I’m going to put it out there that Muhammed Ali probably did NOT make you investigate Islam or look at it differently or even gain any affection for it.
Here’s why. He’s a boxing legend. Maybe the G.O.A.T. and you aren’t already Muslim and/or Black. He is “other” to you and remains an objectively “other.” And he was objectively a great boxer. And the general public could enjoy him for that and ignore his religious beliefs. If anything, his beliefs seemed like a huge distraction for the pugilistic fanatic. You had to care about who Ali was, not just what he did and what he projected, to be compelled to investigate what he believed.
It’s not simply an aside to say that Ali was a Muslim. He was a deeply spiritual and devout person. And he may not have had influenced you at all, but for a generation of young Black men, I think Muhammed Ali’s conversion to Islam in 1965 and his subsequent legacy made quite an impression. Why? Because to young Black men in the 1960’s, Muhammed Ali was not “other” to them; they could not be objective about this physically gifted, articulate, and charismatic figure who taunted his opponents in the ring and even the US government when they sought to draft him. Muhammed Ali’s faith spoke to them and made an enormous impression on a generation of African Americans in this country.
So when we talk about Jeremy Lin and how he has gained a platform for representing Jesus Christ, just recognize that my caution for him is that he stewards his Christian witness well, not for the masses and the adoring basketball fanatics, but for the young Asian American. Because the rest of the public will give him kudos for saying all the right things about giving credit to God and thanking his Lord and Savior, he is another Christian athlete who gets the stage, joining the ranks of Tebow, Kurt Warner, Tony Dungy, etc. But not to me. As an Asian American Christian male, I cannot be objective about Jeremy Lin, he is not “other” to me.
And this is why I don’t want him to be the typical hat-tipping Christian celebrity athlete, because Asian Americans need a self-aware, community-conscious person who understands that his witness could sway Asian Americans who come from a different strain of faith ranging from ancestor worship to Zen; that he could speak to depression and suicide that goes on in our communities; that he could rally Asian American churches to get over their infighting and greed; that he could speak to the immigration issue and Asians might listen. And he might sway a generation of Asian Americans that would never darken the doors of a church. But in order for that to happen, Lin’s Christian witness must not be cliche, nor must he subscribe to being “a nice guy”. That would be an opportunity wasted. And from what I can tell about Jeremy Lin, he doesn’t waste opportunities.