Race Against The Machine: Jeremy Lin And The NBA’s Savior Myth

By Arturo R. García

In his own graceless way, Floyd Mayweather and his tasteless remarks about Jeremy Lin brought something new to light: maybe the best comparison point for the young New York Knicks guard isn’t Tim Tebow. Maybe it’s Larry Bird. With the link, however unpalatable, coming from tensions the NBA has tiptoed around for decades.

As Peter S. Goodman observed at The Huffington Post, Lin’s seven-game winning streak with the New York Knicks has already put him in the cliche crosshairs:

Even Lin, now celebrated as an affirming story of dogged pursuit and unlikely success, is suffering the framing of his achievement in terms that speak to persistent racial stereotypes. More than one announcer has noted that he is “stronger than he looks,” though he is 6-foot-3 and some 200 pounds. Anyone looking at that body and seeing anything less than strength is not getting past skin color, while buying into the notion that Asian men are less than fully such.

More than one commentator has described Lin’s success as a product of his being smart, which both diminishes his obvious athleticism (it’s all about Harvard!) while implicitly reinforcing a deep-seated and unfair stereotype used to diminish the achievements of black athletes: They are raw, innate talents, whereas everyone else has to work hard to compensate.

And that double standard is at the core of two racially-tinged barbs, spaced 24 years apart. Compare:

“I think Larry is a very, very good basketball player. He’s an exceptional talent. But I have to agree with [Dennis] Rodman. If he were black, he’d be just another good guy.”
- Isiah Thomas, 1987.

“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.”
- Mayweather, 2012

It’s not hard to see the stereotypes Goodman was talking about factoring into the NBA’s growth during the 1980s, when the NBA hitched its promotional wagon to the “City vs. Country” rivalry between Boston and Los Angeles–and specifically, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, a rivalry in which, as ESPN’s Howard Bryant observed two years ago, race took center stage:

Black kids in Boston were taken by Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers. It was no different in Plymouth, where the handful of African Americans and Cape Verdeans rooted for the Sixers and the Lakers (and later the Detroit Pistons, but never the Celtics). The Celtics were the white fan’s team. Me, I was the black kid who rooted for the Celtics but fell along the same racial divisions as my friends. My favorite Celtics were all black: Robert Parish, Gerald Henderson and Dennis Johnson.

There was a game being played beyond Bird and Magic that should have been compelling enough on its own, but feelings in Boston were still raw. The violent busing confrontations had cooled in the 1980s, but the hard sentiments were still fresh. The two men were playing for championships, but they had become vehicles for a disturbing racial narrative. Black Celtics believed the team catered to white attitudes by purposely stocking the roster with white players. In an overwhelmingly black game, 10 of the 14 Celtics on the roster in 1986 were white. Bob Ryan, the dean of Boston’s basketball writers, once told me that the loudest cheers at the old Garden often came when Kevin McHale would block the shot of a prominent black player.

Slate’s Josh Levin provided a more concrete link between the Lin and Bird legends in 2005:

The Bird myth goes that he got no favors from his DNA but scraped by on his wits and work ethic. While he couldn’t jump high, it’s ludicrous to suggest that a man who continually outclassed the best athletes in the world wasn’t blessed with natural athletic ability. I’m sure there are tens of thousands of Indiana farm boys who shot hoops as much as Bird did growing up, and none of them developed his remarkable shooting touch, not to mention his knack for rebounding. Does that come from hard work or innate skill?

Sound familiar?

And for at least some of Bird’s fans, his appeal wasn’t just that he was playing well (he averaged 28 points and 9 rebounds per game in that ’86-’87 season) but that he was “beating Them at their own game”: Bird was a notorious trash-talker and even admitted to being annoyed if he was being guarded by another white player: “I just didn’t want a white guy guarding me,” he once told USA Today. “Because it’s disrespect to my game.”

Part of that narrative further links Mayweather’s statements to Thomas’: it’s not just that Lin is doing so good, the theory goes, but that it’s being positioned as some sort of source of redemption for the game, a tonic for the arrogance of players like Kobe Bryant or Lebron James. By no fault of his own, Lin is being placed into the same kind of spot Bird was in 1987.

