No one ever said Jimmy Dolan, the inscrutable owner of the New York Knicks, was any kind of genius. But his magnificently botched effort to re-sign Jeremy Lin, the young point guard who had blossomed into an international sensation, has taken him to previously unexplored depths of mental deficiency. It has given him a secure hold on an ignominious distinction: He is the most loathed and ridiculed owner in modern sports.
Jeremy Lin wanted to stay in New York. He was willing to sign for much less than he got from Houston. Knicks fans desperately wanted him to stay, and management promised to bring him back. Somehow, the Knicks managed to watch him leave for nothing.
How could this have come to pass? How did Jimmy Dolan so swiftly squander the windfall that landed in his lap, turning an inspiring sports story and branding opportunity into another vehicle to demonstrate his grandiose incompetence? And to what degree are unfortunate matters of race subtly implicated in the premature ending of Linsanity on the New York stage?
I get how the tens of millions of dollars in "luxury taxes" the Knicks would have had to pay on top of the $14.9 million Lin is due in the last year of the three-year deal Houston gave him amounts to crazy money. (Though no crazier than the deals that Dolan and his apparatchik, Isiah Thomas, handed out to a bunch of bench-riding bums through a lost decade of mediocrity.) I get how the prospect of handing this sort of money to a largely untested young player is laden with risk. (Though have a look at what point guard legends John Stockton and Steve Nash did two years into their careers and see that Lin is so far on the same trajectory.)
I get that Dolan -- a monopolist who owns a lousy cable television franchise that profits regardless of its appalling level of service -- may be so far removed from the customers who pay to watch his underachieving team that he perhaps doesn't grasp the potency of Linsanity. Maybe he spends so little time outside of his Dick Cheney-like lair that he really doesn't understand how Lin and his remarkable story made dumpy Madison Square Garden an enthralling place to be for the first time in many, many years.
What bothers me is the much-repeated talk that Dolan opted not to match the Rockets' offer because he felt betrayed by Lin's willingness to get himself the best deal he could, as if the young point guard owed it to owner who, despite the odds against him, gave him a shot at the global stage.
Betrayal? As most reports have it, Lin signaled from the outset of his free agency that he wanted to return to the Knicks and was willing to sign a deal for four years and $24 million or so. But the Knicks told him to first get himself another offer from another suitor. They preferred to let the market set the price. Lin complied, the market inflated his value. And this appears to have convinced Dolan that Lin is a terrible person, a greedy conniver, and an ingrate.
Can we imagine this sort of accusation getting leveled at someone of, shall we say, more typical NBA extraction? We are talking about an Asian American guy, a Harvard graduate, a player who managed to escape notice from most of the league's talent-assessing apparatus. In the operative understanding of who is supposed to do what in modern America, he was never supposed to be here. Now he has demonstrated his skills amply enough to command an enormous contract, he's apparently supposed to be full of gratitude for merely having the chance to play. When he acts like everyone else in the game, hiring an agent and negotiating the best deal, he is suddenly portrayed as conniving, underhanded and devious.
Would a black or a white player find himself accused of disloyalty in such circumstances? Would Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith -- two highly talented, maddeningly erratic and selfish players who have yet to win anything of consequence -- call out their teammate for getting paid at market rates, as they did?
It is hard to absorb such talk without thinking back on the subtle racial conceptions that have been at work since Lin stepped onto the big stage -– how he was supposedly stronger and faster than he looks, despite the fact that he is tall, built much like other point guards, and plenty fast. It feels as if a special standard is at work, as if the Asian guy should simply feel lucky to be here. He is supposed to serve the owner at less than market rate or find himself branded disloyal.
There is another troubling racial aspect to all this: The talk that one of the benefits Lin enjoys in Houston is that his new team has experience marketing Asian players. This is because Yao Ming, who grew up in China, used to play for the franchise and served as an ambassador for the NBA in the world's most populous country.
Lin has effectively been reduced to generic Asian guy, with his American-ness -- an intrinsically appealing part of his story -- stripped away. One of the beauties of his rise to fame was how it showed that Asian Americans are part of the national tapestry; that they can play ball, just as they can produce films or administer medicine or write popular books or open coffee shops or whatever. It counteracted stereotypes of Asian guy nerdiness, offering in their place Lin's audacity and athletic prowess. It tapped into the wellspring that is the American Dream, the idea that anyone is supposed to be able to succeed in any area if they bring enough passion and hard work.
Lin belonged to all of us. Now, he somehow belongs to Asia, a devolution of his identity in the national imagination. As sports commentators prattle on about how Houston puts Lin closer "to the Asian market" it's as if he might just as well be from China. He grew up in northern California, went to an Ivy League university, and owned New York City in a way that few ever can imagine. Yet now he's the functional equivalent of Yao, who grew up in Shanghai, and who trained in elite facilities run by the Chinese Communist Party.
This is a downgrade of the Lin story, which is bad not just for sports, but for the country.
My mother-in-law, who grew up in Taiwan and has lived in New York for 30-plus years, bought my son -- her first grandchild -- two baby Lin jerseys. When my wife and I put them on our boy, we shared an unspoken sense of expanded racial horizons. Not as if our son is supposed to grow up and play basketball, but a more subtle feeling, a sense that assigned identities had been breached.
Now, when we look at those jerseys, we just feel bummed out. Through sheer happenstance, the hapless, profligate, usually ridiculous Knicks lucked into a player whose appeal transcended sports, and whose benefits extended far beyond business interests.
Just like that, they mucked the whole thing up.