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Opinion: Why Jeremy Lin's race matters
Jeremy Lin tosses a basketball during a promotional event in Hong Kong.
November 19th, 2012
08:36 AM ET

Opinion: Why Jeremy Lin's race matters

Editor's Note: Jeff Yang writes the column Tao Jones for The Wall Street Journal Online. He is a regular contributor to WNYC radio, blogging for "The Brian Lehrer Show," and appears weekly on "The Takeaway." He previously wrote the Asian Pop column for the San Francisco Chronicle and was founder and publisher of A magazine. He tweets @originalspin.

by Jeff Yang, Special to CNN

(CNN) – February seems so long ago, and the breathless, ecstatic adrenaline rush of the phenomenon we called Linsanity feels remote and surreal, like a half-remembered dream.

But here we are, with Lin, now a member of an exciting but inconsistent young Houston Rockets squad, back in the headlines again. Unfortunately, it’s not for dropping three-pointers on the Lakers but for dropping quotes in an interview — quotes that in just about any other context, from just about any other player, would have gone virtually unnoticed.

Last week, Lin gave a rare, candid interview to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, in which he admitted that he’d been unprepared for the backlash that he received after the Rockets gave him a lucrative contract - $25 million over three years - based on his lockout- and injury-shortened breakout season.

Referring to vicious talk about whether he was worth the coin in locker rooms across the league — much of which bubbled up into the blogs and back pages, and some of which came from his own former teammates on the Knicks  — Lin said this: “I was a little surprised, but I wasn't shocked. I honestly feel it’s part of the underlying issue of race in American society… of being an Asian-American. I haven’t figured it out. I haven't wrapped my head around it. But it’s something I’m thinking about.” Now, this is hardly a fist-in-the-air call to revolution or a scathing indictment of institutionalized prejudice. It’s about as innocuous and innocent as you might ask a statement about race to be — a soft acknowledgment that race as a criterion for social judgment exists, that Asian-Americans have been impacted by it in general and Lin in particular, and that, you know, it can all be confusing for a young guy who’d rather be focused on playing his butt off in a game he loves more than anything (with the notable exception of God and his family).

And it was buried in the middle of a story, titled “After disappointing breakup with Knicks, Jeremy Lin building a better relationship with Rockets,” that focused primarily on Lin’s adjustment to his new team and fresh opportunity.

Naturally, however, headline writers and sports pundits chose to go bullet-straight at the most “controversial” topic in the article. Lin’s statements even generated a full-court press on ESPN, which gathered its elite sportstalk round table of Stephen A. Smith, Rob Parker, Christian Fauria and Skip Bayless to discuss whether Lin’s invocation of race was legitimate.

It was Parker who most actively defended the position of the locker-room mutterers to which Lin was referring — and that reiterates the opinion that boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. tweeted back in February: "All the hype is because he's Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don't get the same praise."

This attitude is at the core of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) hostility that Lin has faced from some circles — a perception that he’s getting special attention and treatment, while an African-American player of similar caliber would be an anonymous, midmarket journeyman. It’s the primary source of the simmering anger over his contract. And it entirely misses the point.

Lin didn’t get thrust into the spotlight just because he’s Asian-American. It's because he's the only Asian American in a league whose entire history of players of Asian descent can be counted on two hands. It's because he took an incredible Cinderella path from obscurity and rejection to playing at the highest level of the game. It’s because he’s the first Asian-American to demonstrate that he can not only be a valuable starter, he can — at times, at least — be a superstar.

Yes, there are dozens of black players who are as talented as Lin, and many who have better stats. But that’s just it: There are dozens of them. And there’s only one Lin.

Lin’s unique status doesn’t just generate clubhouse whispers. There are physical implications, in-game consequences, too — there have always been, throughout his college and professional career: He gets a little extra elbow in the paint, a hair more hip while fighting for a rebound. As he noted to Wojnarowski, long before he even went pro, he’d “always been a target” on the court. “Everyone looks me and says, ‘I’m not going to let that Asian kid embarrass me. I’m going to go at him.’ That’s how it's been my whole life. ... I'm not saying I get everyone's best shot, but I would say people don't want to be embarrassed by me because of my skin color.”

