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And a little child shall lead them…
A Vessel and Looking-Glass for Our Ideals
WATCHING the accidental fortune that found Jeremy Lin’s personal showcase become a harbinger for the New York Knicks’ own serendipity — following a poor start amid lofty pre-season expectations and injuries to the team’s superstars — has proven to be a screed for the narratives concerning the best of our society, and what we desire to be generally true about opportunity and excellence in America, even as we realize in the back of our minds that all we symbolically project onto Lin’s emergence isn’t necessarily true for all. Nonetheless, Lin does represent many of the tenets of our sociopolitical history, and the ideals we tout as central to the American ethic: He is an example of the hard-working underdog story of Horatio Alger and similar tales told over and over; those about a mother and father or grandparents coming from the old country, to find in one generation their child or grandchild to be a wild success. He is ultimately what debates about immigration are about, in some sense, answering the irrationally xenophobic question, “Will they assimilate?”; resoundingly.
In the personal, sporting context, he is an atomization of 2010′s Butler Bulldogs and 2011′s Virginia Commonwealth University Rams, who impelled us to tune in to March Madness in recent springs — as Lin has, this winter — hoping to see that just once more in the smallest slice of time, that the guys or teams least expected to win, actually win. And regardless of Lin’s ancestry, which has undoubtedly fueled some of the novelty, any modicum of sporting success surfacing from obscurity would have engendered great support and produced a frenzy of this level in New York, because it is the central node city for our media, and that we all happen to love underdogs because of how antithetical their stories are to our reality; and that the expected always happening doesn’t allow for the sense of adventure we all need in our lives. Further, without that “vicariousness,” it would imply many of us are doomed to remain “little guys,” as we mostly are, a reality many cannot stomach. (Hence, striving to be “Facebook Famous” or “Tumblr Famous” or the prominent rise of horribly conceived reality-shows.) His surrounding story is made of the same stuff Hollywood produces in bulk, those things which make grown men shed a tear during Rudy: that of a dogged persistence and an iron-will determination to overcome obstacles both real and those created by the perceptions in the hive-mind of a society (e.g. Asian-American kids from Harvard, just don’t excel at professional basketball), and which become real, because of those who are willing to buy them wholesale.
Lin is not just about the Horatio Alger myth, he is also the personification of the ideas of merit, skill and opportunity dancing together; that underlying belief — skill plus opportunity – being so powerful an agent for the most critical management decisions; from who gains the internship that changes a life, to those who move from middle management to the executive boardroom; it enraptures us all, implying that it is not just Lin, but all of us, are just a shot away from our own true greatness. And, of course, he has become the unifying cultural imprint expressed by the many Asian fans of various national backgrounds and is the embodiment of the pan-Asian-American cultural identity that came about as a product of governmental policies in the latter-half of the 20th Century, which included a diverse body of ethnicities into a uniformly protected class. Lin is about all of those things and Asian stereotypes and stereotypes in general, both positive and negative, which rule our brains in ways that they shouldn’t.
Stereotypes and Us
I grew up the only black kid on a block in Southern California in a military town near Los Angeles. And so my world was diverse, even if my block wasn’t. The best basketball player on that predominantly white, middle-class suburban block where every boy played all sports was a Chinese-American kid, four years my senior named Eric. He was my first in-person exposure to the kind of basketball characteristically played by Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas that is politically correctly given the euphemism of “playground ball.” (But is cognitively associated to black style.)
Eric’s game was an outgrowth and expression of a style originated in the black community — and what is so well-chronicled in the famed writer John Edgar Wideman’s memoir Hoop Roots; of a fluid and aggressive, improvisational attacking style recognizable to anyone in basketball culture. Eric didn’t have any favored spots nor a schematic program that he played under, unlike many hyper-coached kids. He simply was versatile and did many different things at once. His jumpshot was a streamlined silhouette with a rainbow arc, and because we generally congregated at a house with an eight and a half-foot breakaway rim attached to a garage, he dunked in various ways off the dribble and with alley-oops: sideways with one hand, reverse with two or over the top, often off a dribble. His was a highly-effective and personally expressive game. So it was never a surprise for me to see a Jeremy Lin or Japan’s Yuta Tabuse, years ago, because my experience in the communities I grew up in, in California, and later on a base in Japan; it just wasn’t odd to find many skilled Asian-American basketball players.
