Jeremy Lin and the NBA's Race Problem

JR Smith, Jeremy Lin and Carmelo Anthony

We interrupt this regularly scheduled Jeremy Lin update to bring your breaking news about Jeremy Lin: he is taking his talents to South Texas.  The unfolding drama that amazingly pushed Dwight Howard’s fate to out of the limelight has finally come to end, although without fireworks.

Some have taken the opportunity to blame Carmelo Anthony or JR Smith for Lin’s departure.  Carmelo Anthony, when asked about The Lin Situation over the weekend, offered the following: “At this point there's a lot going on. I stay away from that part right now. I would love to see him back, but I think he has to do what's best for him right now...It's not up to me. It's up to the [Knicks] organization to say they want to match that ridiculous contract that's out there."

And then the media spun “ridiculous” as if Carmelo was arguing that Lin's offer was undeserved. When I read these comments, it didn’t feel like a sign of disrespect, or one where Anthony was saying that Lin didn’t warranted the contract, but rather that it was (L)insane, amazing, and out-of-the ordinary.  Like  saying "that dunk was ridiculous" or "that performance was sick.”  Six months ago, did you think Lin would command 25 million dollars? Did you foresee earning as much as Russell Westbrook or millions more than Steve Nash.

Ridiculous!

When not blaming Melo and Smith, fans and commentators have directed their attention at the Knicks and owner James Dolan.  To place all the focus on the Knicks decision is to deny Lin his choice and his agency.  According to Frank Isola, “Dolan felt betrayed by Lin for going back to Houston to rework the contract. After all, the Knicks acquired Lin in December after he was released by both Golden State and Houston.” Some have linked this sense of betrayal to Lin’s Asianness, as if Dolan only felt “betrayed” because HE gave Lin – the “overlooked Asian American baller” a chance otherwise unavailable to him. 

From start until now, Linsanity has been wrapped in racial narratives that pitted him against Black players.  Is it a surprise that as some within the organization reportedly felt he was getting a big head or being ungrateful? Linansity emerged because he could be imagined as the anti-Black NBA star.  Yet with reports of him not wanting to play at 85%, his flashy clothing at the ESPYS, and his demands to get paid more, he no longer fits this bill. 

And compared to LeBron James, Deron Williams, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, and Ray Allen, Lin has gotten a pass.  Yes, some have criticized him, questioning his worth and his value, questioning his loyalty.  But this doesn't stack up with the derision and contempt directed at Black NBA players.  Many in the media have come to Lin's defense. Dan Devine made a point to explain that "This wasn't an act of treason," but rather this is " how free agency works."

Yet the loudest media voices weren't speaking up for Howard or Williams when they expressed their desire to head to NY, or when fans took to Twitter and into the streets to metaphorically and literally burn Ray Allen’s Celtics jersey.  Nor did they come to the defense of James when Dan Gilbert described James’ decision as a “shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown ‘chosen one’ sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn.” 

If we believe reports that the Knicks decision wasn’t driven by money or even for basketball reasons, but instead Dolan’s ego or his feeling that Lin should have been more grateful since “how often does an Asian American kid go from Harvard to MSG,” it is fair to say race matters.  But this is the NBA, where race matters, and where Black players face the daggers of American media racism daily. The constant backlash against these stars, particularly Black ones, who determine their own fate is clear: professional basketball players are lucky enough to earn millions of dollars for playing a game, and the least they can be is grateful, appreciative and loyal.   

As Charles Moriano brilliantly stated, the media constantly tells NBA players “get-back-in-your-place-you-spoiled-ungrateful-fill-in-the-racial-code-word-blank.” For Jeremy Lin, the “code words” may be different, but the foundation of race is unquestionable.