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…

A Casually Uncasual Fan

June 12, 2010

Fans in the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Munich, Germany. Source: René Stark

Something’s happened to me that I can’t explain. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it’s the beginning of my youthful decline. Or maybe it’s the fact that none of my teams did very well in the regular season or playoffs this year so far. Whatever it is, I find myself not caring much about American sports these days.

I haven’t watched a single minute of the NBA Finals this year, and don’t plan to either. I care only slightly more that the Celtics win only because I can stand Kobe Bryant and the Lakers even less. I didn’t watch a single minute of the Stanley Cup Finals, didn’t watch the French Open, haven’t watched baseball in years, and have tired of the 2010 NFL season three months before it starts. What’s wrong with me?

The thrill is gone, as BB King would say. I used to live and die by my teams, especially the Knicks. With them playing three Game 7s in the ’94 NBA Playoffs, my emotions were on a roller-coaster ride with every game. There were games back then that left me hoarse from screaming at officials, with my jaw clenched after a loss, in orgasmic euphoria after a win.

The last time I felt that way about anything in any sport was when my Steelers won the Super Bowl last year (2008-09 season, that is). Even then, I felt so bad for Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and the Arizona Cardinals. They gave their all to win that game. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have felt anything for any opponent like that twenty years ago.

I think that it’s not so much that I’m getting older or have become more mature. It’s that I no longer need the spectacle of sports to jump-start my imagination or get me off the couch to exercise. I prefer the sound of my long-distance two swishing through a net over the sound of it on TV. I prefer the dread and challenge of a three-to-four-mile-run over sitting on the couch and figuring out what defensive scheme is being run before most quarterbacks do. I have become, sadly, a casual fan of spectator sports.

So, where do I go from here? It’s not as if the NFL’s going to become dynasty driven again, or that there are a bunch of teams in the NBA with enough talent to challenge the — yawn — same old teams that compete for rings almost every year. The baseball ship sailed for me years ago, and I’d probably have to go see a Capitals game in person before I’d enjoy watching hockey again. Maybe it’ll be the World Cup, or the US Open (golf), or watching Noah knock down an eight-footer. I’ll bet on that last one waking me from my slumber.


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