This was the 1990s and basketball was still seen as generally a black and (somewhat) white dominated sport, with very little diversity outside of that binary scheme. (The European invasion had just begun.) And within that bifurcation, it was well in the process of becoming even “blacker” than ever, thanks to perceptions, a cultural legacy that began in the 1950s, the demographic influx of urban kids playing and E.S.P.N. selling and popularizing the street game and playground aesthetic creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. By the time I grew up to become a decent basketball player in 7th grade, I’d begun to notice something, though: some of the Asian kids I played against in elementary had begun to stop playing.
There were still plenty of Asian kids on the basketball courts at lunch in middle school, but not as many as there were during elementary. (And I didn’t count myself or another kid who was also black and Asian, by the name of Soweto, and who was then the best of our middle school bunch.) This was an awakening to my own Asian-mixed heritage being subsumed by my ostensible blackness. I “passed,” as they say in the black community, a term usually reserved for those fairer skinned receiving the social benefits of appearing white or “passing” as fully white, and this gave me an opportunity to see my “blackness” and all the social assumptions that came with it, for once, working as a plus.
I don’t know that it was specifically that the Asian kids I had known from elementary school had lost interest; they were just less inclined to play it seemed, because of the social constructs of the game becoming perhaps optically unwelcoming to them. The overarching culture had begun to tell them they were meant to be something different, and maybe they felt less comfortable in a setting where it was falsely believed that they had some biological disadvantage. They still loved the game, I could see. They still wore the hoops’ sneakers and the Hornets, Bulls, Spurs and Lakers’ branded apparel. They just didn’t play at school during the free periods. Possibly, the preponderance of black kids playing the game began to support a particular pernicious stereotype of young black men, and its corollary that is ascribed to Asian men: that of black men being hyper-masculine and possessed of the physical and less of the brain. And so maybe these Asian boys who grew up in the age of Nike marketing and Michael Jordan, adopted that other side of the coin much like their black male counterparts, and had unknowingly limited their experience because of it.
That is all supposition, but what comes out as an effect of whats-proper-for-your-group stuff is a sense of ethnic impostors, whether its underrepresented students at elite universities, minority employees in corporate America or young women in engineering departments and historically male-dominated fields; all of whom are often questioned for just being out of the believed respective norm. Honestly, I could never know why some of the Asian kids I knew stopped playing the game at school, it could be that they didn’t want to get dirty playing on the blacktop. But I assume the weight of the culture had pushed some of them to the sidelines; both the arcing culture outside of ethnicity, but also within Asian society and black-dominated urban culture. It is summed up politely in the idea of conventional wisdom (but also a form of prejudice), I believe, as David Stern, commissioner of the N.B.A., talked about the euphemism, “conventional wisdom,” when asked about Jeremy Lin saying:
The conventional wisdom is that you know everyone who’s going to be coming into your league by the time of the McDonald’s High School All-American game. It’s so much fun to see some unpredictability thrown in, and I hasten to add, it’s been five games only. So we’ll see. I think it’s wonderful.
Stern cuts to the very heart of the matter there, that there is a conventional wisdom in basketball and in our lives in general: of what we can and can’t do because society tells us so by the various subcultures we inhabit, the mindsets that have become set in institutionally, and those things are both internalized individually and externally imposed on people and their social group classifications. They are the same things that tell us constantly, but informally, what scientists should look like or C.E.O.s or doctors or lawyers, or N.B.A. ball players.
