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Racial Linsantiy

Reactions to Jeremy Lin's basketball success.

by James Leroy Wilson
February 14, 2012

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Racial Linsantiy

Eli who?

New York Giants fans were barely recovering from the Super Bowl victory parties when they discovered something else to celebrate: "Linsanity."

That's referring to Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks.

The undrafted free agent from Harvard, already dropped from one team, and coming up through the NBA's Developmental League, finally found himself starting at point guard.

The Knicks won all five of those games in which he played the majority of minutes, in seven nights.

That's hard enough for talented teams to do. But the Knicks played most of their games without their two best players, out because of injury and a death in the family.

And after the five wins, the Knicks elevated to a record of only 13-15.

In other words, they were bad without Lin. With him, they played themselves right back into playoff contention.

It's a Tebow-esque performance.

Well, not really. If it was Tebow-esque, Lin would have had six points going into the final minute, and then hit four free throws to win each game. And, Lin would have been famous coming out of college.

Unlike Tebow, quarterback of the Broncos, there's evidence that Lin can play.

In the first night of the streak, Lin didn't start but he scored 28 points. Over the next four games, he scored 109 points.

Oh, yes, there's that other thing.

Lin is Asian-American. The only such player in the NBA. (Although there have been Asian-born players.)

It could be that Lin is just having a great start, and will fall back to being an average player once teams adjust to his game. You sometimes see this with rookie pitchers and even first-time starting quarterbacks. But there's no doubt he is good enough to at least have been drafted.

Why wasn't he?

The Wall Street Journal argues that he shouldn't have been a surprise: "Writers at the Wages of Wins, an NBA quantitative-analysis blog, have put together an index of college performance that shows Lin was significantly better than the average draftee during his days with the Crimson. Even if his Ivy League stats should be discounted, he'd still come out ahead of many of the players near the top of the 2010 draft class."

I recall, however, a former NBA player, Tim Legler, talk of racism in the NBA. Legler was white. No, he didn't experience prejudice against his abilities in the locker room. His teammates, most of whom were African-American, knew he could play. But he felt racism in mostly-white front offices who downgraded his potential because Legler was white. He went undrafted and had to play in Europe and the Continental Basketball Association before getting his chance in the NBA.

I don't recall if Legler said that his race was ever mentioned to his face, but he perceived it nevertheless. If his perception is accurate, then we can fairly ask: If a 6'4" white player had a hard time making it because of stereotypes about white athletic ability, is it any surprise that a 6'3" Asian-American would be overlooked?

Of course, this isn't the only form of racism around the league, or nation. A few weeks ago I heard Ice Cube interviewed by Dan LeBatard. LeBatard asked Cube about racism today. Cube said something along the lines of sensing it every day, even if you can't really put a finger on it.

Last Saturday afternoon, I tuned to ESPN radio while driving in my car. I heard a caller said he hadn't been an NBA fan for years because, according to him, NBA players were more concerned about money and egos instead of team. But then, thanks to a remarkable week by Lin, the caller became an NBA fan again. He appreciated that Lin was "team-first" and "literate."

The hosts, Freddie Coleman and Jonathan Coachman, were polite to the caller. Coleman said that there are lots of other guys in the NBA like Lin, such as Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant, and that the NBA should do a better job of promoting them.

This makes me wonder, if Lin's biography and personality was exactly the same but he was black, would the caller have paid attention to him? If anything, Lin likes to score, or at least is willing to shoot. The caller may have projected on Lin his own version of positive Chinese stereotypes - unselfish and group-oriented, hard-working, smart.

Does this caller think of himself as a racist? Probably not. He could give all sorts of reasons why he isn't, and he would not be wrong. He would dispute the claim that he was stereotyping African-American athletes as selfish and Asian-Americans as unselfish. He could, with some justice, accuse me of projecting MY impressions and stereotypes onto him. He called into a show where the two hosts were African-American, and he wouldn't have if he meant to be insensitive.

All of this could be true. But he did call, and he came across as an ignorant fool.

Ice Cube was right.

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