Defending Jeremy Lin is exhausting.
Over the weekend, video surfaced that showed Lin, 30, speaking at a church event in Taiwan. In it, Lin was visibly distraught about his place in the NBA. “Free agency has been tough,” he said, “because I feel like in some ways the NBA has kind of given up on me, and I always knew if I ever gave anyone a reason to doubt they would.” Most of the attention, and the accompanying ridicule, has been on the first half of that quote, but the substance of Lin’s complaint rests in the latter half. Lin has always been doubted, and likely always will.
To understand how Lin is viewed today is to understand what went into Linsanity to begin with. Carmelo Anthony was out. So was Amar’e Stoudemire. The Knicks were terrible. Then, out of nowhere, Lin went supernova. The Knicks began winning, and Linsanity dominated the national spotlight. Asian-American fans had never experienced anything like it, and their joy, along with the joy of Knick fans celebrating their most thrilling stretch in the last two decades, was the basis for a national phenomenon. But Linsanity was also a convenient opportunity to criticize Anthony, a great player whose flaws fell in line with those traditionally assigned, by racists, to black players. The fact that Lin went to Harvard was an easy stereotype to wield for those looking for a useful model minority. Lin has carried the burden of both sides of Linsanity his entire career, and it’s cost him the benefit of the doubt from all corners.
First the basketball. Among the many rolling their eyes at Lin Monday was Rashad McCants, a former NBA player whose comment on Instagram summed up many reactions to the video of Lin in a tidy paragraph of grievance:
“Man this guy had at least 6 different opportunities to thrive,” McCants wrote. “Made more money than most guys 10x better than him. Has billions of people behind him in Asia. Given up on you??? Wow… you will soon know what it feels like once your completely forgotten about. Just think if you had to fight the guys who were better for the spot you were given. All that brown nosing and doing it right looks good to the front office. But when your a below average player, real hoopers not tryna hear that sh-t.”
Present in McCants’ complaints about Lin’s career are all of the hallmarks of resentment toward a Great White Hope. Brown-nosing, playing the right way, a roster spot handed to him ahead of players who were better — the sort of argument that would make sense for, say, Gordon Hayward last season or Adam Morrison in any year of his career. Also, notably, the same style of argument a wide variety of fans whip out when they want to dismiss a deserving player out of hand. Practically none of those privileges actually apply to Lin, who was assigned to the D-League three times in his rookie year. But it matters that they stick to him, this deep into a career in which he has acquitted himself capably on the floor, though not in hearts and minds.
The difficulty with Lin as a player has always been that his skillset is a tough match with his overall talent level, and neither lines up with his celebrity. When he’s right, he’s a very good but very specific player, one who is not useful to all teams equally. When he’s not, he’s as bad as any other misfiring role player in the league. That’s what made the setup for Linsanity a perfect match of time and place — a roster obliterated by injuries, a point guard-focused coach in Mike D’Antoni, and a green light to make something happen.
At root, Lin is a slashing point guard who scores at the rim and can create when asked to do so. He operates best with the ball in his hands, and had the misfortune of playing in an era in which stars are given the ball on a greater percentage of possessions than any time in history. Bad alignment of player and era happen — Roy Hibbert was run out of the league for far lesser sins — but Lin’s luck was either extremely bad or extremely indicative of the era, as he found himself alongside some of the most ball-dominant guards ever, all of whom were more talented than he was.
After New York, Lin went to the Rockets the same summer Daryl Morey traded for James Harden. Good luck finding possessions on the ball in that back court. From there he played with Kobe, and then Kemba Walker. He shone briefly in Walker’s absence, and briefly again in his stay with the Nets and Kenny Atkinson — who has a way of making the most out of guards like Lin — before injuries benched him for the rest of his time in Brooklyn. Last season, in Atlanta, he was one of the best bench players in the league before being traded to the Raptors and choking himself out of the rotation by the playoffs.
And still, Lin’s stats have been healthier than most would guess. In his healthy seasons, he shoots around 60 percent at the rim, and his true shooting percentage — the gold standard for an “efficient” player — has flirted with very good to elite levels. He has been an undeniably useful guard. But while his circumstances have not been ideal, it’s hard to say exactly what “ideal” looks like for his game. He’s a good-but-not-great guard who is at his best barreling toward the rim, and a streaky-at-best 3-point shooter. Contenders tend to have the lead guard roles locked down with guys who do those things better than Jeremy does them.
