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?
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?