Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Our Jackie Robinson

In my two years of coaching high school boys' basketball, I have encountered exactly two Asian players at the varsity level. Last year in the playoffs, when we played against one of them (a starting point guard), our point guard was told to sag off on defense, over-help on defending other players, double the post when needed, and give this Asian player all the space he wanted for a shot. From purely a coaching standpoint, the very thought of leaving a point guard undefended is anathema to the profession. It's like, no, IT IS handing over a free win to your opponent. All this in a loser-go-home, do-or-die, playoff game. For those who don't follow the beautiful game of basketball, the point guard is a team's primary ball handler and decision maker, the quarterback for the team and the coach on the floor. Even if the point guard is not a good jump shooter, you've got to play honest defense on him because 1. any varsity guard can surely take it to the rim for an easy lay up or pass to an open teammate off the drive, but, more importantly, 2. we need to pressure the pass inside and prevent their offense from setting up. Shockingly, our varsity coach's counter-intuitive strategy paid off and by the end of the game, the crowd erupted into a jeering session of Jeremy, Jereemy, Jereeeemy every time their point guard touched the ball. This poor kid was obviously rattled and pressured by our lack of pressure, passing up not only open jump shots but also open lanes for drives. Instead, he quickly passed the ball to a teammate every possession and disappeared from the offense, giving us a de facto five on four defenders' advantage.

That Asian athletes don't get respect from opponents should not surprise anyone. Every time I play pick up basketball with unknown players, I am always the last pick. To put it into perspective, then, making it on a 4A varsity team and get respectable minutes is an extremely rare accomplishment in itself. Prior to last year, asking someone to name a professional Asian basketball player was similar to asking them about any other commodity on the market: Yao Ming and Barbies, both Made in China. Broaden the question out to Asian athletes in any sport and it would sound much like Japanese car imports: Ichiro Suzuki Motors. As successful as these Asian athletes got in North America, even they were the exotic exception to the rule in their respective sports. When their stints were done, those athletes went back home and the athletic floodgate did not open like the brain drain of computer technicians, engineers, and doctors from Asia. For many young Asian Americans, those athletes were glimpses of what our race could achieve when opportunities were given, but also a reminder of the stark reality that those gifts, when offered on the rare occasion, were only to Asians abroad. Those Asians did not struggle in the same way from childhood on against a culture dominated by blacks and whites and a society with expectations for you to become a Model Minority. We were still, to invoke The Dark Knight, looking for our hero, not the hero we deserved, but the one we needed to overcome the initial barrier of racist exclusion against Asian Americans in professional sports. Someone who lived under institutional racism and overcame; someone who went unpicked or undrafted yet broke through; someone who could not escape home after the run was done because home is here. 

February 4, 2012, should be a date that is forever engrained among Asian Americans, for that is the day we got our hero. Our Jackie Robinson. That evening on basketball's biggest stage, at Madison Square Garden, bench warming, soon-to-be-demoted-to-the-D-League, Asian American Jeremy Lin came off the bench with 25 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds to carry the underwhelming New York Knicks, then on a two-game losing streak with an abysmal 9-15 overall record, to victory over the Nets. The next six games, with Lin inserted into the starting lineup and without their injured superstar Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks emerged victorious. And with 136 points in his first five starts, Lin set the NBA record in that category.

I am truly perplexed at some of the reactions I get from Asian Americans regarding Jeremy Lin. Many simply don't care; they are not sports fanatics and give a blase oh, that's great that he made it. Another reaction I commonly hear is he's nothing special for a point guard. He's not as athletic as D. Rose, as smart as Tony Parker, as clutch as Kyrie Irving, or as shot-savvy as Stephen Curry. Jeremy's overrated and commits too many turnovers. All these responses reflect a greater ignorance among Asian Americans towards the racism in not only sports culture, but the system in general. Many Asian Americans buy into the model minority stereotype because unlike other racial stereotypes, it is perceived as positive and endowed with its own perks. They don't realize or care that the stereotype was perpetuated to divide and conquer people of color, to reinvigorate the myth that America was equal, post-racist or colorblind by counteracting the image of militant blacks revolting on the streets with the image of docile Asian immigrants working professional jobs, and that it continues to reinforce a racial hierarchy that maintains capitalism. In other words, many Asian Americans internalize these racist stereotypes about themselves and accept that they are physiologically inferior to other races in order to ascend the corporate ladder and live the American Dream. They don't appreciate the enormity of Jeremy's impossible climb because they never faced what it was like to dedicate one's life to breaking a racist stereotype and being free to do what you love in spite of the odds overwhelmingly stacked against you.

When the system entitles a large proportion of Asian Americans to maintain its racist division of labor, it's difficult to view Jeremy Lin as our Jackie Robinson. But his very presence on the floor challenges social roles and racist economics in general. More specifically, his presence challenges the racism of professional sports, the social Darwinist assumptions of the Asian body, and the complacency and softness of Asians. He represents the spirit of Asians that is currently suppressed under the system, a spirit of revolt both in mind and body, a spirit of toughness, intensity, and leadership both on the court and on the streets. He is not the hero we deserve, but the one we desperately need when so many of us willingly play the assigned role.


