The futile search for meaning in “Linsanity”

Real fans aren't shocked at the sight of an Asian-American star. The hype is just New York being New York

Topics: Jeremy LIn, Basketball, ,

The futile search for meaning in "Linsanity" (Credit: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)

About two weeks ago, my son asked me how a team with an imposing lineup like the New York Knicks could possibly have a losing record. “Because they have no point guard,” I said. They played like strangers. Either nobody wanted the ball or everybody did. Long intervals would pass without the Knicks putting up a decent shot — although being NBA players they often made enough bad ones to stay close.

Well, as the world knows, they have a point guard now. The feel-good story of Jeremy Lin, the underdog Chinese-American player from Harvard, has made NBA fans of millions who scarcely know the 24-second clock from a goaltending call. Here’s hoping they stick around, because it’s a heck of a show. Meanwhile, how about if we dialed down the ethnic sensitivity meter until the kid settles in?

As a lifelong basketball guy married to a coach’s daughter, I’m bewildered by people who say they love the college game but dislike the professionals. Around our house, the end of the NBA owner’s lockout was cause for celebration. It was going to be a long winter without “Da lig” as ESPN’s Hubie Brown pronounces it.

Does my sainted wife ever wish I didn’t watch a NBA game most nights? Absolutely. But I’d also bet you $20 she can name the Boston Celtics’ starting five. As for my sons, well, freeloading off dad’s NBA Season Pass helps keep us together. Some families argue about politics and religion; we bicker about LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

Anyway, from a strictly basketball perspective, what’s not to like about Jeremy Lin? The kid’s got a nice all-around game and an ideal point guard’s temperament; he’d sooner pass than shoot. He’s aggressive, but rarely forces plays that aren’t there. He’s got terrific court awareness and tactical smarts. He makes adjustments.

If Magic Johnson says Lin’s the real thing, that’s good enough for me. Magic’s always diplomatic, but he doesn’t lie.

However, Lin also commits too many turnovers. His on-ball defense is suspect. The New Jersey Nets’ Deron Williams recently lit him up for 38, shooting threes over him at will. Lin’s no Derrick Rose, Steve Nash or Rajon Rondo yet. We’ll see how his stamina holds up through a full NBA season; he’s wondered aloud about it himself. The Knicks need to find a backup; if Lin keeps playing 46 minutes every game, he’ll get hurt.

As for the hype, if the Knicks had Ricky Rubio, the brilliant 20-year-old Spanish point guard for Minnesota, Spike Lee would be sitting at courtside in a bullfighter costume, and people would be writing dopey articles about the link between flamenco rhythms and basketball. It’s just New York being New York.

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“Linsanity” ain’t necessarily good for its object. There may be days when Lin wishes he could change places with Rubio.

Few NBA fans are astonished at an Asian-American player achieving stardom. It’s been an international league for years. (Ivy Leaguers aren’t unknown in the NBA either. Remember Bill Bradley? He ran for president.) There are NBA players from all five continents and Australia. One could put together an all-star team from Spain, Germany, Turkey, France, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Italy, Serbia and Great Britain that could compete against an all-American squad.

All racial and ethnic theories of basketball are bunk.

Religious ones too. Maybe the most absurd commentary came from the New York Times columnist David Brooks, who pronounced Lin an “anomaly” as “a religious person in professional sports.” Brooks, who evidently doesn’t own a TV set, has somehow missed all those jocks thanking their Lord and personal savior for hitting home runs and throwing touchdown passes, silly boys.

Look, Jeremy Lin is a fellow fortunate enough to make a handsome living putting an inflated rubber ball through an iron hoop, as millions of his clumsier brethren dreamed of doing in our youth. Watching him gives the rest of us a playground break, sometimes with adult beverages and cute cheerleaders. It has no transcendental meaning. It’s a ballgame.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady probably said it best.

“Look at the attention I get,” he said. “It’s because I throw a football. But that’s what society values. That’s not what God values. God could give a [bleep] … He didn’t invent the game. We did. I have some eye-hand coordination, and I can throw the ball. I don’t think that matters to God.”

Meanwhile cueing up the MSNBC fake-outrage machine over a dumb ESPN headline about “a chink in the Knicks’ armor” doesn’t advance racial harmony. It impedes it. The phrase is what we pedants call a “homonym” — two unconnected words with identical pronunciation. It’s a hoary sports cliché having nothing to do with ethnicity.

The dope who wrote it in a 2:30 a.m. haze has apologized, and Lin was gracious enough to accept. So should everybody else.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.

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