(His style also renders those “plays the right way” shoutouts by crusty fans and misguided columnists meaningless, since from the moment Linsanity began he’s been a ball-pounding point guard who can’t shoot and runs a mean high pick-and-roll, but facts rarely trump usefulness. “Smart” meant “not black.”)
All that means, or all it should mean, anyway, is that Lin is like any other veteran guard, a guy who can provide good minutes off the bench — as he did for the majority of last season — and mentor younger players. Take it from Trae Young, who played with Lin in Atlanta last season.
“Me having @JLin7 as one of my Vets,” Young tweeted Sunday. “I’ll tell you I’ll ALWAYS be a fan of him!! Dude can HOOOOP, But is never selfish, it’s always about others and the Team First... The real ones know Bro!! I’ll always have your back... You not done yet.”
Lin has never been allowed to amass that veteran cachet with the league at large, because his place in the league has been seen more as a novelty than a proficient player. Veterans earned their time in the league; Lin was gifted his. Never mind that “about league average” is practically always signed — Ricky Rubio, 28, signed with the Suns for three years, $51 million — or that Lin brings a whole cottage industry of merch along with him. A novelty player is easy to discard once the
novelty has worn off.
There is a segment of sports fans who refuse to admit that race plays a part in anything that happens on or off the field. Those fans are wrong, but it’s understandable to see them react to Lin the way they react to many other stories. The other segment, the fans and media members who acknowledge that of course race plays some part in all things, are more confounding as they pull that ladder up when it comes to Lin.
It’s disappointing to see commentators like Bomani Jones, who so often finds compassion and understanding for players to whom fans and media treat unfairly, find Lin to be unsympathetic. On Monday’s “High Noon,” Jones compared Lin to famously overpaid former Knick, Jerome James, who like Lin wanted desperately to prove that he belonged, and in the comparison proved Lin’s point. James had a single postseason run of success and Isiah Thomas promptly signed him to a contract worth well above what his play merited before or after. Lin actually produced at a rate commensurate with his salary but has never been credited for having done so. Ironically, it’s the same dynamic as the one that hounded Melo for years, as he produced at a rate that lived up to, but did not exceed, his max salary. But Melo’s most unfair critics were the same ones capitalizing on Linsanity, making it a tough alliance to forge across aisles.
I don’t know why teams haven’t gotten in touch with Lin. I’d be shocked if there were an active or even passive blackball against him. But if the broad and indignant reaction can be taken as a remnant of the original resentment of Lin’s usefulness as a model minority cudgel of white hope — just a few years after Steve Nash’s twin MVPs were used to similar effect — then we must ask what that means for an Asian player in a league that has been as casual as the NBA has about anti-Asian sentiment. The only time anyone has seen repercussions was an ESPN web editor getting canned for running a “Chink in the Armor” headline about Lin. Jason Whitlock, who tweeted “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight” after a Knick win, was later handed the reins to a prestige imprint at ESPN.
In 2003, Shaquille O’Neal, dismissive of the idea that Yao Ming could challenge him as a dominant center, told reporters, “Tell Yao Ming, ‘Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh.’” Anyone who’s walked around in America while Asian is familiar with the construction. He later issued a non-apology, saying, “To say I’m a racist against Asians is crazy. It’s probably [someone] just trying to start trouble.... I’m an idiot prankster. I said a joke. It was a 70-30 joke. Seventy percent of people thought it was funny, 30 didn’t.” The 30 percent didn’t matter, as they didn’t when he published either of his Shaq Fu video games, stuffed with all manner offensive stereotypes.
In 2008, in celebration of making the Beijing Summer Olympics, the Spanish national basketball team posed for a celebratory photo making the universally racist slant-eyed gesture. Prominent NBA players, such as Pau and Marc Gasol and Jose Calderon, have enjoyed long careers without the burden of a racist past, unlike modern players whose bad tweets are surfaced, or even a player like Andrew Bogut, who follows a variety of alt-right accounts and attends Jordan Peterson talks.
The issue isn’t the events themselves, as they barely rate compared to what NBA players and fans see on a given day, but what the reaction to them says about how attuned the league is to anti-Asianness. It’s not. That probably matters when we’re talking about an Asian man holding the bag for how white America chose to use him.
Lin is clearly exhausted. So are we. The joy of Linsanity is a distant memory; all that remains is fear of whatever rock bottom looks like next.