Jeremy Lin challenges stereotypes, as well as defenses

Mike Wise
Columnist February 18, 2012

At a cable-less apartment in Charlottesville Friday night, a streaming live feed of an NBA game was willingly purchased on my sister-in-law’s old MacBook. A long-dormant fan, whose Sports Illustrated cutout photos of Magic and Bird were removed from his bedroom walls long ago, had awakened.

I had to watch Jeremy Lin, to see if a better Horatio Alger hoops tale than even John Starks — who bagged groceries at a Piggly Wiggly market in Tulsa, Okla., prior to “The Dunk” — could enrapture New York again.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Seven wins running, Shaquille O’Neal’s scoring record to start a career falling — heck, stereotypes rattled and shaken with blinding, stutter-step drives through the lane — the first transcendent Asian American pro basketball player hit his first real speed bump in two weeks, when the Knicks fell to New Orleans.

Hours later, we all went back to square one.

An ESPN mobile headline appeared at about 2:30 in the morning. For 35 minutes, underneath the photo of Lin, were words that employed perhaps the worst racial slur imaginable for a person who identifies as Taiwanese American.

Linsanity, leveled by Linsensitivity – just like that.

Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president of editorial, print and digital media, cringed like most people when he was informed. The son of Post columnist Colbert I. King, born and reared in the District, he has been one of the more proactive voices in the industry against the exact kind of headline an editor typed into a keyboard in the wee hours of the morning Friday.

“The minute everybody starts patting ourselves on the back over reaching some kind of conclusion on the issue of race, something like this happens and makes us realize how far we have to go,” he said in a telephone interview early Saturday morning. “All we can do for now is continue to preach vigilance.”

The real blessing in disguise of Jeremy Lin schooling the NBA: It isn’t merely the notion that undrafted Harvard graduates can overcome obvious profiling by general managers and scouts over what colleges prospective point guards should play for and what they should look like.

No, it’s that maybe now that there is a bona fide American Asian star to make us see the overlooked and often covert racism less-famous people of his ethnicity have forever faced in sports and beyond.

“We’re more sensitive to black history in this society,” says Guy Aoki, head and co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans. He explained it further:

Because reporters “don’t want anyone to think they condone the word’s use, they came up with the ‘N-word,’ ” Aoki said by telephone from Los Angeles. “There’s no such thing as the C-word . . . is there?”

When the Madison Square Garden Network flashed a graphic of Lin sticking his tongue out, superimposed in the middle of a fortune cookie, Aoki wondered aloud: “Imagine if 80 percent of the league were Asian American. And a black player’s face was put in the middle of fried chicken and watermelon. How would that go over? Look, I get it; the sports world is not used to dealing with Asian stars, and in that regard maybe this will open some eyes.”

In some ways, we’ve made the black-equals-athletic stereotype do a 180-degree turn, no?

When Lin’s ability is dissected, he is often referred to as “smart” and “persevering” with a “high basketball IQ,” though anyone who has witnessed his skill and athleticism understands that framing his achievement by his “Harvard experience” is downright lazy; Trust me, Jeremy Lin did not cross-over John Wall and dunk on the Wizards because of his superior intellect.

Boxer Floyd Mayweather’s now-infamous Tweet — “Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian,” condemned by Spike Lee, among others — does a disservice on so many levels.

Lin’s ethnicity — and the fact that people who looked liked him could finally relate to an NBA player in a way millions of African Americans embraced Tiger Woods dominating a predominantly white sport — is undeniably part of this popularity meteor that fell from the sky two weeks ago.

But the bigger reason is Lin’s story pierced our so-cynical and overinformed souls.

We have lost a sense of discovery in sports. No one devotes pages or broadcasts to the odd tale of a middle reliever who has a ferret farm anymore, or the NASCAR driver who suffers from claustrophobia. Why? Because someone tweeted those facts in 140 or fewer characters two years ago, or blogged about it in their spring-training diaries six months ago.

The parable of the unsung hero is a lost American tradition; many of our athletic gods have been knighted as teenagers. Players don’t come from nowhere in this page-view obsessed world. A 90-second Google search now, and we know everything about anybody.

Kids from nowhere, especially 23-year-olds who sleep on their brother’s Manhattan couch, turn our cheers into throaty roars like nothing else. In an era of fewer and fewer surprises — 10,000-meter gold medalist Billy Mills was asked by a reporter after his 1964 Tokyo win, “Who are you? Who are you?” after all — Lin’s emergence from NBA Development League player to Broadway star was downright stunning.

He will never have to eat at different restaurants than his teammates, nor will he suffer racial epithets hurled directly toward him in the middle of an NBA game without someone else in the stands fighting for him.

But after this C-word furor and so many other borderline comments and placards the past two weeks, let’s be clear: Lin has more in common with Jackie Robinson than Tim Tebow.

Because the discrimination of one race is perceived to be more abominable than another’s, their discrimination should not be minimized, nor the sensitivity of slurs hurled toward them diminished.

The best thing about Jeremy Lin schooling the NBA: the lessons don’t stop once Madison Square Garden has emptied.

For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.

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