The culture of NBA basketball over the past several decades has screamed “Black Man’s Sport”. In 2009, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports published a study. The data confirmed what we already knew. 77% of the players in the league were African-American. The African-American community takes pride in this fact. The NBA is one of the few places outside of correctional facilities where the minority has become the majority. In the NBA, other minorities fall behind. In 2009, 3% of NBA players were of Latino descent, while less than 1% of NBA players were of Asian descent. The league–and NBA culture itself–was, and has been for some time, overwhelmingly African-American.
Where can we place the “blame”? The NBA officially integrated pretty early–in 1950 to be exact. Over time, African-Americans would come to dominate the game. Maybe it was the NBA/ABA merger that sealed its fate. Maybe it happened as late as the death of “short shorts” era via Michigan’s Fab Five. Maybe it was the rise of superstars with hood credibility–most notably Allen Iverson. Whatever the case may be, the sport has evolved. This certainly isn’t what James Naismith imagined when he decided to hang peach baskets in 1891. The 24 second shot clock, the slam dunk, and the “hand check” rule abolished, all led to a bigger, faster NBA. These changes tended to phase out players who didn’t fit the athletic mold.
Teams began looking for players with wingspans. The wanted players who starred in multiple sports in high school. They sought out players who were raw–with upside. Enter Jeremy Lin. Or Lin-sanity. Or Lin-vincible. Or the Lin-sation. Whatever you want to call him, over the past two weeks there’s been non-stop coverage of a young man whose had tons of success of late. But he doesn’t fit the mold. He’s not one of us, but he has a quick first step. He doesn’t have tattoos, but he lets out an emphatic “And One” after he makes a twisting lay up–getting fouled in the process. He’s not from the streets. In fact, he’s a Harvard-educated, Bay Area kid. Although he expresses a desire to do urban missions work, his hood credibility is questionable. So what do African-Americans do with him?
We have a tradition of making “others” honorary African-Americans. Christina Aguilera. With those pipes? Honorary. Eminem. With that flow? Honorary. Bringing it closer to home, former Kings point guard Jason Williams. With that swagger and the tattoos? Honorary. It was his destiny. I mean, his nickname was White Chocolate. But what of this Jeremy Lin guy? Let me share with you what I overheard in a barber shop recently:
Jeremy Lin (post-game interview): I just want to thank God for giving me this opportunity.
Barber Shop Patron: I’m surprised he didn’t mention Buddha…I don’t think this will last.
For starters, Lin is a devout Christian. So much so that he’s being touted as the Asian Tebow. Maybe the man in the barber shop missed that part. Whatever the case, he assumed he was a Buddhist because of his ethnicity. He went even further. No way this Asian dude lasts in the NBA. I’m sure visions of Yao Ming’s unfulfilled potential were on his mind at the time. I think it’s safe to assume that this man would NOT consider Jeremy Lin honorary. Sadly, I think there are many African-Americans who feel the same way. He is invading our space. In fact, he made Deron Williams, John Wall, and–gasp–Kobe Bryant look stupid in the same week. For some, this was a direct attack on the “blackness” of the NBA. They clothe their disdain in “wait and see” language, yet internally are hoping he doesn’t succeed. The protectionism–of course I’ll use an economics term here–is apparent. They stand in their Under Armour apparel and belt it out: “We must protect this [league]!”
Then there are others in the African-American community. They are loving the emergence of Jeremy Lin. For them, it feels as if history is being made. They are seeing our generations own Asian Jackie Robinson. They celebrate with the Asian community because they understand the struggle of being a minority. Being an outcast. Being an underdog. Being counted out. It matters less that he is Asian and more that “Asian dude has some real game.” He can hoop it up with the street ball guys–which he did last summer–and mix it up with the great point guards in the NBA. I am part of this group. Admittedly, this is probably because I have cultivated real, authentic relationships with Asian-Americans over the past six years while living in Los Angeles. As I watch Lin, I think about them. I see their excitement in my Facebook and Twitter feeds. And something strange happens. I share that excitement. It’s like watching a family member excel. You only wish them the best.
Will Jeremy Lin’s success have a huge impact on the NBA and its culture? It might be too soon to tell. On one hand, the number of Asians in the league still hovers around 1%. But there’s one thing you can’t quantify with Lin’s emergence–a face. Ask data specialists. Numbers mean very little without a face. Why do you think stories of child exploitation are more visceral when a face is attached to them? Or putting a face on inmate 1039213 causes one to rethink our penitentiary system’s approach regarding “justice”? It shows the inherent discrepancies that we often overlook when looking at numbers. So as I continue to watch, I see a face. A face that looks nothing like mine, but who shares a story–and faith–similar to mine. In my book, that makes him honorary. All. Day. Long.