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Jeremy Lin, "Coming from Nowhere," and Hiding in Plain Sight

Jeremy Lin, "Coming from Nowhere," and Hiding in Plain Sight

By Dennis Loo (2/15/12)

When a player is playing that well, he doesn’t come out of nowhere. It seems like he comes out of nowhere. Go back and take a look, and the skill level was probably there from the beginning, it’s just that we didn’t notice it.         

            – Kobe Bryant on Jeremy Lin after the Knicks beat the Lakers on February 10, 2012

As everyone who pays any attention to sports knows by now, Jeremy Lin has been burning up the town. In New York point guard Lin has become a huge sensation, breathing major hope into New Yorkers’ dreams of glory for the Knicks, at long last and after many years of frustration. Spike Lee, a fixture at Knicks’ games, was positively giddy recently doing take-offs on Lin’s name in rhymes.

In his first four NBA games as a starter he scored more points than anyone since they started compiling stats on the NBA in 1976-1977, exceeding Allan Iverson, Michael Jordan and other prodigies of basketball. In his first six games he has exceeded the gaudy numbers put up by Shaquille O’Neal in Shaq’s first six NBA games.

Since Lin started for the Knicks at point, they have won six games in a row. In the fourth game of that series he outscored (and outplayed) future Hall of Famer and the best active player on the planet Kobe Bryant 38 points to 34.

If Hollywood wrote a movie script with these facts no one would believe the tale.

Like Lin, I’m a Harvard grad and Asian-American. Like him, I also love basketball and I used to be pretty good at it, although not anywhere near his ability. At 6’ 3” he’s six inches taller than me and I’m no great leaper. (Michael Jordan has a brother who is also 5’ 9” who I have heard Jordan talk about as being just as determined a ball player as him, but unfortunately, a good foot shorter than his Airness.)

If I were still young enough to play the game with others a lot younger than myself, I’d say that Lin’s emergence is wonderful because I’d be taken more seriously right off the bat by others in pickup games on the U.S. mainland who used to look at me before and think, “this guy must not be a player, he’s Asian, and he ain’t tall” and so when I gave up the ball to someone in a game, I wouldn’t get it back unless I stole the ball on defense.

I can’t tell you what it feels like to see a fellow Asian-American starring on the court in MSG, the most famous arena in sports, and hearing the crowd chant “MVP, MVP, MVP.” Watching the NBA is a different experience for me – and I’m a long time avid NBA fan - now that Lin’s in the game, in a way that it wasn’t when Yao Ming was playing. I couldn’t really relate to Yao who is physically so dramatically different from me and also because I was a guard like Lin. It’s hard to describe how different it is. It’s just that I feel more in the game and the rest of the players look different to me than they used to.

But that’s not mainly what I want to talk about. I want to talk about why it was hard for so many people – in fact, everyone in the NBA in authority who had a look at him on their teams – to recognize what they had in Lin. Even now, after six games in a row, including hitting the winning shot with .5 seconds left on the clock last night against Toronto, swishing a three-pointer from the top of the key, ice in his veins as he dribbled the ball waiting for the clock to tick down to nearly nothing, you have so-called sports experts, as some retired hockey player on ESPN last night said, “I’ll believe it when he’s done this over sixty games, not just six.”


Lin was undrafted, despite being the star on the Harvard squad and leading the team to a near upset of perennial powerhouse UConn, and he spent time on the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors with little playing time before being released and ending up on the Knicks’ bench. He was only brought onto the floor as their starter out of desperation: Mike D’Antoni, the Knicks’ coach, had no one suitable for the point position. On ABC’s morning show today, Lin was incorrectly described as a “late bloomer”: Lin led his Palo Alto high school team to the state championship and actually wanted to go to Stanford to play but scouts showed little interest, despite his being named the player of the year. Harvard was his second choice.

So why didn’t people who should know better notice it? Why are some people still skeptics?

I’ve only seen Lin play one whole game, his game against the Lakers on Friday, but this is what I saw: a guy who plays a lot like two-time MVP point guard Steve Nash but who can penetrate the lane more aggressively and consistently. His ability to handle the ball, to stay on top of his feet and in balance, to see the whole court and open teammates, to make the right decision at the right time (pass when he should and shoot when he should, as Coach Jeff Van Gundy has said), and to break down defenses, are all there. He doesn’t have extraordinary speed but neither does Nash, who I think is actually a tad bit slow by NBA standards, but because he and Nash both move with great agility, they are able to get away from others and get to where they want with surprising ease, almost as if they’re operating in a different time zone than their opponents.

Why wouldn’t the experts see what Lin could do? Why wasn’t this evident on the practice floor to the coaching staffs? D’Antoni, who Lin describes as an “absolute offensive genius,” is as astonished as anyone.

Some were saying before the Knicks met the Lakers that teams would adjust to Lin and find ways to neutralize him and that his jumper was suspect and that his extraordinary results for three games in a row were therefore going to come back to earth. The data’s in. They’ve attempted to neutralize him with specific game plans and haven’t been able to: Lin is a legitimate star. His game is so fundamentally sound that you can’t say that somehow these last six games have been a fluke. His only weakness so far has been to commit turnovers and his D isn’t the greatest, but if he can keep leading his team to victories, then who’s to argue?

