Feb. 15, 2012; New York, NY, USA; Fans cheer for New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin during the second half against the Sacramento Kings at Madison Square Garden. Knicks won 100-85. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE

Why I Root Against Jeremy Lin (And a Nagging Memory Itch Scratched)

Let me be the 459,321st person to write about Jeremy Lin.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you that I belong to one of three groups of people rooting against Jeremy Lin:

1)  Friends and family of Toney Douglas (though, to be fair, probably not all of them)

2)  Closet racists  (see Mayweather, Floyd)

3)  Milwaukee Bucks followers who prefer a playoff run to a lottery pick

On February 3, the day before Lin’s first prominent appearance, the Bucks had a game-and-a-half game lead over the Knicks and Cavaliers in the race for the eighth spot in the East.  Much has changed in two weeks.  The roles are now reversed with the Bucks trailing 2.5 games back in the standings (and threatening to drop out the race altogether).

It’s not that I don’t want Lin to do well; he’s a marvelous talent and a phenomenal story.  But could he pull off these heroics in a few losses, too?

The whole Linsanity media beast is a perfect storm — multiple darling story lines twirled together into a media maelstrom.

For starters, no NBA teams drafted him out of Harvard, a recognizable institution for everything other than academics.  When you see Harvard on a resume, you acknowledge.  When you see it on an NCAA bracket, you empathize.

Lin also benefitted from being the first Asian-American to figure prominently in the NBA in a long time.  (But not the first — that honor goes to a Knick from the 1940s, Wat Misaka, who contacted Lin recently.)

With his two most talented teammates out of the lineup, Lin succeeded. The Knicks won, and Lin led them. No one can deny the ‘underdog-works-hard-and-reaches-success’ angle at work here.

But it goes beyond that.  Lin’s on-court success is helping to redeem a popular, but perennially under-performing franchise from a ginormous media market.  Playing for the Knicks provides more exposure than, say, playing for the Bucks. Plus, Mike D’Antoni cut the kid his first break the day before the Super Bowl and gave him his first start the day after.  As the casual sports fan turned from football to basketball, there before him lay Jeremy Lin.

Suffice it to say: for all his hard work, Lin was in the right place at the right time, too.

In the first week of this Lin fairytale, the whole story started to ring familiar.  I tried to recount where and when this sort of thing had happened before, but I couldn’t quite place it.   Then I heard Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe on the radio, and he compared Lin’s story to that of Billy Ray Bates.

Billy Ray Bates came out the NBA’s version of nowhere in February 1980.  After literally growing up in a sharecropper’s shack, he made his way from a newly desegregated high school, to small-college hoops, to the Continental Basketball Association.  Within two weeks of getting regular minutes in Portland’s rotation, he was the NBA Player of the Week.

And Bates had come a long way.  David Halberstam wrote about him in The Breaks of the Game,

Stu Inman invited both Calvin Natt and Billy Bates to dinner at his home.  Billy, having been named NBA Player of the Week, was swwaggering a little. “I guess you grew up like me, Calvin,” Billy said.  “You had plenty of meat at home.”  Calvin, also a southern black of reasonably impoverished origins, looked at Billy quizzically.  “We always had two kinds of meat at our house,” Billy continued.  Two kinds of meat, Inman thought, in a sharecropper’s house?  It just didn’t sound right.  “What kind of meat, Billy?” Inman asked.  “Oh,” he said, “you know, coon possum rabbit, squirrel But always two kinds.” Calvin Natt started to break into laughter.  Billy Ray Bates looked at him, wondering what was funny.

The Bates/Lin parallel works on a bunch of levels.  Both worked their way up through the back channels of basketball; Bates through NAIA college hoops and the CBA and Lin via Harvard and the D-League.  Like Lin’s story, the tale of Billy Ray caught on nationally among basketball fans; in 1980, though, that wasn’t a critical mass.  The resurrection of the NBA, in the form of Bird and Magic, was only budding. Bates had a great story, but one not heard by most of the world.  In that respect, then, the Bates/Lin analogy falls apart.

A year later, though, there was an unlikely sports figure who was too good to be ignored.

The parallels with Lin are perfect:

  • From an unlikely background? Check.  
  • Questionable athleticism compared to his peers? Check. 
  • Enjoyed the spotlight of a signature franchise in a large market? Check.
  • Captured the hearts of an heretofore ignored ethnic sports fan base? Check
  • Snuck into the lineup for a team crippled by injuries? Check.
  • Started off his career with a ridiculous streak? Check.

It works on so many levels, except one: he played baseball.

Yes, before there was Linsanity, there was Fernandomania.

Fernando, in 2011. (Photo: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE)

In 1981, a pudgy kid from Mexico snuck into the Dodgers rotation as a fifth starter.  Valenzuela didn’t overpower anyone.   Pudgy is being kind — at 5’10, 200, he looked like he had a throw pillow under his jersey.  So Fernando wasn’t the phenom throwing 98 MPH fastballs.  But he mixed his pitches, rarely walked anyone, and his key pitch was a screwball that broke in on lefties.

By Opening Day, though, the stocky Sonoran who only spoke Spanish was the only starter who had managed to dodge the injury bug.  He took the mound and threw a complete game shutout. He won the next time out, too. By the mid-May, he was 8-0.

With a 0.50 ERA.

And 8 complete games in 8 starts.

Of course, LA was hooked.  He not only captivated the Mexican-American community, but Los Angeles at large, too. Dodger Stadium was bedecked with Mexican flags.

How crazy did it get?

When elementary schools in predominantly Mexican-American neighborhoods scheduled school activities on the nights when Fernando pitched, no one showed up.  They were too busy following the game.

Fernando’s hot streak ended, and Jeremy Lin’s will, too.  The adulation — from the city and his charmed fan base — will last much longer.  But if he is really and truly lucky, Lin will end his season the way Valenzuela did:  With a ring.

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Tags: Billy Ray Bates Fernando Valenzuela Fernandomania Jeremy Lin Linsanity Milwaukee Bucks

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