Linsanity Re-Examined: Confessions Of A Hater

By: 03.09.12
Jeremy Lin

I promised myself I wouldn’t write another word about Jeremy Lin until he had at least passed the one-month anniversary of the Genesis of Linsanity. (2:4:12: And D’Antoni said to him, “Get in there, Harvard.”)

Contrary to the modern-day sports media model, I didn’t need to immediately crown Lin an NBA superstar, nor did I want to short-change the 23-year-old New York Knicks point guard as the dog’s ass on which the sun decided to shine for a couple of weeks. Seven great games does not make a legend; and at the same time, seven terrible games does not secure one’s spot on the Olowokandi list. So I waited.

Meanwhile, my hope was that sometime during the NBA’s most compelling story since LeBron James and “The Decision,” somewhere in between the off-color commentary and off-kilter delirium from fans and media alike, an intelligent debate would open addressing the issues of sports, race and social conditioning that Linsanity could have brought to the forefront.

I should have known better. In the midst of chaos, rationality and reflection tap out to emotion and knee-jerk reaction. And when it comes to certain cultural icons – and yes, Jeremy Lin has become a cultural icon – it can take an entire lifetime for supporters and detractors to approach things with a clear head.

Trust me. Barack Obama has been President of the United States for four years, and my instinct is still to ingest every bit of right-wing criticism lobbed toward him as a concealed racial slur. Recently I watched Charlie Rose‘s interview with South African playwright Athol Fugard, who said: “I actually think that a lot of the flak Mr. Obama comes in for is a result of a prejudice. The notion of a Black man in the White House (is not accepted).”

My first response: “I KNOW a lot of the flak Obama gets is a result of prejudice.”

[RELATED: The Ugly Truth Of The Linsanity Debate: It’s Always Racial]

So I don’t get upset when readers accuse me of racism for bringing up the color-coded subplots of Linsanity, or for suggesting that Lin’s stellar opening act had as much to do with favorable circumstance as it had to do with Lin’s basketball ability.

First, because I know certain segments of society will react to (real or perceived) Lin criticisms the same way I react to any harsh words spoken against Obama, LeBron, Michael Vick or Serena Williams.

Second, because I’ve learned along the way that the people who are most often offended by the mere introduction of race into a conversation are the same people who have been least impacted by racism.

But there is another reason why, I believe, tying the soaring epic of Jeremy Lin to the anchors of race, politics and stereotypes is met with what appears to be a mood hovering between uncomfortable resistance and outright revolt.

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Jeremy Lin

It’s because we don’t need a story this pure – and so rare because it is so pure – to be ruined by such seriousness and potential scandal.

Jeremy Lin’s NBA breakout would not have mutated into “Linsanity” were it not for a few factors. Yes, one of them is that Lin plays for the New York Knicks instead of the Indiana Pacers or the Memphis Grizzlies. Yes, another is that he’s a basketball outlier – a Harvard graduate of Asian descent with relatively average size – instead of the 6-foot-8 Black man with a year or two of party-school education under his belt that has become our blueprint of the modern NBA player.

And another is that Lin is a spotlessly positive story at a time when the sports pages are being weighed down by just the opposite.

Negativity in our sports culture is at an all-time high, from the athletes themselves to the media and fans who follow them. Sportswriters and TV personalities, radio hosts and podcasters, bloggers and barstool debaters, it seems none of them are happy unless there’s something to be mad about.

Detailing how the games are won isn’t as juicy as harping on how they were lost. Identifying the next rising star on the coaching scene isn’t as popular as pegging which coaches are on the hot seat. Enjoying this season gets lost in speculation over whether the superstar will leave next season or the season after that in free agency. And rather than celebrate the talents of those superstars – the Dwight Howards, the Cam Newtons, the Alex Ovechkins – we focus our lens on their faults and missteps.

Scandal, for us, looms larger than achievement.

[RELATED: SNL Spoofs Jeremy Lin Racial Jokes]

Consider the case of Ryan Braun. During his 2011 National League MVP season, I heard the Milwaukee outfielder’s name about 1/100th as much as I heard it during the offseason, when a dirty drug test threatened to taint that MVP award. Ryan Braun didn’t become a household name because he was one of the best baseball players in the world; he became a household name because he was an MVP with a scandal. The good story buried by the bad story.

Or consider the case of Clipper Darrell. Here we have an L.A. Clippers fan that received so much media attention that he was turned into a “super fan” … who then used that media-created status to book paying promotional gigs … that the team, overprotective of its licensing and name, wanted control over so much that legal muscles were flexed and Clipper Darrell was forced into fan exile. Which the media then covered as an important story.

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Jeremy Lin

Are there any good guys here? No part of the Clipper Darrell saga that isn’t soaked in greed and pettiness? Here is the part where I’d drop a cute catchphrase about how this could only happen in a certain North American country, but I don’t want Don King to sue me.

It makes me picture A.J. Liebling coming back from a 50-year coma like Martin Luther King, Jr., on “The Boondocks,” perusing the state of the industry and asking his sportswriting descendants: “What happened to us?”

If these stories remind us that nothing in sports is pure anymore, Jeremy Lin – whether he’s here for a short stay or for the long haul – reminds us that maybe some things still can be. The underdog story, the overnight sensation, the outsider infiltrating the in-crowd; these are the scripts we actually enjoy. They keep the concept alive that this whole sports thing is supposed to be, you know, fun.

And now that it’s been more than a month, how much life is left in Linsanity?

[RELATED: Jeremy Lin Is The Next LeBron… Statistically]

Some convincing losses by the Knicks and utterly mortal performances by Lin turned down the volume of crazy, but Lin remains one of the NBA’s headliners and most productive players. The phenomenon that peaked during a national TV game against the Dallas Mavericks on Feb. 19 – when Lin dropped 28 points and 14 assists and received Magic Johnson‘s public seal of approval – was stark contrast to the player who posted a modest 14 points and seven assists in a loss to the Mavs on Tuesday night.

It doesn’t mean Lin suddenly stinks. It does mean he shouldn’t be crowned the NBA’s savior just yet. It does mean we can get a realistic picture of Jeremy Lin the NBA player: A very good point guard with some flaws, whose skills shine especially bright given the right coach, the right system, and the right set of teammates.

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone anymore when Lin goes shot-for-shot and dime-for-dime with the likes of Kyrie Irving, Tyreke Evans and John Wall. Nor should it be a surprise when Lin gets torched by the likes of Deron Williams, Tony Parker and Rajon Rondo. Or when he does some torching of his own. That same profile fits Steve Nash, Ty Lawson, Stephen Curry … the rest of the very good point guards in the NBA.

This one also happens to have the kind of pure, positive story that needs to be told more often.

And right now, that’s good enough.

What do you think?

Follow Austin on Twitter at @AustinBurton206.

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