Friday, February 10, 2012

What February 10th Means To Me: Jeremy Lin And The Question Of Race

This is not a blog about racism.

Or even the true meaning of racism.

It is rather a post about how society still views its citizens through a racial prism that is so ingrained that, often times, we don't even know that we are making subtle decisions regarding taste, or otherwise, based on our perception of race.  Obviously, the question of race's role in both America's history and present is a subject worthy of hundreds of books (so the following won't exactly be groundbreaking or in depth), but though society has made major strides in the acceptance of other races and cultures, the issue of race is still deep seeded in the American subconscious.  And there is no greater example of this than in professional sports. 

The New York Knicks, one of the most popular basketball teams in the world, stink.  Or at least they did.  Despite having two of the top twenty players in the game (Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony), they've sputtered out of the gate this season, laboring through another despicable run that Knicks fans have grown accustom to over the past thirteen years.  But when all hope seemed lost, Coach Mike D'Antoni looked to the far reaches of his bench and inserted a young, hardly tested point guard named Jeremy, and decided to give him a chance.  Thankfully for Coach Mike, Jeremy responded with three incredible games, giving the Knicks three straight wins, while providing the Garden crowd something to cheer about  I mean, really cheer about.  They chant his name, they chant MVP (sort of mockingly?), and suddenly Knicks basketball is the talk of the town again, and all because of this player.

Jeremy's last name is Lin.  And he also happens to be the first American-born Asian to play in the NBA in the modern era.

Jeremy Lin, by all measures, seems to be a talented basketball player.  He is of adequate size for his position (6'3"), he possesses good speed, ball skills, court vision, and basketball IQ.  He has a decent jump shot.  There's nothing all that abnormal about his game.  It's not like he's 5'2, blind in one eye, and is having success despite physical limitations.  There are other interesting aspects toJeremy's story that certainly feed into his popularity.  First off, he hasn't played many minutes in the league (giving him underdog status), secondly, he played his college ball at Harvard, a basketball program hardly known for cultivating NBA talent.  But even though the above is true, that all pales in comparison to the other thing that makes Jeremy Lin an interesting "other":  his race.

Back when I first became a Knick fan in the late 1980's (a golden age for Knicks basketball), the team featured a 12th man (at the time, the worst player on the team) named Greg Butler.  Not only did Butler never play, but he was also the only white guy on the team.  And the crowd loved this guy.  When games were clearly in the Knicks hands deep in the 4th quarter, the "We-want-But-ler" chants would start.  Once inserted into the game, they'd continue, and each time he touched the ball, the crowd would explode.  By any measure, Greg Butler was a good basketball player (obviously, he was in the NBA!), but the crowd treated him with this mocking, yet genuine admiration simply because of his race.  It wasn't like he was a special Olympian, he just didn't look like his other teammates. 

And, in many ways, Jeremy Lin is receiving a similar kind of treatment.  Though Lin has been the best player on the floor the past three nights, the effusive praise the crowds have given him, the chants usually worthy of the NBA's top talent, have been thrust upon him in a mocking way because the crowd sees him as an underdog.  I haven't looked, but I bet there is a huge demand for "Lin 17" jerseys, even though he's only played three games.  I know people have been trying to think of nicknames for him, and they often include his background (similar to how Shaq once called Yao Ming, "Shaqi Chan."). But considering Jeremy's skill set is NBA caliber, the only thing novelistic about him is his race.  And whether that is being celebrated or demeaned isn't particularly relevant in this case, but the fact that it is being recognized is noteworthy.  He's still defined by it.  As we still all are.

It's not "racist" to recognize someone is a different race than you are, and if we collectively decided to close off all conversation about race in fear of being "racist," then we will never progress to that desired post-racial society. 

But regardless...Go Jeremy!  Thanks for bringing excitement back to the Garden once again!

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