Early Saturday, ESPN.com ran a headline on their mobile application about Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin, the 23-year-old, out-of-nowhere point guard who has lit up the league and lifted a disappointing team to national prominence once again. He's got legitimate NBA size and build, and real game, too, with the ability to drive hard to the basket, make impressive passes and nail last second three pointers. He's been the key to the Knicks' sudden seven game winning streak, and ball-crazy New York -- along with the sensation-crazy Internet -- has been going nuts for Lin, including finding every conceivable pun for a last name that stretches across his jersey alone in a league of Andersons, Jameses and Millers.
Jeremy Lin is Asian -- a Taiwanese-American from Palo Alto, California who went to Harvard -- and after a turnover-laden game that marked his first loss as a Knicks starter, ESPN.com splashed the words "A Chink in the Armor" underneath a photo of him mishandling the basketball. The Internet -- the same Internet that has turned a God-loving novice into a search term that out-Googles Jesus -- is outraged. And, of course, the headline was egregious, offensive and downright racist. But to act as if this gross mistake wasn't coming, to fake shock that anyone could even think of his race, is nearly as bad an offense.
As a sports-crazed kid growing up around New York City in the early part of the previous decade, I had posters and carefully-scissored Post and Daily News back pages chronicling the brief and glorious run of the 2000 National League Champion Mets lining my bedroom walls. I had Mike Piazza, the super star, Edgardo Alfonzo, the quiet rock, and Robin Ventura, the charismatic face of the team, staring at me from all directions, as if to say, we couldn't have done it without you, Jordan.
My real sports idols, however, were Gary Cohen and Howie Rose, the play-by-play broadcasters who wove those tales of hardball glory over WFAN, the radio station I'd listen to with the TV on mute and was the number one pre-set on all the various radios that I kept stashed under my pillow for all those extra-inning games on school nights. As a scrawny Jewish kid, I knew from an early age that my best chance to make it in pro sports wasn't on the field, but in the media (and I was already blogging, before that was a word).
Sure, I was a decent Little League player, with a few game-winning hits and a weird love for taking grounders, but I knew that the seemingly ironically titled Jewish Sports Heroes book that my grandfather once bought me during a stretch of illness wasn't something that required frequent reprint for new chapters dedicated to the new heroes. My dad took me to the batting cages far more than my average bat speed and slap-single power warranted, but there was no pretense that hard work and some help from those Fred McGriff-approved Tom Emanski training videos would put me on a path to actually being paid to play baseball. Those over-priced, green-bronze cage tokens were an investment in keeping me busy and bolstering a warped teenage self-confidence, not a down payment that would return the gold and treasure given out liberally to first round draft picks.
So, when a skinny kid began hitting homeruns miles out of Toronto's Skydome, and then cashed in with a massive contract in the Hollywood spotlight of Dodger Stadium, I was surprised, elated and proud to call myself a Shawn Green fan. Sure, he didn't play for my Mets, but he was a member of the other underdog team I was born into: the Jews, traditionally an even more hapless group of athletes. Now, I wasn't at all religious then and I still only know when the high holidays are here when I see my little brother tweet about a day off from school in late September, but damnit, I could reasonably imagine that this guy, unlike seemingly every other ballplayer, was just like me: he probably had zany relatives, was constantly called by a nervous-but-loving mom, spent half his childhood learning about the Holocaust and felt weirdly proprietary over bagels, especially when all the kids who got to celebrate Christmas were eating them before homeroom.
Green was one of the National League's best sluggers for a few years, and he'd have been a star no matter what. But naturally, because he was different, the media gave him special attention. Whether he liked it or not, he was the face of Jewish athletics, this generation's Sandy Koufax, who, over 30 years after his retirement, was still the gold standard for big league Yids. No doubt, he was covered as someone, something, different.
After a while, it began to grate on me: why couldn't we just appreciate his talent, and let him be a regular ballplayer, who gets interviewed and highlighted after a game winning RBI, with puns made on anything but the different religious symbol he wore on a silver chain underneath his jersey -- especially when huge, silver and diamond crosses were known to thump the chests of half of the league's players when they ran around the bases?
And when he came to the Mets, during their momentous (and then soul-crushing) 2006 run to the NLCS, forget it; I was interning for the team that summer, and one of my sharpest memories amidst all the winning and celebrating was the attention paid to the diminished right fielder who became the toast of the most Jewish part of the country.
I felt that, instead of being a star who happened to be Jewish, Green was famous for being the Jewish star. And the same thing is happening to Jeremy Lin, but a million times worse.
Lin, as I said, can ball. No doubt. And when boxer Floyd Mayweather said that Lin is only getting hyped because he's Asian, he rightly got smacked by the media and fans on Twitter. But the fact is that, Mayweather, probably quite accidentally, raised a valid point. Lin, with his monster numbers, buzzer-beating heroics and winning ways, not to mention feel-good, anyone-can-do-it populist story, would be celebrated regardless of his race, especially in a town that, quite literally, gives its sports heroes keys to the city. But it's hard for me to not think that Lin is also being viewed by some as a novelty act, a high-flying world-beater who, in street clothes, might be mistaken for a math major.
It's a quiet racism when compared to the injustices our country has legally and tacitly sanctioned, but Asian-Americans do indeed face their own uphill struggle against stereotypes and prejudice. And so Lin, in breaking all those stereotypes, is being giddily greeted as some sort of "Amasian" ninja (he's been called the Linja), his seemingly inexplicable success amplified by the fact that he looks different from anyone else on the court -- or, for the most part, any court throughout the nation.
I'm a Knicks fan and have enjoyed this run as much as anyone, especially after all the years I've suffered with this team. I've even made my fair share of Lin puns, which, in isolation, aren't particularly egregious. And I have had plenty of conversations with fellow liberal New Yorkers who wouldn't dream of making a racial slur but can't help but get excited over the bizarre and thrilling adventure on which this kid has led the Knicks.
We'd love him regardless of his race, because he's damn talented and a winner, but we should at least admit that the goofiness, the puns, the sudden inclusion on the national stage of All-Star weekend and the dedicated merchandise booth at Madison Square Garden -- all that is undoubtedly linked, in part, to his race. And it's okay to celebrate it -- every kid, regardless of race or religion, deserves a sports role model -- but don't act surprised when it suddenly goes awry, like it did with ESPN's headline. Yes, the writer has since been fired, but that doesn't mean the rest of us don't have some important lessons to learn as well.