Jeremy Lin and Unpreparedness   Leave a comment


Note: I am writing a series of memos on Jeremy Lin because it’s not possible to cover it all in one sitting. Here’s Part I. Probably of 17. 


Pretty sure we’ll get beyond 4…Jeremy sure did.

The way we understand new things is dependent on what we’re prepared to see and interpret. Our personal experiences shape the way we ingest unfamiliar variations of similar things we already know. We understand today’s sitcoms in terms of Friends or Seinfeld, we understand each new President in terms of the faces on our money, and we understand our salsas in terms of the mild, medium, and hot flavors and how much milk or beer it’ll take to douse the heat.

To reach for these well-known frames is often helpful when encountering new things. I know how to avoid bad sequels to movies I enjoyed and sodas with single digit modifiers in the name. I know what make of car I might want to purchase in the future and to order the hottest salsa most all the time. My experience has allowed me to get these things right most of the time. But it’s very possible to be unprepared to deal with something unexpected and exotic. If it’s something that can hardly be avoided on TV and the internet, blunders become more likely.

Zero scholarship offers out of high school, Harvard economics major, undrafted out of college, cut by two mediocre teams, and glued to the end of the bench of a third. All of a sudden tearing up the league, hitting game-winning three pointers and putting up 38 points in a win against Kobe and the Lakers? Before we throw in being the first Taiwanese American NBA player — and the first one who looks it that people under 40 might know about — it’s an unlikely and inspiring story. Before the Asian thing.

But there really is no before. Born an American, Lin’s parents immigrated from Taiwan, and his unmistakeably Asian appearance can’t be disentangled from his story. The extent to which this itself explains the unlikelihood is for another post, but references to Lin’s heritage are one of the first things mentioned about him when people find out who he is. Nobody, when introducing Lin’s story to a friend,  just says, “some undrafted Harvard grad who’s going off since he got to play.” It’s invariably qualified with the Chinese/Taiwanese/Asian description. Which means it’s important. Important to us.

It’s stupid to say about any athlete, “The only reason I like him is because he’s a good player, I don’t care what race he is.” What a lazy and race-tailored thought. No one would ever say that about Kobe, not even 16 year ago. Nobody would say that about Alex Rodriguez. Or Barry Bonds.  The disclaimer about discounting race is an admissible confession that race is being thought about. And no one likes professional athletes merely because they’re good at their sport. We know so much about professional athletes from their hometown to their legal entanglements that it’s impossible to only look at on-field performance.

And we’ve seen infinitely more footage of Jeremy Lin looking Chinese than we have of Bonds with The Clear or even A-Rod with Madonna. We know about it. We know it’s unusual. To be totally indifferent to something so unusual would be absurd. And there’s something we sense, something we can detect even if we can’t define it, and even if we can define it, we don’t know how to talk about it. We know we really like the underdog story of an improbable rise to thrilling drives and splashing critical threes on basketball’s biggest stage. And we like that he’s a Taiwanese American in the NBA. We sense there’s a level of causality between this fact and his underdog story as a whole. Then we sense that maybe Lin shouldn’t be the first Asian American star in the NBA. It’s not a comfortable thing to sense.

Yet Linsanity is an overwhelmingly positive experience! It’s exciting to know that such a hard-working and talented player is making the most of his opportunity. It’s more exciting to watch him in action, preferably in HD on TV, but in lower quality on the computer if necessary. It’s cool to see him thank his teammates and God after wins, and to take responsibility for his own performance. To watch and listen to Lin himself is a joy. The spinning drives, the tricky dribbles through the lane, fearless long range shots, all those skillful and unselfish passes to teammates whose scores we knowingly celebrate before the ball even leaves their fingertips. And then smiling post-game interviews where he credits teamwork and others’ effort. It’s when the talking heads and sportswriters take over that I’m confused.

Pundits and columnists are compelled to pound Lin into some pre-existing frame. John Starks or Tim Tebow, Fernando Valenzuela and even Jackie Robinson. As an undrafted devout Christian who defies stereotypes and broke a color-barrier of sorts, sure he has some things in common with all these guys. And most professional columns that perform such comparisons are very clear about the differences and try to capture what’s unique about Lin. Yet using the players being mentioned as a foundation of comparison weakens our ability to identify what’s unique in Lin’s case. It’s almost unimportant to group Lin with other athletes who overcame long odds and racial stereotypes unless you’re doing a historical study on this type of person. Starks and Tebow didn’t make Lin possible. In an indirect way, maybe Jackie Robinson did, but no more than for a majority of the NBA. But talking heads all over the country are forcing us to consider Lin in those terms.

The establishment sports media was unprepared for Linsanity. We can talk about talent evaluators using stereotypes, but the beauty of sports is that players can show they can play. The media isn’t like that. It’s not as much of a meritocracy and it selects for the most sticky narrative over the most correct one. They never expected an Asian American to be a breakout NBA star. If they were to deal with another Chinese NBA star, it’d be another Yao where they could depend on his foreignness to keep their hands clean and his Asian accent as a source of humor in commercials. Lin is a natural born American citizen (Lin/Tebow 2044) and speaks more like a, well, Harvard grad, than like a kung-fu master. This was the last thing the media expected.

And since no human can disentangle Jeremy Lin from his appearance and therefore heritage, it requires a frame of reference. It’s very unusual to see an Asian in the NBA, especially one whose play is giant without his body being so. Who probably needs an interpreter, but in his parents’ home country, not in America where he was born. Someone with this profile didn’t exist before and wasn’t expected to exist any time soon. To quickly figure out who the heck this kid is and where he came from seems like the media’s job. But the media is lazy, especially in sports media where the cocktail of dominant teams, superstar divas, celebrity girlfriends and ho-hum record breaking has lulled them into complacency. Sports media breaks a lot of news, but not different kinds of news. Jeremy Lin is different kinds of a news.

Using the well-known stories of other players with whom Lin had no real direct connection and hasn’t claimed as inspiration is lazy journalism. People like historical player X, people like Jeremy Lin, put ’em in a tumbler and shake well. There’s a sense of scrambling to tack together a narrative that belies the media’s unpreparedness. Their reliance on familiar tropes and story lines to explain Lin. The montages of Asian restaurants gathered to watch Knicks games and multitude of pun signs. But every time I read an ESPN or SI article on Lin, or see a talking sports head on TV, I get the sense that they’re getting it wrong. That what they’re saying doesn’t quite align with what I see and feel. That it hardly overlaps. Important pieces of Lin’s story are going unexplained, and the gaps get filled in by flashy numbers, lofty comparisons, and more puns. The sports media was prepared for another Tebow, or Yao, or maybe even a Jackie Robinson. They got Jeremy Lin — a unique person who’s had a unique rise and they’re unsure what to do with him.

Unpreparedness leads to mistakes. It makes what’s easy and lazy very tempting. When it comes to Asians, what’s easy and lazy, and even what comes natural can be toxic. Lin’s shown every step of the way that he’ll rise above any media errors, but in time, someone in the media should get it right. On a personal level, in this series, I hope to get it right.

In the meantime, Lin will continue to build his story, be a class act, and hopefully tonight douse the Heat.

Next time: Mayweather, Whitlock, and Chink in the Armor x3. Gotta take this one on.

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Posted February 23, 2012 by Wada in Uncategorized

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