Five thoughts on Linsanity

Linsanity is sweeping the nation.

The story of undrafted, twice-cut and Harvard-educated Jeremy Lin setting records for points and assists in leading the previously moribund New York Knicks to an active seven-game winning streak has gripped people across the country and sparked a welcome discussion about race in America.

As with any topic of the moment these days, there is an almost endless supply of material about Lin, his Asian American background, and his long journey from receiving no college scholarship offers, being undrafted and then cut by the Houston Rockets and his hometown Golden State Warriors to out playing Kobe Bryant and hitting a game-winning three pointer in Jose Calderon’s face.

Even opposing players are getting swept along.

ESPN beat writer Dave McMenamin tweeted the following after Lin’s shot:

The Lakers’ players lounge just erupted when Lin hit that big 3. World Peace emerged and ran through the locker room yelling ‘Linsanity!!’

And the Worldwide Leader’s New York section unabashedly this week said that it’s All Lin, All The Time.

Meanwhile, dear friend and uber-connector Danny Postel sent along this piece by Alexander Chee about the impact Lin is having on Asian-Americans’ experience and perception of race in the United States, concluding at the end that Lin’s play will lead to less bullying:

And while Jeremy Lin may not single-handedly make all of the bullying go away, somewhere in America, at least one Asian American kid right now is getting invited into a pick-up game instead of cornered and beaten. That’s the game that matters, more than anything you’ll see during a Knicks game. And Lin is helping win that one, too.

And others have drawn comparisons between the play, religious faith and  rise in team’s fortunes of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow and Lin.

With all this conversation swirling around, it may seem a bit presumptuous to insert oneself into the conversation.

Nevertheless, here are my takes on some lesser-discussed aspects that have contributed to, and that we can learn from, this moment:

I. Lin is embodying the hero’s journey articulated by Joseph Campbell.

Campbell wrote in a number of books, most notably, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, about the hero receiving the call, undergoing trials, slaying the dragon and returning home with the boon.

Lin has at the very least done the first two, if not all four, of these steps.  His steadfast pursuit of his dream in the face both of not having his talents recognized and enduring many racial slurs shows his character and is a large part of his appeal.

II. His height and position enhance his appeal: 

Lin is not the first Asian or Asian-American player to make an impact on the NBA.   In fact, Yao Ming’s decision to retire due to the damage his 7 foot 6 inch body sustained prompted serious discussion of whether he should be admitted to the Hall of Fame.

Yao was enormously popular in his native China-he carried the country’s Olympic torch in consecutive Olympics-and his towering size, foreign place of birth and slower acquisition of English made it harder for certain NBA fans to root for him than the shorter, quicker Lin, whose darts into the forest of big men resonate with fan is size or smaller.

In other words, there are a lot more guys 6’3″ or less who see their own fantasies embodied by the point guard Lin, than there are people who are 7’0″ or taller, like  Yao, who played center.

III. Race in America is multi-layered:

Boxer Floyd Mayweather stirred up controversy when he tweeted Monday: “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’s assertion sparked a retort from director and Knicks fanatic Spike Lee, among others, who said that Lin “Can BALL PLAIN AND SIMPLE. RECOGNIZE.”

I agree with Lee on this point, and the racial current in this conversation are not one-dimensional.  Chee wrote in his piece that his initial thought upon learning that Lin graduated from Harvard was one of concern:

When I heard he was a Harvard grad, I thought: Of course, the first Asian American NBA superstar also had to go to Harvard and get better than a 3.0.

And then: Way to raise the stakes on the Asian American overachiever.

Chee’s first thought was not his conclusion, and the insight is revealing of the ambiguous and often precarious social position in which many Asian-Americans find themselves here in the United States.

At the same time, I would say that, as with Steve Nash before him, Lin does have a certain appeal among fans of the game who are not black and who enjoy seeing someone other than an African-American succeed at the game’s highest levels.

So, while Mayweather may not have been right about the source of Lin’s attention being based in his race, there are other factors in the conversation that do relate to

Speaking of Nash, …

IV. Mike D’Antoni has a fascinating role in this drama:

The recently-embattled coach has revived his own career and the team’s fortunes by handing the proverbial keys to the car to Lin, who has made the most of the opportunity.  This is remarkably similar to what he did in Phoenix with Nash, who went from a lower-level All Star to a two-time MVP by manning the helm of the Seven Seconds or Less offense that inspired a book by Jack McCallum and that Chris Connelly included in his list of Top 12 Critically Acclaimed Teams or Athletes.

In other words, for some fans, Lin’s accomplishments are accentuated because his race,a heightens his underdog status.  Although different from Nash and reigning Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki, Lin’s race stands in stark contrast with that of the majority of the league’s players, who are black.

This is a topic worth a entire post and book (Jeffrey Lane explored this territory throughout his book Under the Boards, and in particular in his chapter on Larry Bird.).

V. Social media has played a substantial role in reducing the time frame for evaluating actions:

Lin has been a starter for seven games.

During that time he has ascended from unknown to budding legend with ten of thousands of Twitter followers.

That’s a function to a large degree of his play, which has set post-merger records, the Knicks’ wins and Lin’s role at critical moments in the victories.

But Linsanity has also taken hold because of the global conversations enabled in real time by Twitter and other related technologies.

As a result, a process that in the past took people an entire career of a dozen years at least has been reduced to less than 10 percent of a shortened season.

We saw the same phenomenon at work before with Tebow’s play with the Broncos this past fall.

We’ve seen it in other arenas, too.

Think of all the frontrunners there have been for the Republican presidential nomination.  Bachmann. Cain.  Perry. Gingrich twice. Santorum. Hunstmann (Just checking to see that you are paying attention.).

Each had a momentary surge that has been used to project their position atop the party’s ticket.

In fact, Yahoo News just announced yesterday that President Obama won re-election in November, despite the fact that the vote is more than eight months away.

I’m exaggerating on the last example, of course.

But not by much.

And I would argue that the point about the impact of social media on our ability to have any sort of historical perspective stands.

The upside of all this connection is an unparalleled ability to be in touch at any second.

The downside, from my perspective, is that diminution in evaluative capacity.

Linsanity has been productive and positive in many, many ways.

And, as the name suggests, it is a form of temporary craziness.

As Walt Frazier pointed out, there are flaws in Lin’s game.

Sooner of later, the Knicks’ streak will end.

Lin will make mistakes in critical moments.

Asian-American kids will continue to deal with bullying.

And the presidential election will take place in November, not February.

I applaud and admire what Lin is doing, how he is handling himself and the discussion his play has prompted.

At the same time, I would urge us to consider the importance of thoughtful reflection and being able to place things in a longer-term perspective.


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