COURTING HISTORY: The NBA’s first Asian American backcourt


On March 24, Los Angeles Laker guards Jeremy Lin and Jordan Clarkson became the first Asian American starting backcourt in NBA history. Their history-making night came in a 127-117 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The starting pair had a combined 49 points and 14 assists, with Clarkson netting a season-high 30 points.

Lin, a 26-year-old Palo Alto, Calif. native, is Taiwanese American. Clarkson, a 22-year-old native of San Antonio, Texas, is of mixed Filipino and African descent.

Before their history-making night in Oklahoma City, both Lin and Clarkson showcased their skills before the Bay Area audience against the Golden State Warriors on March 16. Lin and Clarkson alternated the point guard duties in this game, with Clarkson starting and playing the majority of the minutes. The Lakers dropped this game as well, 108-105.

Despite the loss, both Lin and Clarkson played well against a Golden State team that boasts the best record in the NBA. Lin and Clarkson contributed on both sides of the ball in holding the game close until the final buzzer. Lin and Clarkson combined for 32 points and 7 assists (Clarkson with 17 points to Lin’s 15), and held Warrior point guards Stephen Curry and Shaun Livingston to a combined 25 points and 13 assists.

The 6-foot-5 Clarkson also grabbed six rebounds, and keyed an 8-0 run early in the game. The 6-foot-3 Lin had a season high five turnovers as well, saying after the game, “I’m a high risk, high rewards type of player.”

Lin first came into the game with five minutes left in the first quarter and immediately provided a spark. Shortly after coming off the bench, Lin chased down Warriors forward Draymond Green on a fast break and emphatically swatted away Green’s layup attempt. On what was arguably the best defensive play of the night for either team, Lin downplayed his effort saying, “I just wanted to come in and contribute,” adding, “It was nice to do that in front of my family and friends.”

Although Lin, who was undrafted in the 2010 NBA Draft out of Harvard before signing as a rookie with Golden State, had supporters in the audience, any cheers directed his way were drowned out by the sellout crowd at Oracle Arena. In fact, Lin was often booed by a heavily partisan Golden State audience that generally treated him as just another member of the visiting team. It seemed that few fans in the arena were cheering on the Bay Area hometown product, who earlier in his career sent the NBA into the frenzy known as “Linsanity” while playing for the New York Knicks.

Clarkson, a rookie, made his NBA debut earlier this season with much less fanfare than Lin, but has been impressing coaches and teammates with his level of play. Lakers head coach Byron Scott said after the game, “I like Jordan’s aggressiveness. He’s a good, young player, and he’s been getting better every day.”

Clarkson was drafted in the second round out of Missouri, 46th overall, by the Washington Wizards in last year’s NBA draft before being traded to the Lakers later that evening for $1.8 million in cash. Clarkson is regarded as one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal Lakers season. Up until the March 16 game, Clarkson was averaging 9.5 points and 2.5 assists per game in his rookie campaign.

Clarkson is believed to be the third player of Filipino descent to play in the NBA. The first was Raymond Townsend, who debuted in 1978 with the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors drafted Townsend in the first round of the 1978 NBA draft, 22nd overall, after playing his college ball at UCLA. Townsend was part of the John Wooden-led UCLA team that won the 1975 national championship.

NBA veteran Nate Robinson, a three-time Slam Dunk champion, is of Filipino descent as well.

The first NBA player of Asian descent was Wataru “Wat” Misaka, who played in a handful of games for the New York Knicks in 1947. Misaka, a Japanese American point guard, was the first player of Asian descent in professional basketball, and also the first player to break the color line in the NBA.

Misaka was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1947, the same year that Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color line in Major League Baseball.

When asked about Misaka and Townsend, neither Lin or Clarkson had heard much about the trailblazing players who paved the way for Asian Americans in pro basketball. But on March 24, Lin and Clarkson continued the progress started by Misaka and Townsend, and made their marks in NBA history.

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