It scarcely seems possible that little more than three weeks ago, practically nobody had heard of Jeremy Lin. While we might not be discussing him by the year’s end with phrases other than “I wonder whatever happened to Jeremy Lin?”, there is no doubt that his story has impacted heavily across the United States and raised several very important social issues.
In a previous article, I noted how Lin had not been heavily recruited out of high school, despite relatively impressive statistics and a very impressive GPA (you should never underestimate the importance of having a smart kid on a college basketball team: teams have their average GPA displayed in the university at the end of each season and players not making at least a C average – 2.0 GPA – could find themselves under academic suspension from their team and even have their scholarships threatened. Many, particularly the elite athletes, will – AHEM – “find a way” to improve their grades, to put it diplomatically. A friend of mine once reflected that he wasn’t sure that a team-mate of his could even read). That in itself says a great deal about the current state of both college recruiting and college basketball more generally. Regardless of how he performs between now and the end of the season (when it seems likely one NBA General Manager or another will hopelessly overpay for him), Lin’s impact on race relations in the United States has already been dramatic.
Writing for the Bill Simmons-driven Grantland website (which I’m sure was supposed to be a bit more “out there” in Simmons’ original vision than the occasionally listless blog that it can be when you read outside of the lead writers), Jay Caspian Kang has contended that the onset of Linsanity has brought about serious revision of the appropriateness of discussing race in American society, not seen since the election of Barack Obama. He considers that to remove the racial dimension of Linsanity (or whatever you want to call it, there really is no shortage of phrases) is to do a disservice to both Lin and the community that he represents.
As a fifteen year old, Lin had a Xanga account (nope, me neither), on which he posted a series of images of him sporting a headband in the style of various NBA players. Most significantly, the username for this account was ChiNkBaLLa88. Give that a careful read and a thought for a second…
On the morning of Saturday 18 February, ESPN reported on the end of the Knicks incredible winning streak, which as we all know had been driven by the emergence of Lin (and, slightly more contentious, perhaps by the absence of ball-stopping superstar Carmelo Anthony?). In an act of almost inconceivable carelessness, the author, Anthony Federico, entitled the piece “Chink in the Armor: Jeremy Lin’s 9 turnovers cost Knicks in streak-stopping loss to Hornets”. It then transpired that anchor Max Bretos had used the expression the previous week while interviewing Walt Frazier. The decision cost Federico his job, and Bretos was suspended.
As a racial slur, this was hardly John Terry allegedly calling Anton Ferdinand a “f***ing black c***”, but it was arguably comparable with the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra situation; essentially because you have one person using an expression about another which they consider to be inoffensive but, when coming from someone outside their own racial group, could easily be construed as highly offensive by the target. Use of the “n word” outside of the African American community in the United States is almost always used derogatorily and is therefore, rightly, taboo for highly significant historical reasons which persist even today.
Equally, the reaction of Liverpool FC – which, it must be pointed out, is belatedly starting to conform with popular perceptions of appropriate action in the Suarez affair – to Evra’s accusations against Suarez also have much in common with “Chink-gate”: namely that they emphasise the fact that racism is not treated in the same way by different parts of society (Comedian Stewart Lee does a hilarious satirical sketch about the concept of “political correctness gone mad” that I urge you to look up on youtube). The fact that news sources even dared to point out that Federico’s wife is Asian proves as much. This story reminded me of the episode of Seinfeld where dentist Tim Whatley (portrayed by Bryan Cranston, now best known as the lead character in Breaking Bad) converts to Judaism and begins telling jokes based on Jewish stereotypes. This offends Jerry, who believes that Whatley has only converted to Judaism for the jokes. In the same way, and it seems unlikely that Federico would ever argue this point, these reports implied that if you have a close relationship with someone of a different ethnic or racial background, it’s somehow alright to say things about that group. Yes, that might be alright on an individual basis, but you cannot extrapolate the tolerance of one individual to an entire community.
Perhaps more problematic was the view of celebrity dancer and occasional boxer (when his opponents aren’t likely to beat him, of course) Floyd Mayweather, who tweeted:
Indeed, it could be observed that Manny Pacquaio, the “little yellow chump” as Mayweather famously styled him, is also Asian. But what is Mayweather’s argument? That basketball is a black sport? In 2004, NBA legend Larry Bird said that he would have liked to see more white NBA stars – but also added that he found it disrespectful when he was guarded by another white player. What was his point? That the NBA needed more white players, even if they weren’t good enough to actually play against the very best basketball players on the planet? How that would work remains a mystery, to me at least, but it might help explain the continued presence of “world’s most overpaid ginger cheerleader” Brian Scalabrine in the NBA. Scal has earned nearly $19 million in his NBA career despite career averages of 3.1 PPG and 2 RPG – this season with Chicago these stats are down to 1.3 and 0.8 respectively. He gets just under $1 million this year. There are indeed very few Caucasian American players who could be considered legitimate NBA stars: Minnesota’s Kevin Love would probably be the only consensus selection to any list of top players in the league. Of course, European stars such as Dirk Nowitzki, or even Canadian Steve Nash, have helped ensure some racial diversity in the NBA, which remains dominated by players of African-American origins. This has, of course, scarcely impacted on the racial diversity of the NBA fanbase, a fact which has been absolutely crucial to the survival of the NBA as a product. Indeed, one could make a rather ham-fisted observation about the state of race relations in the United States simply by referencing a photograph of a young Caucasian wearing the jersey of a slightly-older African-American.
One other, perhaps underappreciated, dimension to the “Chink in the Armor” story was that Lin (and let’s not forget that Lin was New York’s fourth-string PG – behind Bibby, Shumpert and Baron Davis – before fortune took a turn in his favour) is indeed turnover-prone and that this remains a very serious weakness to his game, an understandable weakness given his lack of experience, but a weakness nonetheless. A point guard being turnover-prone could be styled a chink in their armour and, provided this person was not Asian, it would not necessarily be offensive to anyone.
Of course, all the best point guards in the league do tend to be found at the top of the turnover stat charts; it’s part of the game for them. It should also never be forgotten that despite Lin’s impressive offensive performances, he is still finding his feet at the NBA level. Passing and dribbling at this level, against the elite caliber athletes of the NBA, is considerably more difficult. The window to get an incisive pass away is much tighter in the NBA than at the collegiate level.
On 23 February, the Lin-led Knicks got a dose of reality when they were easily defeated by the Miami Heat. Lin shot 1 from 11 and had eight turnovers, the first time a player had those sort of stats since Damon Stoudemire in January 1996.
Miami is a team which knows a great deal about racial sensitivity; accusations about the reaction to Lebron James’ “The Decision”, when he made the announcement of his move from Cleveland to Miami, centred on racial stereotypes. He might not be the next NBA superstar, but Lin’s story has already had far-reaching and diverse ramifications for both sport and society in the United States and further afield.