And it hurts us all, ultimately, because while stereotypes simplify the world and remove some of the complexity from life; which is why stereotypes and even why the Favorite v. Underdog dialectic exists and develops a social reality, through acceptance by those stereotyped groups and the support of those too lazy to not generalize. While it’s true that it seems that girls and minorities who are not Asian tend to not be attracted to the sciences for study, there was also Marie Curie, Florence Sabin, Benjamin Banneker, David Satcher, or Neal deGrass Tyson. All of whom are seen as exceptions to their gender or race, but if we never lived in a world so hasty to presume, they would never be seen as anything other than exceptional, in the most fundamental sense.
All I can think about in watching all of this alternate universe telling of an infinitesimally short career relegated to the scrap heap of basketball history, before it even began, and has now created the Legend of Lin — a kid who went from wondering whether he was going to make it in the league, to a cat now in the midst of straight-up superstar-levels of fandom and similarly stratospheric play — is how he is also symbolic of the guys I play against at the local university or the park. He represents the kids I grew up with and who stuck it out; guys who played organized ball in obscurity in many times Asian leagues — which are probably a bigger deal than those outside of the Asian community know — but yet their skill was honed and tightened by the toughness on the playgrounds against all comers.
And that’s just how it is you come from what they call “nowhere,” as Lin did. It is because when you are a minority in a sport or society; you are at-once part of that specific society, as well as apart from it. But his road and journey is “somewhere,” it just never particularly fit the basketball orthodoxy in much the way the Williams’ sisters rise from Compton to dominate a white [and monied] sport such as tennis, never fit prescriptions. For Lin and pro-hoops though, it was the exact opposite, where basketball’s proving ground is actually places like Compton and not a high school in Palo Alto, in the shadows of Stanford; in a town more known for Silicon Valley’s computers and the software engineering industry than it is for high-level prep basketball. And his Palo Alto team won its division’s state championship but, nonetheless, that yielded not many offers to play Division I, big-time, college hoops, which left him deciding to play at Harvard, since choices like Berkeley and Stanford, academic and basketball powerhouses, never came a knocking. And because, obviously, getting an education in economics would be paramount, because “real basketball” — the kind not usually played in the Ivies* — seemed out of the question.
And then it’s getting drafted by his hometown team — Lin’s dream — to then only get cut by them, but not before playing for the out of the league, Reno Big Horns. All that time he kept getting better, kept getting up more jumpers on his own and no one was noticing, but he did end up with the Houston Rockets at the beginning of the year, only to get cut again. The Knicks and the City, the only real American city it seems, was his last stop; a place where they say, “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” And because of all of this, and for the fact that I know Lin’s environments more intimately than I could ever know that enclosure and life of prominent A.A.U. squads and high-schools with Nike contracts and life being recruited by elite hoops universities, who have the same level of scrutiny as the Los Angeles Lakers, he truly means something to me for all of those things about our ideals: That value system that tells us about the freedom in America to become something at the hands of our own skill; if the powers that be are willing, in even the slightest.
I can only think that Lin may be the small breakthrough in the minds for my culture/s, on the court and off the court, since basketball culture in the Asian-American society is quite large and there are many skilled people overlooked for myriad reasonings every single day in our world. It’s all so hard to quantify, but I grew up in Asian communities all of my life, within the intersections Lin has fought from, and I have been as much Asian in a black world of basketball and black in an Asian world overseas, or black in a white and Asian world of the academy, and so I feel a robust kinship, and for me and all of those things I’ve been, there has never been a figure that has coalesced those experiences as Jeremy Lin, in his excellence.
* Princeton Basketball, an Ivy League school, perhaps the Ivy League school, has made many notable runs in the N.C.A.A. Tournament and won it all in 1965. Further, it has provided the basketball community with great contributions, such as the vaunted “Princeton Offense.” Most notably, one of the N.B.A.’s best “50 Greatest” was a Princeton Tiger: former senator and New York Knicks’ star, Bill Bradley.