Even while criticizing Lin’s remarks, many commenters acknowledged that the schoolyard dynamics of sports means that players facing opponents of nontraditional backgrounds go harder and rougher, put them on the ground if necessary, to prevent being labeled as “the guy” — the guy who got dunked on by an Asian baller, who got KO’d by a white boxer, who lost a scratch match to a black golfer.

And while there's always reluctance to discuss the underpinnings of this kind of extramural competitiveness in racial terms, the fact is that the phenomenon wouldn't exist without the stereotyping that assigns different ethnic groups varying default capabilities in our society and presumes that their behavior and interests will reflect those standards.

Asians are “expected” to be good in school, so Asian kids who ring the wrong side of the bell curve in math class are singled out for public humiliation by teachers and private dressing-down by parents. African-Americans are “expected” to be good at sports, so black kids who can’t play are mocked by peers and excluded socially. In both cases, those who don’t meet expected norms are treated as broken and dysfunctional; as anomalies rather than individuals whose distinctive fingerprint of strengths and weaknesses are not mere ethnic or cultural inheritance.

Sadly, this stereotyping also works in reverse.

African-Americans who are academically gifted may be given fewer opportunities because educators overlook their potential and herd them into less scholastically challenging tracks. The same is true for Asian-Americans with exceptional athletic skills: They may get chosen last on the pickup court. They may be ignored by recruiters and dismissed on draft day. They may make it to the big leagues only to ride the pine with minimal chance to show their worth, and then dropped as deadweight when cut dates arrive. And after all that, they may give up and go on to other careers and other lives, never knowing what they could’ve been, should’ve been. Lin didn't — and that's why he got the chance he did.

This highlights the counterpoint to the argument that Lin has gotten special treatment that comparable black players would not: Comparable black players would probably have been recruited to serious sports colleges, gotten at least a second-round selection in the draft, and gone on to solid and respectable careers. That’s where those dozens of African-American NBA journeymen land, after all: They may not make the cover of Sports Illustrated, but they get signed by teams, make millions and often go on to post-retirement gigs as scouts, coaches or broadcasters.

That’s all Lin expected when he decided to make basketball his career: A chance to be a useful midlevel part on an NBA squad. On draft day, he didn’t compare himself to his hero, All-Star point guard Steve Nash, but to Nash’s then-backup, Goran Dragic, telling SI’s Frank Hughes that “neither of us is a freak athlete, but we’re both effective and know how to play the game.”

Slovenia-born Dragic was taken with the 45th overall pick in 2008; you have to go up eight slots to even find another player from that draft who’s still in the league. His numbers as a backup to Nash were solid but not exceptional, and in 2010 he was traded, ironically, to the Houston Rockets, where he played behind Kyle Lowry until Lowry was injured in April 2012. Over the next three months, he bloomed, averaging 18 points and eight assists a game - almost exactly what Lin put up during the three months of “Linsanity.”

When Dragic left the Rockets to sign with his old team the Phoenix Suns, he opened up a point-guard-sized hole in Houston’s lineup — a hole they ultimately filled with Lin.

Dragic’s free agent deal with the Suns? Four years at $30 million, an even more generous contract than what Houston gave Lin. Yet there was no notable backlash to the windfall Dragic received from his three shining months. But two decades ago, before Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac and Arvydas Sabonis established Eastern European players as a legit force in the NBA, there probably would have been.

Throwing $30 million at an unproven 25-year-old who’s had three good months? And who has a funny last name and roots somewhere on the other side of the world, to boot? That’s absurd, say the pundits. That’s ridiculous, say the players. That’s Linsane! But for the next Asian-American to make it to the pros, or the one after him, or the one after him, it won’t be.

Because he’ll be measured on the nature of his game, not the novelty of his identity. And that, ultimately, is all that Lin and every other player — every other person — is looking for, isn’t it?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Yang.

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Filed under: Asian in America • How we look • Race • Sports • What we think
soundoff (One Response)
  1. Dlimhouston

    Nice post, Jeff. The question is whether a racist bias exists in the league against "non-traditional" races in the NBA. The ESPN commentary shifts the focus to one of whether the bias towards Jeremy in media attention and compensation reflects a continuing bias against African-Americans, and implies that Jeremy should thank his lucky stars that he's of Asian descent. The relevant question, though, is one of opportunity – do players of Asian descent get a fair opportunity to succeed in a sport that is 70 to 80% African-American? The ESPN commentators do not answer this question, but rather bemoan their own racial criticisms of the league and media.

    November 19, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |