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

I’m not going to say Floyd Mayweather Jr. was right when he tweeted that Jeremy Lin has only become the hottest name in sports because he’s Asian.

I am going to say that Floyd limited himself – either accidentally because he didn’t put enough thought behind his words, or on purpose within the 140-character confines of Twitter – from what could have started an intelligent debate on race, sports and social conditioning.

Rather than firing a stray race bullet into the crowd, what Floyd and every other Jeremy Lin hater should cite are the historically ignored forefathers to Jeremy Lins that we’ve seen pass through the NBA before.

Flip Murray, a barely-heard-of second-round draft pick out of Shaw University, averaged 21.0 points over the first 14 games of the 2003-04 season for the Seattle Supersonics. Flip was thrust into the rotation when future Hall of Fame guard Ray Allen was injured, and upon Allen’s return, resumed his destined path as an expendable NBA role player.

Tarence Kinsey, an undrafted rookie out of South Carolina, averaged 18.9 points over the final 13 games of the ’06-07 season for the Memphis Grizzlies. “Mayonnaise” dropped 24 on the Lakers, and 28 apiece against the Nuggets and Warriors. He did this while playing with broken bones in his face and a damaged right eye that he sustained in a preseason scrimmage.

Ramon Sessions, the fifth-to-last pick in the 2007 Draft, averaged 13.1 points and 13.1 assists over the final seven games of his rookie season for the Milwaukee Bucks. In one game against Chicago, Sessions had 20 points, eight rebounds and 24 assists – six shy of tying the NBA’s single-game record.

Andray Blatche, a preps-to-pros second-round draftee who was going nowhere special for the first five years of his career with the Washington Wizards, landed the starting power forward job by default in February 2010 after Washington traded veteran Antawn Jamison. Blatche proceeded to finish the season averaging 22.1 points and 8.3 rebounds following the All-Star break.

All four of these men – and there are more like them – had brief, unexpected runs of inexplicable dominance in the NBA. All of their hot streaks lasted longer than Lin’s current six-game fairy tale that has captured the sports world’s fancy. None of them received a significant fraction of the media hype and public support that Lin has received. And all of them are Black.

Hold up, though. I’m not ready to make this a racial issue yet.

There are several factors, colorblind factors, contributing to Lin’s rise as an NBA supernova.

There is social media’s increasingly wide swath of influence, which has never been stronger than in 2012.

There is the fact that Lin plays for the New York Knicks, in the heart of the city that never sleeps on an opportunity to declare itself the center of the universe, instead of the Charlotte Bobcats or Utah Jazz.

[RELATED: We Reminisce – The Original Jeremy Lin]

There is the good timing of Lin’s hot streak coinciding with the typically slow post-Super Bowl sports news cycle.

There is the adorable side note that Lin comes to us from Harvard, rather than a basketball factory like Kentucky or UCLA or the Chinese government.

There is the fact that Lin is a 6-foot-3 point guard that the average man can relate to, rather than a 6-foot-9 behemoth seemingly bred to dunk a basketball.

There is the convenience of Lin’s open Christianity providing an easy (albeit lazy) link to the sports world’s most recent sensation, Tim Tebow.

And finally, there is the perception that Lin just seems like a nice, humble guy with good parents and a hard-working ethos. Which has little to do with race, as the same perception also applies to Chris Paul, Grant Hill, Stephen Curry and Barack Obama.

All of these factors help explain WHY Jeremy Lin has taken over your television and commandeered your Internet browser over the last week and a half. But more interesting is HOW it’s happened: The part that Lin’s new fans either don’t bother discussing or don’t know basketball well enough to discuss.

Lin is a smart point guard with a good jump shot who plays for Knicks head coach Mike D’Antoni. And just like Raymond Felton before him and Steve Nash before him, Lin is playing the best basketball of his life in D’Antoni’s PG-friendly system. That system allowed an All-Star like Nash to become an MVP. It allowed a solid starter like Felton to become a borderline All-Star. And it has allowed a fringe NBA player like Lin to become a solid starter.

The popular belief is that Lin has saved D’Antoni’s job. I’d like to think it was D’Antoni who saved Lin’s career.

Lin took over at point guard for a team racked by injuries at the position and whose No. 1 and No. 2 scorers, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, have been on the court together once in the last six games. That means Lin can shoot the ball 19.5 times per game (and average 5.1 turnovers per game), as he has done in his last six, without anybody pulling him aside and reminding him of the certified All-NBA talent surrounding him.

The popular belief is that Anthony is the hungriest of the NBA’s Hungry Hungry Hippos when it comes to his stats, and that upon his return from injury he will make it his mission to stifle Lin’s development. I’d like to think that Lin, like any smart point guard, will take advantage of Anthony’s offensive weaponry and shoot the ball less so ‘Melo can shoot more.

Lin has also benefitted from a schedule so cozy that only a “Jersey Shore” cast member can relate. In his six games of glory he’s faced terrible teams like the Washington Wizards and New Jersey Nets, and terrible defensive point guards like Jose Calderon and Derek Fisher.

The popular belief is that Lin was always this hidden gem of All-Star ability that was simply overlooked and underrated by an NBA scouting and coaching establishment with racist tendencies. I’d like to think that any point guard good enough to make an NBA roster and play 38 minutes per night under Mike D’Antoni would produce similar stats and magical moments against that kind of opposition.