(There is at least one difference, by the way, between Mayweather’s insults and Rush Limbaugh’s unfounded digs at Donovan McNabb in 2003. McNabb came into the league less than a decade after the NFL had seen at least two other elite black quarterbacks, and another one led his team to a Super Bowl win. In contrast, the last Asian-American to play for the Knicks, Wat Misaka, predated Lin by more than 50 years. This proves, if nothing else, that crassness has its own spectrum.)

Sometime soon, the hoopla around Linsanity will start to collide with basketball realities: what will happen when Lin isn’t leading the Knicks in scoring–or, more pointedly, when he has a bad game? What if the Knicks don’t even make the playoffs? How will Lin and his fans react when the time comes for him to renegotiate his contract? And how many of these new fans will be there for Lin if he chooses to seek a trade or sign with another team?

But it will be more interesting to see, should Lin’s career continue to blossom, if his career has a lingering effect: Will other skinny young Asian-American (or South Asian-American, or Mexican-American) guards start to command attention from the basketball know-it-alls, the draft analysts and game pundits who are the first to herald the Diaper Dandys, Next Big Things, et al, years before they become professionals? And if that happens, might it be possible for Lin to avoid becoming, as Bird did for years, an unwilling archetype and point of comparison for his successors?

  • Brian

    Mayweather is right in that he would not get QUITE as much attention if he was black, but he is obviously ignorant of the non-athletic Asian oppressive narrative that doesn’t affect black people the same way. I am glad racialicious seems to be aware of the sociological implications of Lin’s success beyond both his underdog story (increadible in and of itself) and the fact that he seems to be quite inspirational for Asians and Asian-Americans. He is in the unique position to be able to CHALLENGE the race conversation in this country in such a profound way. I don’t even think the Williams sisters are quite an apt enough comparison, I think it has to go straight to pre-scandal Tiger Woods. Sports can be a powerful thing. FWIW, I wrote something kinda similar for my (newish) social justice in sports blog 
    http://sjustsport.wordpress.com/2012/02/11/jeremy-lin-and-the-racial-code/

  • Anonymous

    Yesterday’s ESPN headline about Jeremy Lin? “A Chink in the Armor.”

    Fuck that.

    http://www.sbnation.com/nba/2012/2/18/2807696/espn-chink-in-the-armor-headline-jeremy-lin

  • Anonymous

    :”Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the whole point was that Lin did something that nobody had done what he has done before; maybe I’m naive, but I think if a black player scored at least 20 points in their first four starts that people would notice.

  • Anonymous

    all i have to say, Arturo. is EXACTLY.

    THANKS.

  • Eva

    I think the issue with Lin is that he’s viewed more as an oddity than Larry Bird was.   People were used to seeing whites in the NBA (Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere).   It almost feels like fetishism with Lin. 

    • Anonymous

      Plus, it’s important to mention, and people seem to have short memories, that Blacks playing in the NBA in large numbers happened in the 70′s.  When Bill Bradley played, I don’t think white stars were uncommon, or perhaps the tide was just turning.  I mean, doesn’t anyone remember Bill Russell who was more or less a pioneer as a Black NBA star?  

      One NOTEABLE difference about Lin’s entree into the NBA is that it probably isn’t the beginning of a shift of the game from being majority Black to majority Asian, whereas previously, the game did in fact shift from being majority White players to majority Black players.  Black players perhaps had the benefit of having leagues before sports were integrated.  We may have been shut out of mainstream professional sports, but people were still playing at that level, so as the barriers were reduced, there was already a large group of talented athletes who were ready to cross over (for example, research the history of the integration of college football).  

      I’m not that old but I’m old enough to know that the history of the NBA has only recently become Black history.  

      What I’m wondering though is if Lin’s success will have more Asians and Asian Americans pushing their kids to pursue athletic success, b/c while in the case of the NBA, height is something that matters and part of the reason why it’s a mostly Black and White story is that Yao Mings and Jeremy Lin’s aside, it is a  BIG man’s game and you are more likely to find the next star in a population that has a LOT of tall people.   Are some Asians tall?  Sure?  Are there as many tall Asian men as there are tall Black and White men.  I don’t think so.  I mean, you have a lot of Croatian players b/c they also are a population with a lot of big people, and it’s easier to find the combination of a tall guy who has skills.  

