ONCE UPON a time in a simpler America, Jeremy Lin's story would be simply beautiful. Uplifting, inspirational, universal in its underdog appeal, it would unite us all, make our world seem a slightly better and smaller place because of what it said about perseverance, humility and following your dream. Traits still embraced by most, if not all, of us.
"A miracle from God," Jeremy Lin described his opportunity to a crowded room of reporters in Toronto yesterday morning, before he hit a three-pointer that gave his Knicks a 90-87, comeback win over the Raptors last night, their fifth straight since he was made the starting point guard. "I don't think anybody expected this to happen the way it happened."
No one. After putting in his time in the Developmental League, attending endless NBA tryouts, and sitting for a year on the Golden State Warriors' bench as an undrafted rookie, Lin has scored 136 points in his first five games as an NBA starter, including 27 last night. The Knicks, a star-laden team so dysfunctional that just 11 days ago the sacking of their coach seemed a matter of days if not hours, are now undeniably stealing Big Apple attention from the Super Bowl-champion Giants and their Garden cohabitants, the NHL-leading Rangers. And Lin is the sole reason why.
Now comes the sad part. Some are claiming Lin has received undeserved attention because he is Asian or, in the worst vein of this, not African-American. That was the gist of boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s tweet the other day. "Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he's Asian," he typed. "Black players do what he does every night and don't get the same praise."
This is not that simpler America. It is the America of broad categorization and extremist cable television networks on both sides of the political ledger, an America that too often demonizes good men, good women and even the purest of stories. And so in the wake of a football season in which a quarterback kneeling in an end zone was deemed more offensive by some than any dance or demonstrative gesture ever has been (as I recall, Randy Moss once simulated wiping his butt on a goal post), we have, in the plight of the boyishly bubbly blue-tongued Lin, somehow found fuel for hours of vitriolic sports-talk debate, taunting tweets and a misguided and mean-spirited race debate.
Here is what's really funny about Mayweather's tweet: It might have taken this long for Lin's talent to be recognized precisely because he is Asian. He went undiscovered last season on the Golden State bench because, according to Warriors owner Joe Lacob, former coach Keith Smart wouldn't play him. Mark Jackson, the coach who replaced Smart - and a former Knick - admitted he never even saw Lin "take a layup" before he was cut early this season. And Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, in a refreshing display of honesty, told Yahoo.com's Adrian Wojnarowski that Lin was cut during their training camp in December because they already had three point guards with guaranteed contracts - including former Big East stars Kyle Lowry (Villanova) and Jonny Flynn (Syracuse).
"Even if he stayed here, we probably wouldn't have recognized his talent as much as we should've," Morey told Wojnarowski. "He probably wouldn't have played much at all, and then would've been released at the end of the year. I didn't know he could play this well, and if I did, we would've kept him."
Sure, Lin has captured the imagination of the Asian-American community, no doubt created additional fans among them. Kind of like what Tiger did in golf with the African-American community. But until he made a mess of his life, Tiger was worshiped by Caucasian and Asians, too. They sure bought the products he endorsed.
Star power isn't always colorblind. But it can be.
That is what seems to be happening here. The kid is just a great story, one that transcends the Knicks or pro basketball, one that should transcend race. Harvard player, son of Taiwanese immigrants, undrafted, bounces around in the NBA's D-League, bounces around the NBA, is signed simply to bolster an injury-depleted Knicks squad, sleeps on a friend's couch, not expected to stick around. Inserted into the starting lineup when injuries mount further, takes full advantage of opportunity, takes care of the ball, makes dead-on passes, scores the ball, makes everyone around him better, flashes a tongue that looks like a Slurpee.
And a bad team starts to win. What's not to like?
On the Asian-American website Hyphenmagazine.com, blogger Sylvie Kim monitored the back-and-forth tweets between Knicks fan Spike Lee and followers after the famed writer/producer/actor solicited nicknames for Lin. "Lee criticized racist, Orientalized nickname suggestions and his tweets imply that he had a quite a few racist offerings to wade through," writes Kim.
There were some good ones, too, though. Like this one:
"End Lin-stitutional racism! Love basketball!"
To which Spike replied, simply: