Feb 14, 2012

Trailblazin’- (from the Jeremy Lin archives)


This piece originally ran a week after Jeremy Lin first signed with the Warriors.  

In these recent years, I’ve found it hard going to accept the totality of my multi-cultural education. While my wiring (Korean, raised in the South, overeducated in the Academy’s blah-factories) precludes me from completely abandoning the soft-handed dreamscape of E-qual-it-ee, the creations and stories that populate the dream itself have lost their dimensions, gone fuzzy. The vision of a post-race America, fed to me and my classmates by a factory line of well-intentioned teachers, all steeped in the same, lumbering ideology, which was then radiated out in college seminars, lectures, where the same ideas repeated themselves in fancier clothes, seems as naïve to me now as a bumper sticker pleading for the end of all wars. And yet, I still feel the need, mostly ridiculous, to accept the vision as something good, essential. It is a joke, sure, and not a funny one, but it is the joke that plays on repeat in my head. Like all repeating things, the joke has long been reduced into the clutter of its component parts. These parts float chaotically, the same way snippets of Illmatic and Liquid Swords do—accessible at all times, but never quite in any recognizable pattern. Just as I will be sitting uncomfortably in an airport terminal and hear the words, “My father was the greatest samurai in the empire,” flit through my head, so too will the mantras and rules of my multicultural education just come upon me suddenly, without warning or reason.

I wonder if it’s much different for anyone else, if all of us who identify with the same vision, who post links on facebook about Racist Things Republicans Say, who like the sound of the word disenfranchisement, who feel comfortable enough to roll our eyes at Kwanzaa, but not quite comfortable enough to roll our eyes at Jesse Jackson, at least not in public, might simply be reacting to race-things with an utterly random array of pretty sentiments and recycled thoughts. I do not bring this up because I mean to chastise—certainly, of all people, I find myself guilty of such detachment, indifference, randomness—but rather to figure out why, exactly, that when I heard that Jeremy Lin was going to come home and play for my Golden State Warriors, the first thought that trailed my elation was, calm down. He doesn’t owe you anything. He is not a representative for every Asian-American kid. He is just Jeremy Lin. The thing is, even though those sorts of nice words still constitute my go-to reaction to all things racial, I don’t believe any of that multicultural dinosaur bullshit. Jeremy Lin, sorry, is not just a kid from Palo Alto-to-Harvard who made good in the NBA. He is not just Jeremy Lin, basketball player, who owes nothing to nobody but himself and God. And while good manners stop me short of saying that Jeremy Lin owes me something, personally, I will say this: Michael Chang be damned, there has never been a more important Asian athlete in the history of this country than Jeremy Lin.

Ichiro slaps at balls and plays with a Zenny detachment—there is a narrative for him, steeped heavily in our preconceptions of those kooky Japanese. Yao’s narrative is consumed by his size, his gregariousness and the machinery of Chinese athletics. Hines Ward is half-black and therefore, by our fucked-up calculations, doesn’t really count. Eugene Chung played offensive line and went bust. Dat Nguyen, Parcells devotee, could have come close, but he was undersized, as everyone would have expected him to be. Michael Chang could only win with finesse, on clay, no less, and only did it once.

There is no narrative for an Asian American kid who led his team to a state title, went completely unrecuited, settled for Harvard, for chrissake, dominated the Ivies, went undrafted and then signed with an NBA team straight out of the summer league. Does anyone’s story in the NBA deserve more of a FTW? And while it might be technically true to say that he is his own man and should not have to bear the yoke of his people, that truth is utterly irrelevant. His story is so perfect that it will be gobbled up and turned into metaphor, he will be a experiment for how ESPN discusses “his kind,” he will be the litmus test of where Stu Scott can go and where he cannot, he will be most easily accessible, visible counterpoint to the emasculated Asian male. He will be the Great Yellow Hope for millions of Asian people, not just in the Bay Area, but in Flushing, K-Town, Little Saigon, Annandale, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taipei and Beijing. And yet, while repairing our faith in the multi-cultural vision by placing himself in the country’s most unlikely forum, the Great Yellow Hope of Jeremy Lin is not about equality at all. He might make a smiling cameo in the soft-handed dream, but he didn’t get to where he is because of it. His promise buries itself into more personal and violent lines—we are asking him, or, rather, his body, through the arbitrary act of helping five other men put a ball through a hoop more efficiently than five other men, to undo the harm of the stereotypes we do not discuss, to give us an icon to rally around without reservation or fear that our great hero might also reject us for the novelty of our wiring. We are asking, and not nicely, for him to give up his racialized body to those of us who might need it much more than we will comfortably admit.

As the first of his kind playing in the country’s weirdest and most intense racial metaphor, he will carry the weight of evolving into the counterpoint, the measure of pride. In this way, he is more DiMaggio than Jackie Robinson, more of a symbol to his people than a trailblazer. He will be picked at, conflated, celebrated, deflated, trashed, defiled and mocked on the road. He will certainly not deserve any of this. But, despite what the random volley liberal, multicultural responses might say, deserve has nothing to do with it.

