman father and a Korean mother who struggled to learn to speak English.
Athletes cherish their heritage. And despite clumsy attempts at humor, such as the one that got the poor ESPN employee canned, this bromide coined by legendary sportswriter Jimmy Cannon about Joe Louis applies to them all: "He's a credit to his race … the human race." With that in mind, we invite you to read our list of top 10 Asian-American athletes.
• B.J. Penn, MMA
• Ron Darling, MLB
• Dat Nguyen, NFL
• Kristi Yamaguchi, figure skating
• Roman Gabriel, NFL
• Apolo Anton Ohno, speedskating
• Hines Ward, NFL
• Michelle Kwan, figure skating
• Michael Chang, tennis
• Tiger Woods, golf
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