Last week I sat in my living room in amazement during the New York Knicks game against the New Jersey Nets in which Lin played All Star point guard Deron Williams to a virtual standstill en route to a convincing New York Knicks trouncing of their tri-state little brothers. While Lin’s performance during that game was surprising it became less so the more I thought about it, and the more he performed. This ability didn’t come out of nowhere. Over the Knicks’ seven game winning streak he has displayed a shooting touch that from 3 point range, a lightening quick first step, court vision that rivals the very best in the game, and the confidence of a ten year veteran. His swagger was apparent almost immediately. He practiced with the Golden State Warriors for an entire season. You mean to tell me his skills went completely unnoticed? He practiced against Monte Ellis, arguably the second best shooting guard in the NBA behind Kobe Bryant, and hot shooting point guard Stephen Curry. These guys are among the leagues elite so it is understandable that he didn’t start there. But you mean to tell me he couldn’t crack the line up at all? A line up in which CJ Watson got considerable minutes in the back court in the 2010-11 season? CJ who? Exactly! I cannot bring myself to believe that his fearlessness and competitive nature was not on full display everyday in practice. So why didn’t he get any time there?
Lin would eventually be cut in the the off season because his salary was needed in the Warriors fruitless attempt at signing high-flying center DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers, who would eventually resign with Los Angeles. After being cut by the Golden State Warriors Lin was later waived by the Houston Rockets. Not unlike the Golden State Warriors, the Houston Rockets have a deep backcourt led by overachieving, yet powerful, point guard Kyle Lowry and flame-throwing two-guard Kevin Martin and a slew of former first round draft picks. With that being said it is still very difficult for me to believe that someone of his demonstrated abilities couldn’t find a home there. But it is easier for me to believe that he couldn’t catch on in Houston, than with the Warriors. But fate has a funny way of playing out. After failing to land a splashy free-agent point guard in the off-season the New York Knicks picked up oft-injured NBA retread Baron Davis and pressed combo guard Tony Douglas into service as the Knicks’ starting point guard. It was a job that he didn’t perform well. They would later pick up veteran guard Mike Bibby as an insurance policy. But that didn’t work well either as Bibby had always been more of a spot up shooter than a passer.
For the novice basketball fan, the point guard is not unlike a conductor in an orchestra. He “listens” to the notes being “played” by the offensive orchestra of the team. He does what is needed to get everyone playing in rhythm and on the right note. Traditionally, this is done by getting the ball to the right man at the right moment, making it easier for that player to score and allowing the offensive flow to not be stagnated by a player who feels the need to dribble the ball unceasingly in an attempt to create a shot for himself. The ability to orchestrate was lost on Tony Douglas, and it was apparent to anyone who watched the Knicks prior to Lin’s emergence. With offensive juggernauts such as Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony the Knicks were still losing in large part due to the offensive stagnation caused by the all-stars attempting to create their own shot. Lin is just what the doctor ordered and he is now the talk of New York. He is passing and scoring at a rate that rivals the very best players at his position, and he almost was cut for a third time in his NBA career prior to his coming out party against the New Jersey Nets. Through the 11 games prior to the New Jersey Nets game, Lin played an average of 5.7 minutes per game. His story is improbable, inspiring and made for Hollywood. But for every fairy tale there are non-believers.
Recently boxer Floyd Mayweather went on record as saying Lin is only getting so much attention because he is Asian, and perhaps he’s right. There are 1 billion potential NBA fans in the People’s Republic of China, and a sizable Asian community here in the United States as well. Former Houston Rocket Yao Ming was once the face of the NBA in the Far East. The Chinese behemoth stood at 7 foot 6 inches tall and tipped the scale at 300 pounds and was set to battle Orlando Magic Dwight Howard for the title of the NBA’s next great big man for years to come. But after a string of lower leg and foot injuries Yao called it quits a few seasons ago. With Lin the NBA once again has a marketing match made in heaven for Asian fans, Chinese fans in particular, who are looking for a reason to watch the NBA. But lets not pretend as if Lin doesn’t deserve any of the accolades that are being bestowed upon him. Lin has scored more points in his first 6 NBA starts than any player in NBA history. Yes, more than Michael Jordan, Wilt, Shaq, Iverson and all other legends who were considered unstoppable in their youth. Yes, the Harvard graduate of slight build and robust faith is proving everyone wrong. With every basket he scores Lin is wiping away bigoted assumptions regarding athletic ability. It’s not that deep, huh? Of course it is! How could someone with that type of scoring ability go undrafted? How could, after making an NBA roster, someone with such obvious confidence, not get any significant minutes on a Golden State team? They’re a perennial NBA doormat. It would appear that the general managers and scouts simply could not believe their eyes. After all, who ever heard of a Chinese-American, Harvard educated NBA point guard? One could make an argument that NBA executives were scared off by Lin because of the level of competition he played against in college. But I don’t buy that. He murdered basketball powerhouse UConn, dropping 30 points and nearly leading the Crimson to a historical win. There haven’t been any great Ivy League basketball players since Princeton University’s Bill Bradley. Jerome Williams of the University of Pennsylvania did some work in the 90s, but nothing close to what Lin has accomplished. But I don’t believe the Harvard part of the equation is the reason Lin was overlooked. The Chinese part is.