The mantle of trailblazer goes to Rich Cho, the former Boeing engineer from Federal Way, who, on Tuesday, was hired as Portland’s General Manager. He is the first Asian-American to ever head up the front office of an American professional sports team. It is certainly a strange coincidence that these two events would occur within the same forty-eight hour span, and while the linearity-loving part of the brain lights up with the possibility of stringing these two events together into some story about acceptance, pushing barriers and progress, Rich Cho and Jeremy Lin have as much to do with one as another as Barack Obama and Venus Williams. Cho is the fruit of the multicultural dream, his success validates the mantras of expanded equal opportunity and the boon that comes when you stop thinking assuming that certain races are better suited for certain jobs. He is why our well-intentioned teachers had to preach what they did, a beacon, not for the possibilities of his body, but rather, for the possibilities of what our racial math has already confirmed: Asians, if given the chance, can succeed in business endeavors of all kinds. Cho, despite being really the first of his kind, (Lin has Wat Misaka, and, to a lesser degree, Yao, Yi, Sun Yue, Yuta Tabuse, etc. as his forbearers) will never be anything more than another immigrant kid staking a claim in the White world. As I wrote in back in January, the majority of Asian American kids raised in the United States are taught, oftentimes insidiously, to covet the bounties of Whiteness. Pro basketball, with its “hip-hop image,” its Big Black Supermen, its near-naked display of the athlete’s body and its association with that vague place known as “the street,” has an immutable connection with Blackness. And while, of course, the act of running an NBA team places you within the constraints of White success, to actually play the game, to dunk, preen, block shots, bomb threes, all that is uncharted, volatile territory, something that falls not only outside of the possibilities envisioned by Asian immigrant parents and their children, but on the wrong side of an unspoken racial divide that has found its ugly and violent outlet in every Riot the country has seen over the past thirty years. As is true with all racial violence, at least in this country, the targeting of Korean-owned businesses during the Rodney King Riots was more about the ways in which each group measured their battered bodies up against the pristine and guilt-proof White. And although the Rodney King Riots slammed the door on the possibility that us Asian kids could run away from Whiteness, the violence of the Riots still radiates outwards—this year in the Bay Area, there have been several high-profile murders in which Black assailants have purportedly been targeting Asian victims. Having lived in almost every major American city, I can say that I have never been in a place where the tension between Blacks and Asians is more palpable than it is in the Bay Area: 2010. This is the context in which Jeremy Lin, Palo Alto kid, comes back to pursue his dream: he will be playing in America’s Blackest game in one of America’s Blackest cities and every goddamn connotation of every word will have its sway on how we view him. To say that all these things are on the minds of Lin, his teammates or most Warriors fans is a stretch, but to deny their sway over how we process Lin, to barrage him-within-his-context with our simplistic, easy, liberal, multicultural rhetoric is just flat-out dumb.

As such, I do not think it is a stretch to say that Jeremy Lin’s successes and failures in the NBA will redefine how Asian-American males view their bodies. In some ways, the redefinition has already begun. Videos have already begun to sprout up that attempt to anthropologically break down Lin’s fabled summer league showdown with John Wall. The comparisons that were made last January, when similar videos of Lin dunking on UConn started making their rounds through the blogosphere, have been ratcheted up. What was once hypothetical is now real. The comment board at the Golden State of Mind blog have been clogged with ecstatic Asian hoopheads who have been posting comments like, “it feels as if one of us just walked on the court and started playing.” The statement is ridiculous, yes, (I wonder if Alfonso Ribeiro, better known as Carlton Banks, feels the same way whenever he witnesses Lebron dunk on somebody’s head), but it shows the peculiar desperation of the Asian American sports fan, the manic need to find some outlet to place ourselves on the mount with the rest of the Athlete Gods. To reach such heights, Jeremy Lin, human being-who-is-entitled-to-just-be-himself, could very well be sacrificed. It would be nice to hope that this doesn’t have to happen, but to tell the truth, it probably already has happened, and, as long as he provides the heroic figure, I do not care either way. Still, I will probably buy a Jeremy Lin jersey. There is not a Rich Cho jersey, but, if there were, I probably wouldn’t buy it.   

So, how will he do? We have already seen Jeremy Lin’s game against the NBA’s next Most Gifted One. Matching up one-on-one against John Wall, Lin looked big enough, quick enough, and, more importantly, competed on every possession. Sure, it’s summer league, but Lin proved to be a patient, well-coached, and pretty fucking big point guard who could get into the lane with ease. He showed flashes of a jump shot, most notably the fade-away three he hit with Wall in his face, but nothing to indicate that he could fill, say, the point guard’s shooting role in the triangle. With his size, competitiveness, quicks, patience and admittedly average passing/court vision, he reminded me most of Jarrett Jack. Lin is already a better shooter than Jack will ever be and might even be a step quicker and although the restrictions of summer league made it impossible to see if Lin also possessed Jack’s ability to lead a team, his footage at Harvard shows a level of focus and unselfishness that should translate well into the pro game. Other than that, it’s really impossible to tell—he played well in Vegas. But so did Marco Bellinelli. Within the context of the Warriors, (is there even a context?) Lin’s signing creates a weird culture contraption in which a point guard from Davidson will be backed up by a point guard from Harvard. While Jarrett Jack is the most immediate game-comp, it is Curry who offers the more interesting conversation—both move with deceptive speed, both attack methodically, carefully, and both are surprisingly adequate rebounders and defenders. More interestingly, both guys come into the league with questions about their athleticism, their ability to D-up against the league’s big guards. In some measure, both Lin and Curry face such scrutiny for fucked-up reasons: Curry, because he is light-skinned, frail, “well spoken,” and played at Davidson. Lin faces a similar scrutiny because he is Asian, with all the cocooning context of that word, and played at Harvard. Both guys dominated in college, albeit on different stages. I feel safe in saying that Lin will never be the player Curry has already become, but having watched a few of his games at Harvard and the entirety of his summer league performance, I will say this: Lin, like Curry, is fueled by a heady competitiveness. He knows his spots on the floor and seems to get up for the big stage—remember, we first began paying attention to him after he blew up UConn for thirty points, and, as one youtube poster counted, two dunks. His best game of the summer league came against Wall, when he knew everyone was watching. These two moments certainly don’t quite measure up to Curry’s NCAA run, but they do provide some evidence that Lin will not be swallowed up by the scrutiny of being the NBA’s strangest player.