      Whether people want to admit it or not, athletics can open doors even at a place like Harvard, and it definitely would make you stand out and help you gain admission.  So maybe the parents will catch on to that.  

      Will Asian parents see Lin’s path as a viable one? Harvard and Yale and Princeton don’t give athletic scholarships but they do give generous financial aid and they DO recruit athletes who are talented but also are interested in getting a top education.  Harvard’s current basketball coach is a Duke alum and that was part of the reason he was chosen.  

      Will violins and pianos be replaced by basketballs?  I don’t say this to promote stereotypes but while Asian American athletes might be benched too much, I also think far fewer of them have parents who have them out playing soccer, football, hockey, etc.  In order to find talent, you need significant numbers of people entering the talent pool.  

      We’ve seen some high profile Asian American and Asian women in figure skating and golf, but how many Asian American men are training intently for high school and college sports careers?  We have some high profile Japanese baseball stars.  Any Japanese Americans in major league baseball?

      • http://dirty-diana.dreamwidth.org/ *diana

        Yes. 
        Any Japanese Americans in major league baseball?

        Yes. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Japanese_Americans#Sports

        Agree that we won’t get more Lins unless the kids of Asian descent play at the younger ages, but I would think there are more factors than just “will their dragon mothers let them?” Access is one; arguably one of the reasons there aren’t a lot of black hockey pros, is hockey is a goddamn expensive sport to get your kids into. And coaches and teachers are going to have to see the potential as well, instead of thinking “oh, he’s too small” or whatever. Fingers crossed for those future basketball stars!

        • Anonymous

          True, but I’d also argue that a) there are ways around it, which was the case of the Williams Sisters or Tiger Woods, whose parents taught them their normally expensive and all-white sports,  and also that the cost of some sports depends on location, so for example, hockey becomes a lot more common in colder parts of the U.S. and in Canada, where plenty of non-wealthy kids play (and get scholarships to prep schools to do it, and also get entry into Ivy League and other elite schools b/c of it), and b)the things that Asian-American kids currently are very represented in like piano and violin, are not cheap.  Expensive instruments, expensive lessons, and some travel if they compete.

          So it does seem that it’s very much about how their parents chose to invest their resources, not that they cannot afford sports.  So I still wonder if Lin’s success will have parents pushing their kids into something beyond academics.  

          However, hockey is  a good example of a sport where racism is alive and well and the harassment that the few black hockey players deal with both with from teammates, other players, and fans, is well-documented.  And soccer is a sport that has plenty of black players but they too get taunted when they play before fans in more racially heterogeneous countries. 

          Like I said, we’ve seen this before but I think the main difference is that I don’t know if we’ll see more parent positioning their kids to play sports at an elite level.  There isn’t a pipeline.  

  • Anonymous

    Boston is an interesting case specifically because it’s about Irish and Italian Catholics, rather than simple whiteness.  The racial conflict there was as much about selling a story of class and potential to the poor, marginalized, stereotypically-demasculinized audience in Boston as it was about black vs. white.  It is about marginalized people pitted against each other, playing a zero-sum game, and the white, well-off protestant, male owners milking that for cash.

    I think my favorite part of Lin’s story is how off-guard it caught the league, like they’d never imagined diversity as a selling tactic.  I’m reminded of NASCAR’s drive to get more female drives because they saw a jump in viewership when the first woman started driving.  Everyone enjoys watching sports as aspiration.

    I actually see closer parallels between Lin and early Jordan mania.  It’s not clear yet that he’ll live up to his hype at anywhere close to the level Jordan did and he can easily flame out, but the image of being an intelligent, mature, together guy in a world of alleged rapists (Lin’s case) or domestic batterers (Jordan’s) draws fans and pisses off many other people.  Lin adds race to the mix, but this reaction is not unprecedented. 

    • k.eli

       “I think my favorite part of Lin’s story is how off-guard it caught the
      league, like they’d never imagined diversity as a selling tactic.”

      Actually the league was downright giddy when Yao Ming first came out because of the increased viewership and excitement he brought from fans back in China. The NBA has also been pushing to increase the sport’s scope throughout the world for quite some time now, including creating international clinics run by some of their most popular stars. So I don’t think it was the league that was caught off-guard but instead it was the fans and the media.