How a Hoops Underdog Reflects Modern America
The improbable Jeremy Lin—and the groups captivated by him—prove we’re too multifaceted to be monolithic
Roger M. Groves Special to The Skanner News
February 17, 2012Linsanity is bigger than basketball.
I have started to write this story several times. Stories with only one drama point and theme are quick and easy to write. But just when I start to percolate on the topic of Jeremy Lin, a new compelling drama point and theme emerges.
If you wait too long, the gist of the story becomes yesterday’s news. I made that mistake with Tebow-mania. With the Denver Bronco sensation, each week the bubble was due to burst. Yet he continued to shock and awe the unbelievers. I remind myself that the difference between the smart and the dumb is not who makes mistakes, but who is quickest to learn from them. So before the story ends, let me weigh in.
Jeremy Lin is an undrafted point guard from Harvard who believed he could play basketball in the NBA. He tried out for teams but they passed him by. Then he was exiled to the NBA’s developmental league. Two teams let him play just long enough to cut him. Inspired by an internal belief in his abilities without reinforcement from the teams he sought to play for, he slept on his brother’s couch during his quest. Then he got his opportunity, borne perhaps out of another person’s injury. Off the bench initially, Lin led the New York Knicks to five straight wins, with 20 points or more each game. After four games he was averaging 28 points per game. His public image exploded in a way politicians could only dream about, and for Mr. Lin a dream has come true. It’s been dubbed “Linsanity,” complete with “#Linsanity” hash tags on Twitter and all the other elements that allow stories to spread on social media.
The raison d'etre for Linsanity is not the fact he is the next greatest player in the history of the game. He has become a one-man phenomenon because his story uniquely attracts various constituencies - those who claim him as their own. Lin was a Harvard economics major. Harvard students claim him not because he is better than all-pro Carmelo Anthony. Mello is from Baltimore, a lot closer to Cambridge than Asia. But Harvard grads can say, “See we can think, chew gum, and play basketball at the highest level at the same time.” Economists worldwide claim him because Lin is now Exhibit A that “all economists are not geeks” or better yet, “Economists can be cool, not creepy.” The Ivy League claims him because Lin is proof that academics and athletics can be compatible attributes.
And then there is a large constituency of people who just love to root for the underdog. Movies have made millions for decades by creating that story line. But the best of fictional writers could not have made this up. And the question is: Why is he an underdog?
Perhaps he is an underdog because he lacks a big-time college hoops pedigree, because he has a history of being told “not quite good enough”, and yes, because he is Asian. Many amongst us are acutely sensitized to ethnicity from our scared racial history, be it due to slaves from Africa, or genocide of native indigenous Indians, or prison camps for the Japanese, or current disparities among the historically disadvantaged. The NBA of course has already had already had a prominent Asian player. That was 7’6” Asian Yoa Ming. He was no underdog. He was physically intimidating and highly coveted with a history of success pre-NBA. But in Lin we have a 6’3” 200-pound point guard competing with the quickest, most athletic people on the planet. The traditional predictors of success are not there. His size is not so peculiar. His shot has no circus charm.
We all have assumptions. He obviously spent more time in the classroom and library than those who played ball dawn to dusk in our toughest neighborhoods. We may unwittingly assume smart guys can’t play. And if all the facts had been the same, but his pigmentation and ethnicity were in line with the industry norm, there would not likely be the euphoria. When we think of why he is an underdog it should cause us to examine our assumptions.
But as much as we debate our assumption baggage, let’s also give ourselves credit for our positives. To our collective credit in perception, the Asian-ness of Linn has not been a negative. He helped bring wins. For Knicks fans it wouldn’t matter if his brother’s couch was on the Moon and Dr. Suess gave him a green complexion. He helped bring wins with charisma and story that transcends the labeling abyss.
Another Linsanity constituency includes those have embraced his ethnicity. In China, people claim him though he was born in the USA and his ancestry is actually linked to Taiwan. His jersey is already sold out in China’s major retail outlets. Chinese-Americans claim him because they identify with his cultural roots. And that too is OK. No one is claiming they are anti-American, racist, biased, or prejudiced for being proud of his performances. In the U.S., we sometimes question the celebration of unprecedented accomplishments by those who were previously locked out of an endeavor as anti-one-America. That self-identification celebration too should be OK. The best part of Linsanity is that within this huge country of diverse groups it’s alright for some of us to self-identify with a player for some reasons while others cheer someone for other reasons. We are just too multifaceted to be monolithic. And for many of us, the baggage we carry with our labels and past just does not matter. We see an underdog with refreshing nuances winning against the odds – period.
And then there is another constituency: the NBA and all the business interests connected with the industry. They don’t care if he actually is Dr. Suess. The NBA is comprised of for-profit franchises in business to make money. They gain revenue with a growth in international viewers and more buyers of merchandise. Also consider the investors and shareholders in Madison Square Garden’s own TV network. MSG is the home base for the Knicks and its network carries the Knicks games. So MSG has programing content, but it needs a cable company to provide the viewers. That would be Time Warner Cable. Before Linsanity, the two enterprises were in a financial fight, as typically happens when there is not enough money to make everybody happy. Knicks have been losing more games than fans care to watch.
Time Warner subscribers comprise about 20 % of MSG’s potential audience. MSG wants Time Warner subscribers to pay 53% more to carry its channels. TW balked and the sides have been locked in a stalemate. Now thousands of people, including TW subscribers want to see Lin in action. The increased demand is likely to create higher value to MSG, and improve their bargaining position. And with higher viewership, there is more money to be made by all. It is easier to split big money than small money, and the percentages may matter less. An impasse can be broken, in large part because of a Harvard undrafted underdog.
And like Tebow, Lin is spiritually based, humble, and therefore practically inoculated from the narcissism that media can feed to the public as red meat of hate and disgust. So perhaps there really is something democrats, tea partiers, evangelicals, and those Knicks fans who are atheists can agree on – Linsanity.
Roger M. Groves is director of Florida Coastal School of Law's Center for Sports and Social Entrepreneurship