How many Harvard students does it take to change a lightbulb?
One — he holds the bulb and the world revolves around him.
I started following the basketball career of Knicks’ overnight sensation Jeremy Lin two years ago, when he was a senior at Harvard. My interest had nothing to with Lin’s heritage. In fact, I didn’t even notice Lin was Asian. My interest simply was this: I once was an aspiring professional athlete from an Ivy League school. In my case the school was Yale, not Harvard. And the sport was tennis, not basketball. But I took an interest in Lin’s career because I’m a big NBA fan (CLIPPERS!) and I was curious to see how a modest, smart kid from Harvard would fare in the gangsta’ world of the NBA…..the black Escalades with chrome rims, the absurdly huge tatoos, the bling, the trash talk.
When I was in High School, the Ivy League still had a tradition of athletic greatness. Ivy legends were common. Bill Bradley, the New York Knickerbocker from Princeton. Don Schollander, the Olympic multi-medalist swimmer from Yale. Lou Gehrig, from Columbia. Montreal Canadiens goalkeeper Ken Dryden, from Cornell. Calvin Hill of the Dallas Cowboys and Davis Cup tennis player Eugene Scott, both also from Yale.
The last time an Ivy had a player starting in the NBA it was Yale’s Chris Dudley, who graduated a few years after I did. But Dudley, unfortunately, was somewhat of a joke. He wasn’t a hopelessly bad NBA Center, but he could. not. shoot. foul. shots. I don’t mean Dudley merely was a bad foul shooter; I mean when he went to the foul line he experienced some sort of physiological Tourette’s, like a golfer with a case of “The Yips” so pronounced you can see him freeze up as he putts. Dudley was painful to watch. A punchline. An embarrassment. Dudley added to a long tradition of NBA “bigs” who were comically bad at foul shots: Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neill, Dwight Howard. Except unlike those other guys, Dudley wasn’t very good at the rest of the game, either.
In some ways, I feel toward Dudley as I do about George W. Bush. Before Bush, people assumed Yale graduates were smart. I took pride in being a Yale graduate before he came along. Then Bush ruined my pick-up line to potential dates.
When Lin was signed (undrafted) by Golden State, I was disappointed. It was a bad fit. GS already has the smoothest, most spectacularly talented NBA point guard nobody’s ever heard of (Monta Ellis), and their 2-guard Stephen Curry is a factor in any discussion concerning the sweetest jump shot stroke in the entire league. For Lin, it was like finally getting your shot at Wimbledon . . . but you’ve drawn Roger Federer in the first round. Lin eventually was waived. He kicked around the league for a while. He was sent down to the D-League, NBA’s version of baseball’s Triple-A. He warmed the bench for the Rockets. His career lost what little momentum it had. I figured Lin was bound for a desk at a hedge fund (NOTE: Lin wasn’t a great student – he had a 3.1 GPA, even worse than my own lackluster academic performance). Somehow, he wound up shagging practice balls for the Knicks.
When Lin had his breakout game against the New Jersey Nets a few weeks ago, I was as stunned as everybody else. Except, unlike most, I already knew who Lin was. I knew his backstory. I had seen him play a bit. But like Daryl Morey, the General Manager of the Houston Rockets who waived Lin earlier this season, I’d seen the guy play . . . but I hadn’t seen that.
These days I often cheer for the Celtics’ Big Three, which has turned into The Big Four since the remarkable blossoming of Rajon Rondo at Point Guard. I came to enjoy watching the Knicks as well, especially David Lee and Raymond Felton, although I rarely got to watch the Knicks before Lin’s breakout because I don’t live in the NY area, and only good teams get on national TV. Ironically, Lee was traded before Lin arrived…..to, of all teams, Golden State. And Felton has since been traded . . . twice. Felton and his spectacular taste in loud-colored basketball sneakers now plays for Portland.
There’s all sorts of talk about Lin’s ethnicity. The NBA is selling broadcast rights to China again, rights which had been allowed to lapse due to lack of interest since Yao Ming’s ailing feet ended his NBA career. Journalists stay up nights dreaming up word plays around Lin’s name: Linsanity, Lincredible, Linderella Story, Linspiring. A copywriter was fired from ESPN for publishing the headline “A Chink In The Knicks’ Armor” when the Knicks lost their first game since Lin became a starter. When Jon Stewart and his “Senior Black Correspondent” Larry Wilmore take you down on The Daily Show, you’ve clearly arrived, and your race is definitely on the table. But to me, it has nothing to do with the shape of Lin’s eyes, nor the color of his skin. It’s about an Ivy League kid with a purple, Gatorade-stained tongue, taking it to NBA pros who skated through a year or two at Kansas, Kentucky, Marquette, and UCLA without ever cracking a book.