Racism and bigotry are woven into the very fabric of the American tapestry and it may have been that very bigoted mindset that led some NBA scouts to underestimate Jeremy Lin’s ability. I do not believe there was ever a conscious mental decision to dismiss Jeremy Lin, but rather a subconscious one. The human mind is designed to categorize objects so that we may better understand new data. Scouts witnessing Lin do work in practice simply may not have the mental flexibility to digest what they were witnessing. An undrafted Asian American point guard with skills and swagger unprecedented outside of Rutger Park? Shut the front door! Bigotry may be the reason why everyone is so totally shocked and taken aback by his ice-water swagger and bravado, and bigotry may be the reason why some casual observers continue to believe, despite his obvious display of leadership and unselfishness on a team that sorely needed it, his eventual demise is only a game away. These same bigots believe that an African-American alpha male (Carmelo Anthony) will not be willing to fall in line and follow Lin’s lead.
To be certain, many African American basketball players have been brought up with a bigoted mindset. Some believe they are better than their counterparts from other races solely because of ethnicity. Racism is the reason why black children are expected to physically excel, but mentally fail. Racism is the reason Asian kids are assumed to be the smartest kids in the classroom at first glance. Racism is why it is assumed that a fundamentally sound, strong-armed white quarterback is preferable to a more athletic and exciting black quarterback. Admittedly, as a fan of the Philadelphia Eagles I found myself thinking ,”put in the white boy” as Michael Vick struggled early in the NFL season. Sports, basketball in particular, is one of the only instances in which racism usually falls in a black person’s favor. He is told that he is better, and he often assumes he is better, than his white counterparts because of his physical abilities.
I can recall getting excited as a young basketball player when I noticed the players on the other bench were white. I would do my best to put up the gaudiest numbers that I could muster and if those numbers were achieved it was because of the color of my skin and not because of a conscious effort on my part to achieve those numbers. If there was a really good, media-hyped, white guy that I was going to play against I would be equally inspired to have a good showing. After all, the hood would never let me forget that a white boy destroyed me. Even if it was Larry Bird on the other squad! It didn’t matter because I was “supposed” to beat him. “Hell,” my brother would say after a loss to a “suburban” team. “Ain’t no way you supposed to lose to no white boy.” I was young, gifted and black for crying out loud! But after a while motivational methods based upon the race of my opponents began to be usurped by the talent of the opposing “white boys” as I moved up from AAU to junior college to university. To quote former NBA player Xavier McDaniels, there are some “bad ass white boys” out there. Basketball is as much about athleticism as it is about hard work, dedication and precision. Sure I was flying all over the place, blocking shots and rebounding like a rabid dog. But high-energy players often have that same energy turned against them by more cerebral, harder working, fundamentally sound, opponents who play below the rim. Jeremy Lin has personified that in the span of 7 games. But Jermey Lin’s game can’t be defined by race. He can shoot with the shooters, run with the runners, dunk with the dunkers and his cross over has already made a few opponents stumble.
I grew up believing all that all white boys can shoot and all black guys can jump. Of course I now know that human beings and their abilities are not so easily defined, but I also believe I am in the minority among basketball fans. Most still believe in the white guy shooting, black guy dunking philosophy of basketball. Prior to Lin’s arrival fans in Madison Square Garden were calling for the head of Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni. His run and gun style had worn thin after loses mounted. With Jeremy Lin’s unselfishness (avg 9 assists over the course of the win streak) the Knicks are the most talked about team in basketball. When was the last time that happened? To all the bigots, keep on believing that Lin is not capable a baller, and keep crying in your beer as he eviscerates your hometown team. I’m not a Knicks fan, but I simply can’t hate the player and he’s only making me love the game even more. Yes, I’ve gone Lin-sane! Keep ballin’ player!
Ricardo Hazell is an NYC based freelance writer. You can respond to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.