Sports fans, the national media, and even National Basketball Association insiders are wondering how everyone missed out on Jeremy Lin, the where-did-he-come-from point guard for the New York Knicks who has set the sports world on fire over the last two weeks. Lin, after all, was barely recruited out of high school, undrafted out of Harvard, cut twice by NBA teams, sent to the NBA Development League, and nearly cut again, all before emerging to score more points in his first five starts than any player in NBA history.
The New York Times found what seems like at least part of the answer this week: Lin is of Taiwanese descent, and according to some coaches the Times talked to, “recruiters, in the age of who-does-he-remind-you-of evaluations, simply lacked a frame of reference for such an Asian-American talent.”
Racial stereotypes, taboo in virtually every other aspect of American society, still play a huge role in sports, particularly in how the media, analysts, and scouts evaluate talent and make comparisons. Analysts use adjectives like “crafty” and “intelligent” to describe how white athletes overcome their general lack of athleticism, while marveling at the sheer athletic ability of black players who supposedly lack the intangibles of their white peers. Whites are often touted as the tough-nosed, blue collar players; blacks, the ones who make it look easy.
The stereotypes then carry over to the comparisons we make between athletes. Analysts spent years looking for the “next Larry Bird,” putting the label on virtually every talented white player to reach the NBA. On a statistical level, though, the “next Larry Bird” was actually Kevin Garnett, a 6-foot-11 black forward who has been in the NBA since 1995, just three years after Bird retired. We ignore that black quarterback Donovan McNabb had a lot in common with white quarterback Mark Brunell, and that neither played much like white quarterback Dan Marino or black quarterback Warren Moon.
The same stereotypes are in play with Lin. Few other Asians have ever played in the NBA, and the majority have been tall centers like Yao Ming and Wang Zhizhi (Lin is 6-foot-3). The stereotype for Asian NBA players was easy, then: they’re tall, or they don’t exist. Now that Lin has proven that wrong, others persist. With no Asian to compare him to, analysts are matching Lin to the next closest thing — white point guards like Steve Nash who came out of nowhere to star in the NBA. That may be a compliment to Lin — Nash is a two-time MVP — but other than blossoming in similar systems and having lighter skin than most of the other players, Lin and Nash’s games bear little resemblance.
The stereotypes, many of which exist subconsciously, likely aren’t going anywhere. Which means whenever the next Jeremy Lin comes along, fans, the media, and even the biggest experts won’t see him coming.