There is a sequence late in the first quarter of last Thursday’s game, between the New York Knicks and Miami Heat, that Jeremy Lin will probably remember for the rest of this season–if not his career.
He has the ball at the top of the key, guarded by Mario Chalmers. His teammate, Tyson Chandler, scurries over to sets a pick.
This play, the pick and roll, has been the foundation of the Knicks’ success in the Linsanity era. Lin is so skilled with his decision making, and Chandler so deft at cutting immediate after the pick, that it has become the engine of which the team operates.
Usually, after Chandler sets the pick, Lin will begin his drive, and one of three things will occur: Either Lin gets enough room for an uncontested jumper, Lin gets into the paint, or Chandler will receive a pass with a clear path to the basket.
Lin begins his drive, but Joel Anthony–Chandler’s defender–jumps out and cuts off the lane. The Knicks reset the play. This time Lin goes left–a direction of which he is averse–but Wade pops over from the weak side to block his path. Lin heads the other way, but LeBron James–a 6’8, 260 pounds player who’s built like a tank but moves like a cheetah–stands in his way. Still undeterred, Lin looks for the pass, but James is so quick, and so explosive, he closes the passing lane before Lin could identify the open teammate.
Completely stuck, Lin tosses a skip pass across the court–essentially giving up that play, at least from his end.
Later in the game, in the 4th quarter, Lin receives another pick from Chandler, another attempt at their bread and butter. Again, LeBron and Chalmers blitzed Lin with a hard double team, but before they could reach him, Lin picks up his dribble–a move that, essentially, concedes a stoppage of attack.
“He’s f***ing scared,” screamed a drunk patron seated a few tables from me inside a sports bar. “Stick to your books!”
As annoyed as I was with that racist idiot, I agreed–albeit to a lesser extent. To me, Lin looked, for the lack of a better word, shook.
It’s a feeling that I, along with probably many Asian American basketball players, have personally experienced on the basketball court at one point or another. It’s not necessarily a feeling of fear, or acknowledgment of defeat, it’s more feeling surprised, taken aback, shocked.
Like a feeling of, “damn”.
It’s something we usually feel when we play basketball against black players.
As I’ve blogged about before, there is no escaping the fact that black athletes are generally faster and more explosive than other athletes. It’s why the best professional basketball league in the world is 85% black and why the fastest sprinters and jumpers at the Olympics are black.
And in a sport like basketball, superior explosiveness–the ability to jump faster and higher is one key trait–and height makes a huge difference. For me, and probably many Asian basketball players, we’ve all had those moments where we complete a basketball move that usually works well against our peers, but have no effect on a black player. For example, a crossover followed by two hard dribbles will usually distance myself from the defender. Against an athletic black player, I may do the exact same move only to notice he’s still attached to my hip.
And if you don’t play against them regularly–say, if you generally play against your own social circle of friends from similar background–that sudden exposure to superior athleticism will leave you…shook.
I think that’s what happened to Lin. The look on his face is one I recognize. I know I’m not alone in recognizing that look. I know other Asian ballers are nodding. We’ve all been shook.
Basketball journalists could see it (they can’t mention the whole “black players are just so much more athletic it’s unfair” bit, but read between the lines, the undertone is there).
“Lin has probably never faced defense this aggressive, from such great athletes, before in his life,” tweeted Ken Berger from CBS Sports.
“As we were watching the game, we almost wanted to yell ‘Leave him alone, he’s just a boy!’,” wrote Will Leitch of New York Magazine.
Lin admits this, too, in the post-game press conference.
“I can’t remember another game where it was so hard to take dribbles,” Lin said in the post game press conference, after being forced into his worst game of his career, and a deflating Knicks loss.
It is this whole scenario that’s had me saying, from day one, that to truly understand the significance of Lin’s emergence, you have to be an Asian male who plays, or has played, a lot of basketball in America.
You have to experience jumping as hard as you can and still not getting high enough for that rebound, or breaking out every dribble move in your arsenal only to go nowhere because the other guy is just too fast, or realizing “wow, us Asians are just physically inferior when it comes to explosive sports”. You have to have that moment when you feel shook.
You have to go through all of that to understand why almost all of us never thought an Asian player could make it to the NBA without being a giant, because the thought of a Chinese guy making it to the NBA as a guard–a position that requires explosiveness–just seemed too improbable.
My friend Marv and I compared Lin making it to the NBA with Obama becoming President, in that, it was something we (Asian ballers) thought it could never happen.
I thought it was a bit too much to make that comparison publicly, but TIME magazine’s Lin cover story from two weeks ago makes the same case.
With all due respect, but if you’re a White guy, or even an Asian woman, you can’t fully grasp the shock and joy that we Chinese males felt watching Lin (that’s why Jay Caspian Kang said him and his friends have nearly teared up watching Lin play). You don’t truly understand how this was something that was previously thought to be impossible, because, as far as I’m concerned, there isn’t a field, or a hobby, where the rest of you simply could not measure up to the best SOLELY because of your physical traits or genetics. For the most part, whatever you guys wanted to do, there wasn’t a daily reminder that “um, you’re Chinese… it’s kinda impossible”.
We Chinese-American kids who grew up playing basketball everyday, we’ve all had that moment when we felt “shook”, leading to the unspoken agreement among us that ain’t none of us will ever play basketball beyond high school.
Lin eventually felt it too, but it took the world’s greatest athlete at the highest level to do it. And that, in itself, is still something to be proud of.
And no, he will never be as good as LeBron. He won’t even be within 2 levels. LeBron will make Lin feel shook again if he has to guard him (LeBron makes everyone else feel shook too, to be fair).
But the thing I admire most about Lin is he won’t stop trying. Shortly after picking up his dribble in that shook moment. Lin attacked again.
He still played a horrible game, and Miami still destroyed the Knicks (don’t let the close score fool you, that game was never in doubt, Miami outclassed the Knicks in every way), but Lin at least showed that, shook or not, he’s gonna keep driving.
Even if dude can only go right.