As uncomfortable as it is, we can’t escape the hyper-sensitive topic of race in the otherwise giddy and uplifting Jeremy Lin story, or Linsanity, which roars along more than two weeks after it exploded on the pop-cultural, entertainment and sports universe.
Some Linsaniacs want to concentrate on the pure basketball aspects of Linsanity; I don’t blame them. I do too.
I watched last Sunday’s game (February 19) between Lin’s New York Knicks and the defending National Basketball Association champions Dallas Mavericks with utter joy and fascination. Lin again was the star, scoring 28 points, dishing out 14 assists and rallying the Knicks to a stirring upset win over the Mavericks, who had won six straight games. The Mavericks had won 17 of the previous 19 games against the Knicks.
“LIN TOPS HIMSELF,” blared the headline on the front sports page of Monday’s hard-copy New York Times. The capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York City — studded with incandescent celebrities like Spike Lee, Kevin Costner and Woody Allen — went nuts, once again.
Lin’s stellar performance continued to solidify his growing reputation as an excellent point guard, not perfect yet by any means (who is?), but one who can play with the NBA’s best. He is gathering fans among former and current NBA players — Magic Johnson, the quintessential point guard model; Jason Kidd, among the best point guards of his generation; Steve Nash, the consensus best point guard still playing.
Lin’s good but not all-worldly performance (21 points, nine assists) a day later (Monday, February 20), in a loss to the New York Nets, doesn’t diminish his reputation as an emerging star, and the NBA’s best story of the season.
His on-court performance aside — and it’s been a meteoric journey since February 4, when he finally got some playing time when a desperate Knicks Coach Mike D’Antoni put him into a game after ignoring him since the lockout-shortened NBA season began late — Linsanity has numerous narratives that go way beyond the pick-and-roll and three-point shots.
Race is one of the most dominant.
As I’ve addressed in three previous posts about Linsanity, the fact that Jeremy Lin is the first Chinese American player to gain stardom in the NBA is a big deal. The NBA today is a league dominated by splendid African American athletes. There are a minority of white American players, and a few Latinos and white Europeans. Three other players of Chinese descent, Yao Ming being the most famous, have been or are still on NBA team rosters, but all are from China. Jeremy Lin is a native of California, and his parents are immigrants from Taiwan just off the southeastern China coast.
After the Knicks’ loss on Monday and Lin’s good, but not great performance, ESPN.com’s mobile web site posted a controversial headline engaging a slur on Lin’s racial identity. The headline was up for about a half an hour during the early morning hours, enough time to ignite an Internet firestorm. ESPN, the giant cable sports network, apologized. The headline writer was fired, and two other ESPN staff members have been disciplined.
Frankly, I wasn’t all that exercised over the headline (which has two meanings, one of which is racist) because I was awaiting the moment when Lin’s racial identity would spark overt racism, and it wouldn’t surprise me that in the wild Internet universe, anonymous trollers are spewing racial hatred at Lin. (No, I haven’t done an exhaustive search on the Internet looking for such garbage.)
Two prominent ESPN commentators, Stephen Smith (black) and Skip Bayless (white), engage in a 12-minute conversation (an eternity for a web site!) addressing the network’s Lin-related racial brouhaha. I find their conversation interesting, but I can’t help wondering why a black guy and a white guy are parsing the controversy, when a yellow guy was the target. Doesn’t ESPN have a worthy yellow staff member who can join Smith and Bayless in the network’s self-flagellation?
Dave Zirin, The Nation’s sports columnist, wrote a thoughtul piece dissecting the ESPN headline flare-up too. Full disclosure: he quotes me in it.
William C. Rhoden, a sports columnist for The New York Times who is African American, in his latest column, wrote provocatively about race, Linsanity and Tim Tebow, the devoutly white Christian quarterback for the Denver Broncos. Basically, he lamented that there’s been no equivalent exuberant, mostly positive madness for a sudden African American athletic star the way there has been for Lin and Tebow, and that African American athletes continue to be stereotyped negatively.
As I said, provocative, and I have no counter-argument for Mr. Rhoden except to note that, on the professional sports scene, especially football and basketball, African American stars are plentiful, maybe not “sudden” and, to date, short term as Lin and Tebow, but numerous nonetheless. And many are celebrated for their athletic achievements, while others are criticized for their anti-social and/or cantakerous behavior, both in games and in their non-playing lives.
To beat a dead horse, Jeremy Lin — I will let Tebow fans speak for themselves — is the FIRST and ONLY Chinese American to break through in the NBA. Given the sometimes painful and not-well-known history of Chinese America/Asian America, his unique status has injected his people — me included — with immeasurable doses of pride.
There are deeper narrative offshoot strands to the racial angle of Linsanity. When I saw Lin’s dazzling point-guard play against the Mavericks on Sunday, when he frequently dribbled toward the basket after eluding a trap by two Maverick players, both taller and longer than him, and soared toward the basket against a third towering Maverick, and sometimes laid the ball successfully into the basket, I couldn’t help thinking how powerful that athletic move was for countless Chinese American/Asian American boys and men, most of whom are undoubtedly much shorter than the 6-feet-4-inch (in shoes) Lin.
It goes without saying that Jeremy Lin isn’t the first Chinese American/Asian American basketball player. His racial and ethnic ancestors in America have played basketball for generations, mostly in school gyms and playgrounds, I among them. My own casual playing days are distant in the past, but I sense that Lin’s fearless, quick moves to the basketball against taller, bulkier players, most of whom are black, is a special inspiration to his yellow brothers of his or older generations.
Don’t mistake my statements as racial fighting words, please. It’s just that the highest standards for basketball performance have been set by African American players. Many amateur and even professional players of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are in awe, respect, and envy of the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, et. al. Wish we could do a twisting slam dunk or a switched-hand layup or a rainbow three-pointer to win a game, just like Jordan, Bryant, James, we hoop-star wannabes say to ourselves in our dreams. Well, now, one of “us” — Jeremy Lin — is doing it.