Virtual Linsanity

February 25, 2012

Jeremy Lin (Knicks) beating Matt Barnes (Lakers) in the paint for a layup, Madison Square Garden, February 10, 2012. (AP).

As a New York Knicks fan since my mother’s third trimester with me (the fall of ’69, the season the Knicks won their first of two NBA titles) here hasn’t been much to be excited about since Patrick Ewing popped his Achilles’ tendon in between Games 2 and 3 of the ’99 Eastern Conference Finals.

Enter Jeremy Lin, the sensation that’s sweeping the NBA Nation. When he scored 28 points in his first game as a starter nearly three weeks ago, my only thoughts were, “Finally, we have a real point guard who can get the ball to Stoudamire and Carmelo.” Beyond that, I thought of one of my high school students from the JSA-Princeton University Summer Program in which I taught in ’09, because they have the same first and last name. My former student, though, is still in college, and not at Harvard, either.

Patrick Ewing raising the roof after a dunk in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers, June 5, 1994. (AP).

Leave it to ESPN, the New York media and the motley crew of naysayers, though, to raise Lin to celebrity status faster than the USS Enterprise-D could reach maximum warp. The fact that Lin plays for the Knicks, a franchise in a decade-long search for respectability, and decades-long search for its lost glory, is reason enough for me to see their perspectives on the point guard as more than slightly skewed. I mean, New York’s the reason why sports fan still think the sun shines out of every Yankees’ behind, even Don Mattingly’s.

Not that Lin’s good and often very good play didn’t warrant attention. But if you could dig deeper into all the attention, it was as if the sports and entertainment worlds were shocked — actually shocked — that Lin could start and play with all the precision and poise of an above-average NBA player. What would bring this kind of outpouring of skepticism wrapped in somewhat exaggerated hype? The fact that Lin went to Harvard? The fact that he’s just under six-foot-three? What, pray tell, has been the key to this burst of attention?

Could it be, could it possibly be, about race? Really? After two decades of international competitions between Chinese and American basketball players? Really. By the time some of the shock jocks and uncouth commentators began to spread their versions of Lin-adjectives, Lin-verbs and Lin-phrases, it was obvious that the shock went something like this: “Oh my God! An Asian guy from Harvard can play professional basketball? Bring on the MSG!”

It all crystallized in one stupid, and yes, racist tweet on the part of a “journalist” I used to respect, Jason Whitlock. “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple of inches of pain tonight,” Whitlock tweeted while Lin scored 38 points against the Lakers on February 10. At the very least, this is a sign of some deep-seated insecurity being pushed upon Lin as a proxy for two stereotypes rolled into one. At worst, Whitlock was merely expressing what many White and Black folks feel about some Asian American guy excelling in an allegedly “Black” sport. Either way, it’s almost as disgusting as ESPN’s “Chink In The Armor” headlines from

Jay Kay in Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity" (1997) music video screen shot, January 6, 2006. (via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of picture's low resolution and relevance to blog post.

the Knicks’ February 17 loss to the New Orleans Hornets.

I don’t understand the exaggerated hype and the subsequent race-baiting, playa hatin’ comments in mass and social media around Lin since the middle of Black History Month. I played tons of pickup games at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon when I was in graduate school, and a good portion of the folks I played with were Asian or Asian American. Like the Whites, Blacks and Latinos I played with, some of them could really play basketball, and some couldn’t dribble three steps without bouncing the ball off their foot. Some could shoot from seventeen feet blindfolded, and others had the accuracy of a Scud missile.

Lin, as good as he is now, can and should get better. How good is anyone’s guess, but we shouldn’t be comparing him to Steve Nash or Magic Johnson quite yet. Nor should we write him off when he faces a team like the Miami Heat and turns the ball over five times in a three-minute span. We shouldn’t celebrate a media that apparently has bipolar disorder when it comes to anyone whose body of work cuts against stereotypes.

Lin’s success shouldn’t threaten anyone’s Blackness, sense of manhood or intelligence or the world view of American sports journalists. At least no more than my having a PhD or being a writer on race, education reform and diversity should threaten higher education or anyone’s Whiteness. But, then again…


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