The first time I heard of Jeremy Lin was through the New York Times. Over the course of the last NBA season and a half, I've experienced with Lin what many do in the course of an extended romantic relationship. The sheer thrill of the encounter; love at first sight. I remember e-mailing the Times article from my work computer to personal account, then printing out a dozen copies or so to keep and hand out immediately upon returning home. The honeymoon period. For the remainder of the 2012 season, I religiously followed Jeremy and the Knicks, going Linsane in the membrane every time he set foot on the floor. The discovery of faults in the other; the disappointment and let down in that it didn't turn out as expected. After being awarded an unspeakable three-year, $25 million contract by Houston for his performance over just 26 games as a Knick, expectations were sky high but Jeremy's first full season in the league ultimately underwhelmed. The break up. Towards the end of the season, I consciously stopped defending Jeremy to all my players whom I coached who had been attacking him all season long. I accepted the inevitable; his numbers were down, his effort was inconsistent, and my admiration of him suddenly died. Reevaluating the relationship from afar and getting back together again. Linsanity may not happen again and Jeremy may not currently be among the top starting point guards, but this past season was only his first full season. And as I will mention in the following paragraph, he played on a team that devalued and disrespected his best assets. Already with smarts beyond his years, Jeremy has a remarkably high potential and will only learn from his mistakes, but unlike those players, he will also have to deal with the racism of the league and the pressure of being a historic figure, the first Asian American in the NBA.

As a warning to my non-basketball readers, this section of the post is technical. I do not think that the Houston Rockets is a good fit for Jeremy. He is devalued by the coaching staff, and this has translated to his teammates not trusting him with the ball down the stretch of the season despite being open on the perimeter. The Rockets offense primarily runs through James Harden, a former Sixth Man of the Year and who emerged as a superstar last season for the Rockets. The most common play is this: Jeremy would take the ball up court and hand it off to James Harden or Chandler Parsons, who will come off a high pick and roll with Omer Asik. Jeremy will then rotate to the weakside corner and sit there for the remainder of the offensive possession. Once in a while, he will get the ball but he is the fourth or fifth option for scoring. In short, the Rockets don't run offense through a point guard, even though James Harden actually led the league in turnovers last season. It appears as if Jeremy were expendable to the Rockets' coaching staff, and towards the end of the season, even though Jeremy started games, he barely played second halves and frequently didn't play in the fourth quarter at all, despite having strong starts. This is all the more confusing because Jeremy played more aggressively as the season waned, transporting fans back to the excitement of Linsanity, and Lin shot an impressive 40% from three-point range in his last 37 games. His usage rate was ranked 38th among point guards, which situated him along backup point guards in terms of minutes per game. Despite this, he averaged 13 points and 6 assists a game, which are average numbers for starting point guards. Ironically, when James Harden was out on illness or injury, the coaches reverted back to point guard play and leaned on Jeremy, who averaged 22 points and 7 assists in those games, including a 38-point performance against the San Antonio Spurs. This is a double standard to which many Asian Americans relate. You are invisible to us unless we are shorthanded and you are needed. You better rise to the occasion in these rare opportunities or be forever forgotten.

When Linsanity happened in New York, Jeremy was the primary ball handler and, like smart point guards, excelled at involving his teammates on offense. In his first week of playing with Jeremy, Tyson Chandler's numbers climbed up to 14 points and 9 rebounds. Steve Novak became a three-point sensation overnight after Jeremy's aggressive drives would pull in help defenders, leaving Novak open for the three-point shot from a Lin dish. Defensively, during the Linsanity stretch, the Knicks climbed up to #1 in both PPG and FG% allowed. Having an unselfish teammate to run the point and allowing everyone opportunities to score on offense encouraged and enabled everyone to play their hardest as a team defensively.

With Dwight Howard coming to Houston next season, Jeremy will likely see less of the ball. D12's teammate this past season, Steve Nash, claimed that Howard did not want to run the pick and roll. Considering that Houston Coach Kevin McHale was an elite center, Houston may mix more post up play for Howard, which could leave Jeremy stacked on an overloaded weakside corner as the last option for scoring. Finally, I'm reading a plethora of articles advocating that Patrick Beverly, who closed many of the games last season, should start over Jeremy. Beverly is not an offensive threat to opponents, but considering that Jeremy was not seen as or assigned by his coaches the playmaker role, it's conceivable that Beverly gets the nod as the starter.

Though he possesses both, Jeremy is not our hero because of his skill or ability. It is the continual challenge he faces, the reminder to all Asian Americans that despite accomplishing something, nothing is guaranteed for the future. Having proven himself in New York, he signs with Houston only to find his talents misused and unappreciated. Now, the league devalues him and he is stuck on the same team where he must struggle to maintain minutes, let alone the starting position. He is a reminder to Asian Americans that though many of us may have it good, our social roles are confined. When we challenge it, as Jeremy does, we must work ten times harder than the next person whose skin color equates to a professional or social advantage. We cannot afford to have an off day in performance without a barrage of criticism or depreciation in status. Whenever we see how hard Jeremy works on the floor, the plays where he sacrifices his body for a defensive charge call, and the hard falls that frequently accompany his flights in the air while making a contested layup, we should know that he's doing it for us, for our future generations, to allow us to be perceived as something other than a cookie cutter model minority. And that's why I am humbled and smile whenever someone who plays me in basketball calls me after my hero, our Jackie Robinson, Jeremy Lin.

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