Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Unbearable Asianness of Jeremy Lin

[Note: when I began this blog in January 2009, I said in my first post that, despite a stated focus on medicine and health, I would reserve the right to talk about any other subject that caught my fancy, including basketball since I am a passionate fan of the game. Since then I've written an occasional spot on football but mostly in terms of an overlap with the health-related issue of concussions. Today, though, I'm simply indulging myself. In case you weren't aware of the Jeremy Lin craze that has, quite literally, swept the world, read on.]

Floyd Mayweather's tweet on Jeremy Lin's wildly improbable and meteoric rise to fame had about the same effect on the biggest feelgood sports story of the year as the arrival of an unloved Archie Bunker-type uncle at an unexpectedly joyous family reunion. Sure, you may be able to shrug it off and enjoy the rest of the party, but Archie's presence just puts enough of a damper on things that you'll always look back on the proceedings with a twinge of regret. It could have been perfect, you think, only it just slightly fell short. If your uncle hadn't come in and started talking about how the schvartze is taking over the country--good God, they've even got a schvartze President now! where will it end!--you might have had one of the greatest moments of your life.

That's really what Mayweather did to the Jeremy Lin party in which, improbably, sports fans of all stripes in the US, serious basketball fans across the world, and about a billion Chinese had been rocking for the past 10 days. Less than a month ago, even the most knowledgeable hoops mavens were unaware of his name; by the time he put the wraps on his fifth game as a starter, he had scored 136 points, the most points through the first five games ever by any player since the NBA/ABA merger in 1976. To give context, the person that Lin supplanted was Shaquille O'Neal.

Since Lin was an undrafted player who was offered a college athletic scholarship by precisely nobody, topping Shaq statistically in his first five starts represented something of an unanticipated development. And in a script that would normally be dreamt up only in the fantasyland of Hollywood, Jeremy Lin is a child of Christian Taiwanese parents, and the school at which he played without an athletic scholarship was Harvard. So when he led the dysfunctional Knicks to a win with 25 points, 5 boards, and 7 dimes against the Nets in his first extended playing time in the NBA, it seemed a cute curiosity. When he took his first career start against the Jazz the next game and led his team to victory with a 28/8, it became a mild sensation, especially since Carmelo Anthony, the team's superstar, was absent. By the time he got to the Lakers game last week, the President of the United States had taken notice and was following his exploits.

So when the prizefighter Mayweather called upon his inner tweet, out came the following observation: "Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he's Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don't get the same praise." This wasn't Mayweather's first foray into observations on race. As part of some verbal sparring with Manny Pacquiao, Mayweather stated that when they met in the ring that "I'll take that motherfucker, make me some sushi roll and cook me some rice", which might have had a touch more zing had Pacquiao been Japanese and not Filipino. At least with his twitty tweet on Lin, he correctly identified him as merely "Asian" and didn't proffer a guess as to his precise nationality, nor suggest any food-related activities by which to honor his basketball contributions. Similarly, Jason Whitlock, a Fox Sports commentator, tried to dish cleverly on Lin's race while he was en route to a 38-point performance against the Lakers on national television by tweeting that "Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight". (Penis jokes. Clever!) Whitlock has since apologized.

It was perhaps inevitable that some sour grapes would add a slightly unpleasant flavor to the otherwise happily intoxicating story of Linsanity. Mayweather's remarks recall Isiah Thomas's assessment that if Larry Bird were black, he would have been regarded as "just another good guy". Bird himself did race relations in basketball no favors sometime later by saying that he didn't really care who guarded him, as long as that person wasn't white, since it disrespected his game. In other words, Bird was applying precisely the same logic of Thomas and Mayweather to the game of basketball. Race mattered, Martin Luther King Jr. be damned.

Of course, Mayweather's right about Lin: his vertical rise to fame and his widespread adoration is due in part to his being Chinese. And it's also true that black players haven't received the same level of praise. Hoops fanatics have been excited about the rookie phenom Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers, an unexpected bright spot in what has otherwise been a terrible draft class...and few casual fans are aware of this, and nowhere near the number who have heard Jeremy Lin's name. (Irving was a #1 draft pick, however, while Lin was a bench rider just intriguing enough to maintain the interests of a few teams, so the comparison isn't completely equivalent.)

Still, had Irving been a white kid, or even an Asian kid, it's safe to say that the story probably would have had wider circulation. But what's more telling is that Mayweather uses this fact to effectively sneer at Lin's accomplishments rather than celebrate them. Indeed, one could easily conclude that by being a Chinese American, Lin was himself the victim of a system that couldn't picture a guy looking like him--that is, someone Asian--as a point guard of an NBA team. Had he been black, maybe he would have had an easier chance of finding his way onto a roster. For it is obvious that he can play basketball, and play it well. This to me seems the crucial bit that Floyd Mayweather missed.

Several years ago, the sports journalist Jim Gray was engaged in a routine interview with Shaquille O'Neal about the Lakers' season during the finals in which they were about to be upended by a ferociously tough Detroit Pistons team. When asked to summarize the season in a word, O'Neal thoughtfully responded, "enigmatic". Gray, who apparently was flummoxed by the concept of a seven-foot black man displaying eloquence, then asked Shaq to spell it. Which, puckish grin on his face, The Big Aristotle proceeded to do. He would have been forgiven for crushing Gray to a pulp. (The Billy Rubin Blog staff, which had always regarded Shaq's career as a disappointment, became a fan of Shaq as a public figure, and remains one to this day.)

These are but a few examples of people making highly unfortunate judgements based almost exclusively on the complexion of one's skin, and the NBA is chock full of many more. But there is something perverse about boiling down Jeremy Lin's day in the sun to his facial features when the most important features are the points and assists he puts up each night, and whether those stats are accompanied by a W in the box score. Jeremy Lin's game will succeed in the long term if he keeps putting up those numbers--and it won't in the long run if he keeps posting such an appalling number of turnovers. (A good analysis of his actual game in addition to meditations on his race can be found here.)  For his sake and ours, we at the Rubin Blog hope that he'll continue to be judged not by the color of his skin, but the content of his basketball character.

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