Land an arrow anywhere on the great dartboard of sports history and you’ll find one.
It’s September, and the Kansas City Royals make a mystifying decision to start Buddy Biancalana, career .188 hitter, over regular shortstop Onix Concepcion.
But Biancalana heats up, plays sparkling defence and hits twice as well as his typical numbers (second only to George Brett in OBP) and KC wins the World Series. He becomes a nightly staple on the David Letterman show and a minor cultural icon.
George Blanda, aka the Grand Old Man, earns cult hero status in Oakland and becomes the most-talked about man in football as he leads the Raiders to five straight victories with one of his kicking boot or arm – at the age of 43. Blanda would retire at age 48 after 26 years as a pro, the Gordie Howe of football.
So there’s really not much new about this whole Jeremy Lin thing when you place it in context.
If there is a defining trait that has endured in the American character, it’s this: unconditional love of the underdog.
Sports fans in need of their cult hero fix have segued smoothly from Tebowmania to Linsanity, which of course touches down in Canada on Valentine’s Day when the New York Knicks visit the Toronto Raptors.
It’s not the first time Lin has played in the Air Canada Centre – his first visit in 2010 as a member of the Golden State Warriors coincided with the Raps’ annual Asian Heritage Night – but this one’s different.
Lin, if you haven’t been paying attention to certain national newspaper’s blanket coverage, is the Knicks’ rookie point guard, and the key cog in the team’s recent surge.
He’s a Harvard grad by way of Palo Alto, Calif., who didn’t get a college basketball scholarship, wasn’t drafted into the NBA and was cut by two teams last fall before hooking on with the injury-depleted Knicks.
His NBA career was so tenuous until a few weeks ago that – you couldn’t make this up – he camped out on his dentistry student brother’s couch in the Big Apple.
He’s the first Harvard man to start in the NBA since the 1950s, the first Ivy Leaguer since Chris Dudley in 2003.
Lin has taken the NBA by storm, the best bit of news for the league’s lockout-blighted season; he is the first Asian (he has Taiwanese and mainland Chinese roots) with star power since Yao Ming.
The legend of Lin has been dissected by everyone from Stephen Colbert to Deadspin.com; Twitter has been atwitter for three weeks now, and the 23-year-old is a certified celebrity.
But as with most things in life, there is a fleshy underbelly to Lin-mania.
Racism, of both the unintentional and more outwardly malign genres, has accompanied his rise; posters like “Me love you Lin time” and “Yellow Mamba” are seen at NBA arenas, he is referred to on talk radio and placards as “Fortune Rookie” and “the Linja.”
This is not restricted to NBA contests, just ask the pinheads who have shown up at Habs games wearing blackface as an homage to P.K. Subban, or the geniuses who do the same at Formula One races.
There have been some egregious characterizations of Lin, as a guest contributor at Deadspin writes here. Money quote: “As with any Asian person in popular culture, people’s first resort is a torrent of pan-Asian racist gibberish: If it has anything to do with any country, food, product, concept, or stereotype involving Asia, the rule is basically, ‘Make any association or equivalence you want, whatever.’”
There is ignorance, then.
But there is also a mercantile impulse at work in the creation and elevation of the Lin myth.
Sports leagues in North America and elsewhere have tried to grab a foothold on the tantalizingly large Asian market – their efforts resemble nothing more than ragged medieval true believers questing for the Holy Grail.
Can a Knicks pre-season tour of Asia, a la Manchester United and Arsenal, be far behind?
Another defining characteristic of the large republic to the south, as described by H.L. Mencken: no one ever went broke underestimating the tastes of the American public.
See what we mean?
There is, of course, much to recommend Lin as a basketball player: he’s fearless, athletic, charismatic, and has enough of a killer instinct to torch the L.A. Lakers for 38 points.
He has brought excitement to Madison Square Garden and the NBA as a whole.
But as with any sudden phenomenon, there is a nascent backlash and grumping about how this guy may just be a flash in the pan.
There’s a bust of Blanda in the NFL’s Hall of Fame.
Biancalana was out of baseball 18 months after the ‘85 World Series, and was last sighted hawking a book on “mind-body connection” he co-wrote with a former tennis player who has a degree from the Maharishi University of Management (yes, Transcendental Meditation features prominently).
Where Lin will land on that continuum is anyone’s guess.
Isn’t it enough to just watch how it plays out as a sporting spectacle – not a cultural statement, not a business opportunity – and enjoy the ride?
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