The fact that Ivy League basketball is considered second class next to Kentucky’s, where the 2010 number one NBA draft pick John Wall played and who Lin outplayed in the summer league, has to be a major part of the answer of why he’s been overlooked and also, and probably more importantly, the fact that Lin is Asian-American. Lin’s high school coach originally dismissed ideas that racial stereotyping was in play with Lin being overlooked, but he later changed his mind when he saw the way an African-American player was courted by recruiters who did not have anywhere close to Lin’s talent.

“[T]hroughout his career, Lin has had to deal with suggestions that he doesn’t fit the image of a baller. Lin’s high school coach, Peter Diepenbrock, frequently tells the story that the first time Lin was selected for the annual Pro-Am exhibition at San Francisco’s Kezar Pavilion, a security guard told him he was in the wrong place: ‘No volleyball here tonight, sir — it’s basketball.’ He dealt with racism from across the line, even in Ivy games, with crowds and opposing players talking about Chinese take-out and suggesting that he should be playing violin instead of hoops. Even now, when people talk about his ‘sneaky, unexpected athleticism’ and ‘high IQ,’ there’s a feeling that these terms are being used to push him back into the box that he’s threatening to explode.” (Jeff Yang)

Right after Lin led the Knicks to victory over the Lakers on Friday, there was this:

“Then this was tweeted:

“Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight.

“That racist remark came from Jason Whitlock, a Fox Sports columnist. Whitlock later apologized for his attempt at humor. But it was another reminder that racism is still very much around us.” (Edwin Torres)

In two incidents recently Asian-American soldiers have died due to overt and relentless racism aimed at them by their fellow soldiers and commanding officer, including fellow soldiers hurling rocks at one of them. So it would be wrong to underestimate how racism has been a major factor in the disregard of Lin as a baller until he was finally given a chance in a third game in a row for a weary and depleted Knicks team by a coach who is supposed to be the very best in the game at using pick and roll offense schemes and who therefore should have seen that Lin was exactly what the doctor ordered for his team.

But I want to mostly talk about why it’s hard to see things when they’re there but they’re not there until you see them.

People mostly see the world through the lens of what already is, not what could be. It is much harder to see something in embryonic form or imagine what could be, even when the evidence is there, when you’re accustomed to seeing things in a certain way.

Lin’s been overlooked because people didn’t see the usual package – a Black or White player - and therefore his abilities on the court were not properly recognized. According to Mike Brown, the Lakers coach, Mitch Kupchak, Lakers’ GM, was interested in Lin, but Brown didn’t know anything about Lin so they passed on the opportunity to sign him when Houston released him and before the Knicks picked him up. This is particularly unfortunate for the Lakers given that Lin is exactly what they need and what they tried to get when they signed Chris Paul only to have the deal nullified by NBA commissioner David Stern.

Just as so many so-called experts have not recognized the mad skillz that Lin has and had, people also fail to see whom they should be paying attention to and what they should be seeing in politics and other affairs. It takes the ability to see beneath the surface appearance of things and penetrate to the essence to really know what’s going on.

One need only consider the déjà vu that people ought to be having now that the U.S. government is preparing the ground to attack Iran using the same basic playbook they used in the run up to the war upon Iraq. They are trying to scare the people with “They’re going to use NUKES on us!”

Oh, scary. Oh, I’m so afraid. Oh, but of course – let’s bomb ‘em out of existence! American and Israeli lives are more important than Iranians. Yay team America and team Israel! Woo hoooo!

The suppression and oppression of the people under the existing political and economic system creates a system in great dynamic and ongoing tension. The underlying forces in play aren’t apparent on the surface unless you’re basing your analysis on the centrality of this underlying tension. What is possible is a dramatic turn of events and profoundly different alignment of political power, but this prospect needs to be seen while it is still embryonic – e.g., the Occupy movement – to take advantage of what is there in situ. The people’s widely felt sentiments in opposition to what is and who rules and how must be focused and unleashed.

Then, a different scene can unfold, sweeping away this exploitive system that rests for its continued existence upon systematic lies and brutal force. Like Jeremy Lin, the Occupy movement arose out of seemingly nowhere. But if you’re paying attention, you could see that this is not something surprising at all, but something that was hiding in plain sight.

"Changing the behavior and nature of public policy, et al requires a structural change, and said structural change must be led by individuals who enlist the support of others to supplant the existing leaders and the existing structures. Change, in other words, requires leadership and groups of people acting in concert with each other and under that leadership... The bottom line, the fundamental division in our society, is between, on the one hand, those whose interests rest upon dominance and the drive towards monopolizing the society and planet’s resources and, on the other hand, those whose interests lie in the husbanding of those resources for the good of the whole rather than the part. The startling evidence of the neoliberals’ bankruptcy surrounds us everyday, and grows starker as time moves on. Their attacks on the people grow more vociferous and damaging by the day. The prospect of a radically different future from that spreading nightmare exists in embryonic form today.

"Which path will be taken? The world awaits. The future beckons. Who will answer the call?" (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, p. 357)

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