x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Why Jeremy Lin and Danica Patrick stand out from the crowd

Lin's story is, at its core, a familiar heart-warmer about an underdog whose persistence cracked open the door, at which time he knocked it down.

Danica Patrick attracted a lot of attention as she competed at the Daytona 500 in Nascar.
Danica Patrick attracted a lot of attention as she competed at the Daytona 500 in Nascar.

Nothing intrigues sports-watching Americans more than athletes who stand out by their contrasting, sometimes unique, appearance and background.

For most of this month, we have been transfixed on Jeremy Lin, the professional basketball player whose story is equal parts incredible and inspiring.

Only when the league entered its All-Star break last weekend did we call a timeout, switching our attention to the racing driver Danica Patrick at the Daytona 500, the nation's premier motorsport event.

Such a double dose of mould-busting, we have not seen in quite a while. What is next? A hockey player, the offspring of marathon runners from eastern Africa?

Lin defies the NBA stereotype on several fronts. Foremost, he is Asian-American, the league's first US native of Chinese or Taiwanese ancestry.

The frenzy ignited by his instant celebrity spread all the way to China, where souvenir sales and game viewing on television reached levels not seen since Yao Ming's heyday.

Asians can grow tall; Yao topped off at 7ft 6 ins. Contributing to Lin's charm is how he flouted the laws of genetics by springing up to 6ft 3 ins, seven inches taller than both parents.

Further, Lin graduated from Harvard, a prestigious university that has sent twice as many degree holders to the Oval Office of the White House (eight, including Barack Obama) than to the NBA (four).

A basketball factory, Harvard is not. In fact, the entire collection of colleges that makes up the academically elite Ivy League had not been represented in the NBA since 2003.

Beyond the oddities of his lineage and educational track, Lin's story is, at its core, a familiar heart-warmer about an underdog whose persistence cracked open the door, at which time he knocked it down.

Having been waived twice by NBA teams and demoted thrice to its developmental league, Lin was thrown a lifeline by the New York Knicks. They claimed him only after their incumbent guards were beset with injuries.

For the next 22 games, Lin played nine times and logged only 55 minutes. Smart enough to recognise uncertain job security, he slept on a teammate's couch at night rather than commit to an apartment lease.

On February 4, the "Lin-sanity" craze went viral.

Desperate, the slumping Knicks deployed Lin for 35 minutes off the bench. A 25-point, seven-assist tease earned him a start. Over a surreal 11-game stretch, he averaged 24 points and nine assists before hitting a wall on closing night before the season's All-Star interlude.

(Boy, did the NBA blow it by not adding Lin to the East roster. So what if he would have bypassed the player selection process? Lin or Roy Hibbert - who would you rather watch?)

With the spotlight off Lin for a moment, attention shifted to Patrick, who has broken into the male-dominated circuit known as the Sprint Cup, the major league of stock car racing.

Her appearance at Daytona at the weekend dwarfed all other story angles.

Whereas other female stock car drivers blazed a trail, never has the trail led to the winner's circle of a major race. (The gender's minimal success can be traced somewhat to the less affluent racing teams for which they competed.)

"I just don't think it's a sport for women," the iconic retired driver Richard Petty has said. No others have publicly voiced a similar opinion, in part because Patrick brought street cred built from years of Indy racing.

Her glamorous image, shaped by posing for magazine photographs in a bikini and appearing in risque television commercials, has raised concerns that she will become racing's version of underachieving tennis player/fashionista Anna Kournikova. But Nascar's good ol' boy network has shown surprising respect.

"Let's go racin', boys and Danica," the television analyst Darrell Waltrip bellowed as the rain delayed Daytona 500 began on Monday under the lights.

Two laps in, Patrick's night essentially was over. She became ensnared in a crash, sending her vehicle to the garage for repairs.

Without accomplishing a thing, Patrick already has endeared herself to the Nascar crowd.

It loves wrecks, when nobody is hurt, and Monday's was her third in five days of racing at Daytona International Speedway.

Because she was not considered at fault in any of the accidents, no media is known to have applied the derogatory tag of "women driver" to Patrick.

Maybe they learnt their lesson after a series of racially insensitive references to the fascinating NBA breakout star.

sports@thenational.ae