A long and likely very disorganized post about my thoughts on Jeremy Lin and, tangentially, issues in America

As an Asian-American male living in New York City, it’s fair to say that I’ve followed the Jeremy Lin saga with more than a passing interest. I’ve watched three of his performances this past week, by happenstance on Monday night, and deliberately on Friday and Saturday. Let the record show that I’m hardly an NBA fan (“Ugh, it’s a superstar league, and the end of games are so boring, with all the free throws and whatnot!”), and I’m particularly NOT a fan of New York City-based sports franchises (“Fucking fuckedy fuck! Fuck the New York Giants/Rangers/Knicks/Yankees! Eh, the Mets get a pass, I guess. Go Islanders!”).

I’m sure that a kajillion articles and blog posts have been written about JLin, and I’ve only read a handful of them, but after some deliberation over the past week, I think my thoughts on the JLin story have coagulated into something bloggable.

First off, there’s the whole Taiwanese Tim Tebow angle. Now, among many of my peers, some of whom may even contribute to this blog, Tim Tebow is a villain worthy of the highest disdain, mainly due to his outspoken faith and his political activism.

At least so far, JLin has been neither polarizing nor controversial, and has escaped the hate that Tebow has received. Maybe it’s because he’s actually able to play the position he’s being paid to play, unlike Mr. Scrambles. Maybe it’s because he’s not making anti-abortion commercials (yet). Nevertheless, like Tebow, he’s extremely outspoken about his faith and talks about how he plays for God. What gives?

I posit that it has to do with JLin’s Asian-ness, or specifically, his Asian-American-male-ness. Kim Jong Il aside, who’s the last controversial Asian male you can think of? And how seriously did anyone take ol’ Kim Jong? When’s the last time you heard somebody say, “Man, Bruce Lee’s such a douche-bag, I can’t stand him”? William Hung was controversial, but in a different way. So I guess the real question is, when’s the last time that mainstream (read: white) America has found issue with an Asian-American male? Or given any Asian-American male significant, real, meaningful cultural relevance?

Asian-American males in contemporary society have the following “stigma”: safe, secure, quiet, uncontroversial. See Harold Lee. Even the ones who do make the news get brushed aside. Everyone knows Mark Zuckerberg. In Yahoo’s heyday, who knew Jerry Yang? We’re easy to ignore. Which is really the main point.

All this may be public knowledge by this point, but I’ll update the uninformed. After playing high school ball, JLin was named first-team All State and Northern California Division II Player of the Year. He didn’t receive one Division I scholarship offer to play college basketball.

JLin ended up attending Harvard and playing college ball there. I won’t list all his awards and accolades, but Lin finished his career as the first player in the history of the Ivy League to record at least 1,450 points (1,483), 450 rebounds (487), 400 assists (406) and 200 steals (225). He went undrafted.

He ended up signing with the Golden State Warriors, where he received little playing time, before hopscotching from there to the Houston Rockets and finally to the New York Knicks, where he’s been a revelation. How did this happen?

The shocking thing to all observers is that Jeremy Lin is no fluke, that he’s a real NBA-caliber athlete and point guard. How, in our current Moneyball information age, with stats and numbers and videos whizzing through the air around us, can somebody this good go undiscovered for this long? Is the answer just so obvious and uncomfortable that we refuse to say it?

The answer is simple. It was easy to ignore JLin. It was easy to ignore him for the basest of reasons: his ethnicity. His Asian-Americanness.

I admit, when I watch JLin play, I do so with a bit of baited breath. There’s the fear that maybe he’s not good enough, that he will come back down to earth, that the magic ride will end. After all, Asian-American males aren’t supposed to playing sports, especially not at the pro level. The fact is, JLin is good. He’s really good. He belongs in the NBA, as a starting point guard, and if it weren’t for discrimination at every level, for ignorance at every level, he would have been playing all along, and this would not be the sensational story that it is. But here we are, in 2012, and it’s a major story.

Ignorance is a term that gets bandied about quite a bit when we talk about classism and racism in this country. We take it to mean “stupidity” or “a lack of knowledge or exposure to something” when we refer to rednecks from podunk towns who’ve never seen a foreigner. But at its root, ignorance means to ignore, to NOT see what is already there. As a country, we’re guilty of collective ignorance, of not seeing the value of people in our midst, Asian-American or otherwise. And the ramifications are greater than that we ignore the value and worth of one professional athlete.

For all our post-racial rhetoric, it’s shocking to see that we can and are still be so blinded by stereotypes and grossly undervalue wide segments of our population. I can go on a diatribe on the plight of the Asian-American male circa 2012 (and indeed this post nearly turned into that), but it’s a general plight that afflicts many of our marginalized citizens, the plight of ignorance, of having our issues and cares and concerns ignored. America prides itself on its diversity, but it’s a superficial diversity, one founded only on numbers, one that allows us to pat ourselves on the back and ignore the real issues plaguing our country, issues involving class, race, and gender, and the lack of real opportunities for many groups of people.

If anything, JLin is a reminder and an indictment of not only all the walls we still put up, all the assumptions we still make, but of our willful ignorance of each other’s problems. Since it’s in the world of sports, it’s still a safe one. Hopefully it’s one we can take to heart.


2 Comments on “A long and likely very disorganized post about my thoughts on Jeremy Lin and, tangentially, issues in America”

  1. Anthony says:

    Agree with your basic premise. Ethnicity is a big part of why he went undrafted and sat on the bench for his first two years. But he was suffering from other biases as well. Kids from Ivy League schools rarely do anything professional basketball.

    Also, as Bill James and many other sports writers have noted, athletes that do a number of things well but nothing particularly great are likely to be underrated. Blake Griffin, for example, will never be underrated because of his rare ability of power and jumping ability, very flashy skills that immediately registers in us humans as something spectacular and special. (see this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9q8jsVQnNk)

    Jeremy Lin, however, does not have any particular, flashy skill. He’s a good shooter but no Larry Bird. He’s a good passer but no Magic Johnson. He’s a good defender but no Gary Payton. It is, I think, another reason he has been so overlooked by talent evaluators.

  2. Jonathan H. says:

    There’s definitely a Moneyball aspect to all of this, the idea that talent evaluators are overrating certain attributes and undervaluing others in sports. And sports is big money business, so you would think that there would be every incentive not to swayed by such biases. The fact is, these biases do occur, not only in sports, but in other major big money industries as well.

    So the question is how do we address such biases in our society, where the ramifications, not only from a moral and ethical perspective, but even from a practical and utilitarian one, are enormous?

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