Post #32: Why We Watch (The Jeremy Lin Show)

There’s often good cause to question our culture’s obsession with sports.  Large chunks of it are dedicated to discussing, debating, observing, coddling, and paying for games while there are vastly more important issues (you know, like, say, poverty) who receive so much less face time relevant to their actual importance in our country that it’s downright embarrassing.  111.3 million people tuned in for the Superbowl this year, yet one in every two Americans doesn’t exercise his right to vote.  We’ve been at war in Afghanistan and hardly anybody talks about it.  The achievement gap between rich and poor students has widened recently, yet education funding is stagnant and we’re mired in a defeatist testing culture that prizes equality over equity and ignores the needs of individuals.  Many of us know this–we do, and not just sort of, we really know it–and continue to obsess over something more trivial like professional athletics.  Why?

It’s complicated.  Entertainment, one.  The simple pleasure of watching great athletes, two.  A break from lives that are legitimately busy and near overwhelming in their demands, three.  In the context of this post, none of these reasons seems all that impressive.  Sorry poor students, I’d rather watch Rajon Rondo and the Celtics than think about you anymore today.  Not quite, but kind of, right?

But the recent ascendency of Knick’s point guard Jeremy Lin provides an unexpected answer that, while it may not totally satisfy, is well worth considering.

Jeremy Lin–the story of Lin, I mean–argues for the relevance and necessity for sports in our culture.  Granted, the way the culture has rallied around and uplifted Lin in the past two weeks is frightening in scale and one can’t help but begin looking down to see how far the fall is going to be, but regardless of whether Lin continues performing magic, defying skeptics, and winning basketball games, his story, and what his story makes us think about, is important.

Lin received no athletic scholarships to college. Went un-drafted out of Harvard.  After being cut by the Golden State Warriors earlier this year, Lin was picked up by the Knicks, played a whopping five minutes during pre-season, before being sent down to play for the D League’s Erie Bay Hawks. The D League people.  You ever seen a D League basketball game?  I didn’t think so.  It’s where basketball players go to die.  After putting up a triple double with the Bay Hawks, Lin was quickly recalled by the Knicks, who must have realized their mistake.  Even still, he was the Knicks third string point guard.  A notch above the water boy.  Lin said he was “competing for a backup spot, and people see me as the 12th to 15th guy on the roster. It’s a numbers game.”

At this point we’d assume that the Knicks saw something incredibly special in Lin and made him their point guard to show his stuff.  Wrong.  Lin only got the chance to play at all because all the other point guards were either injured or setting new standards for shitty play at the point guard position.  Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni even admitted “He got lucky because we were playing so bad.”

Lin made the most of that chance, then the next one, then the next one, and the one after that, putting up silly numbers and displaying late game heroics that have sports writers digging out their thesaurus.  People have been wondering how Lin will co-exist with Knicks star Carmelo Anthony when he comes back from injury.  Two weeks into the saga of Jeremy Lin, a reporter asked D’Antoni who would take the big shots at the end of games, Lin or Anthony.  D’Antoni said he honestly didn’t know.   This is the equivalent of asking the Giants coach who would be leading the Giants up field at the end of the Super Bowl with the game on the line, Eli Manning or back-up David Carr and the coach having to wait a long as beat before responding.

Meaning, it’s unlikely to the point of laughable.

But it’s happening.

After Lin lit up the Lakers for 38 points and outplayed Kobe Bryant (probably the fourth or fifth greatest player of all time), Bryant was complimentary and deferential, “players playing that well don’t usually come out of nowhere,” he said.  “It seems like they come out of nowhere, but if you can go back and take a look, his skill level was probably there from the beginning. It probably just went unnoticed.”  It’s a great quote because it speaks to something valuable to consider when considering Lin.  The role timing, opportunity, and effort play in relation to raw ability.

Lin’s raw ability is obviously sufficient to warrant an NBA contract, which means he’s a very, very good basketball player; however, his raw talent was no where near sufficient enough to earn him an athletic scholarship out of high school or an entry into the NBA draft, let alone a starting point guard position.

And by the way, what kept this kid going when everything around him wasn’t supporting his decision to be a pro basketball player?

So if this guy isn’t that great, how did he end up being so great?  The story is young and who knows what the rest of the season holds for Lin and the Knicks, but for me, the coolest thing that Lin’s story offers and why I think it argues for the relevance of sports is that it’s been Lin’s effort, timing, and confidence that we should be inspired by, not his raw talent.  Kobe’s right…this guy was good all along, but for whatever reason was denied the chance to show it, or didn’t show it when he was given the chance.  The basketball apparatus told this guy to stop.  Didn’t give him money.  Didn’t draft him.  He played anyway.  I don’t exactly know why.

But I do know that as a writer whose been at it a long time and is still waiting to break through, I take heart in the way Lin just seemed to say, fuck it, I’m playing basketball and when the time comes, I’ll be ready.

Why?  Because it’s what I do.  It’s who I am.

Rock on, Jeremy Lin.

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