Now would be the right time to admit my own biases. That personally, I grew tired of Linsanity before it existed: Three years ago precisely, when it was only a mild Linterest.

[RELATED: Today In Jeremy Lin Crazy]

Back in 2009, following Lin’s junior year at Harvard, Dime colleague Gerald Narciso penned a feature on Lin for the magazine (Ed. note: We actually posted it today). Good player, I thought. Great story. But after a few months of Lin being a popular topic around the Dime office, I’d had my fill. Later that year, the senior Lin led Harvard into a game against my Georgetown Hoyas and was destroyed: Lin had 15 points, four assists and six turnovers in a 16-point loss, while Hoyas point guard Chris Wright dropped 34 points, four assists and six steals. I figured I’d never hear of the kid again.

In 2010, after Lin went undrafted by the NBA, he made the Golden State Warriors as a summer league walk-on. The same stories resurfaced, on a slightly more national level, and during this round of Linfatuation I almost wrote a piece for Dime‘s NBA season preview issue about how the Harvard grad had become the most overhyped undrafted rookie 12th man on a bad team of all time.

If that’s how I felt about Jeremy Lin then, imagine my feelings now. The full-blown Linsanity of 2012 has, for me, been a little bit like standing in the middle of the crowd at the Teen Choice Awards.

But let’s get back to the race thing.

At least two Black sports personalities already have the bruises to show for enduring the public body shots that come with directing an insult (real or perceived) toward Jeremy Lin. Mayweather is the most prominent. FOX Sports columnist Jason Whitlock is another. Thanks to his wildly misinterpreted “Rudy” quote and depending on the results of his comeback, Carmelo Anthony could easily become the third. Even Kobe Bryant was subject to a bit of backlash after admitting he wasn’t privy to Linsanity before his Lakers gave up 38 points to Lin last Friday.

At risk of joining that list, I will say this:

Jeremy Lin is not a celebrity right now because he’s Asian. But the fact that he’s not Black certainly aids his ascension.

Consider what lies ahead on tonight’s NBA schedule: Lin and the Knicks against the Sacramento Kings and their star point guard, Tyreke Evans.

In a lot of ways, Evans is the embodiment of the “Black basketball player.” He is a 6-6, 230-pound sculpted spectacle of athleticism. He came up from a rough neighborhood in Chester, Pa., raised by older brothers who envisioned the NBA for Tyreke when he was four years old. He was ushered through the AAU and high school system as a kid who was so talented that few outside of his circle cared about things like his grades (which were good) and whether or not he was a nice person (which he is). He had a personal trainer before he turned 16 years old. He viewed college as a pit-stop on his path to the pros, spending one year at the University of Memphis before entering the NBA Draft.

During his rookie year, Evans was arrested for reckless driving when he was caught doing over 100 miles-per-hour in his new Mercedes. That same year he was sued for his involvement in a fatal drive-by shooting in Chester committed by Tyreke’s cousin, during which Tyreke was in the car. Again, Evans is a great guy. But while a lot of people would pay money to watch Tyreke Evans play basketball, many more people would walk the other way if somebody who looked like Tyreke Evans approached them on a dark sidewalk.

I don’t think I’m the only Black man in America who, even if it’s just a slight tug of pride on my racial hardwiring, hopes Tyreke handles himself well tonight against Jeremy Lin.

[RELATED: The Best Jeremy Lin Fan Video You Will Ever See]

I can’t help but feel hypocritical, though.

During the wave of Tebowmania that struck the U.S. so many weeks ago, I was constantly saying – well, I would’ve been saying it if I had an NFL column – that Tebow’s harsh critics should stop nit-picking his game and just appreciate what was happening. Whether ugly or pretty, Tebow was making plays, winning games, and helping turn around one of the NFL’s worst teams from 2010 into a playoff squad in 2011. And he did it while doing nothing that should offend anyone’s sensibilities as a reasonable human being.

So what’s the difference now? Why did I fully support Tebow but throw an eye-roll toward Jeremy Lin? After all, Lin is even more of the underdog story: If I rooted for Allen Iverson and Ben Wallace and Muggsy Bogues, I should also root for Jeremy Lin, right?

After exploring it for a few days – even running the “Am I being racist?” check by some of my closer friends of diverse backgrounds – I figured it out.

Tebow had his time in the center of an NFL hype machine that never misses a potential subject. Because fantasy football has turned stat-worship into an inescapable part of NFL culture, anybody who has even a bit of a hot streak, whether it’s Gus Frerotte or Jackie Battle or Matt Flynn or Flipper Anderson, gets their fair time to shine. Meanwhile, Jeremy Lin has profited from an NBA hype machine that is undeniably more discriminating.

My Jeremy Lin “hate” is partially as simple as the Tebow hate coming from those who so confidently predicted Tebow would be an utter failure in the NFL. From an ego standpoint, I just don’t like to be wrong, and I was wrong about Lin’s ability to make a mark in the NBA.

But more accurately, at least I tell myself, it is a requiem for the Tarence Kinseys and Flip Murrays of the league. The forgotten phenoms who never made it to the headlines of Sports Business Journal, never were presented their “I broke Twitter” key to the Internet.

It is a requiem for those who had their moment of crazy success, but were denied the spoils of Linsanity.

Do you think Linsanity has gone overboard? Would a Black player receive the same recognition?

Follow Austin on Twitter at @AustinBurton206.

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