NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 10: Jeremy Lin #17 of the New York Knicks drives for a shot attempt in the first quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers at Madison Square Garden on February 10, 2012 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images)
Floyd Mayweather says that Jeremy Lin is overhyped because he's Asian, and he may have a point. But that doesn't take away from the best story in sports. It makes it even better.
Jeremy Lin has led the Knicks to five straight wins, he's sparked an international sensation from New York City to Germany to Beijing, and this week, he's on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And Floyd Mayweather thinks that all this is because of Lin's Taiwanese heritage.
As he tweeted Monday afternoon:
Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he's Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don't get the same praise.
It's pretty surprising that it took this long for someone to take this stance, but it was inevitable eventually, and now here we are. There's a lot to unpack, too, so let's take this one-by-one.
Floyd Mayweather Is A Professional Idiot. His gambling habits are infamous, so for all we know his problems with Lin could've started when he bet against the Knicks this past weekend. Regardless, we're talking about someone who's made his living by playing the heel, deliberately antagonizing his opponents and the paying public alike. He's also made millions of dollars this way, so maybe he's not actually an idiot. But he definitely plays one on TV. And if we're gonna wade into a minefield of racial sensitivity, there's no one less qualified to comment than the guy who once called Manny Pacquiao "a yellow chump" and said, "Once I stomp the midget, I'll make that mother f----- make me a sushi roll and cook me some rice."
On the other hand...
Floyd Mayweather Is (Mostly) Right. Jeremy Lin's rise over the past 10 days has been the most incredible story in sports, and there's no close second. But that doesn't mean there's no historical parallels. As Mark Deeks pointed out this weekend, Flip Murray came out of nowhere to star for the Seattle Sonics in 2003, averaging 23 PPG, 5 assists, and 4 rebounds for an entire month. Lin's numbers have been slightly better (26, 8, 4), but the attention he's gotten has been worlds better. That's because he went to Harvard, a school everyone recognizes, he plays for the Knicks, one of the two or three most recognizable basketball teams in the world, and because he's Asian.
There's a novelty to seeing someone that looks like Lin dominate an NBA game. Not everyone says, "OMG this Asian kid is dominating the NBA", but that's what they mean when they talk about how CRAZY it is to watch "someone like him" one-up Kobe. It's a novelty that people tell their friends about, and then more people watch his next game, and before long everyone's watching, international outlets take notice, and the whole world is descending on Madison Square Garden, there's a craze in China, and headlines in France.
The story of how he got there and what he's done on the court may be what makes this a great sports story, but Lin's race is absolutely what's made this an international sensation in the past 10 days. It goes back to what Dennis Rodman once said about Larry Bird:
"Larry Bird is overrated in a lot of areas. I don't think he's the greatest player. He's way overrated. Why does he get so much publicity?" Rodman continued. "Because he's white. You never hear about a black player being the greatest."
The same way Rodman was the idiot in the '80s who blamed Bird's publicity on his race, here's Mayweather a few decades later doing his best Rodman impersonation.
But It Really Doesn't Matter. The Bird discussion is actually a perfect way to understand the hype surrounding Lin. It's possible that Larry Bird was more popular because of his race BUT ALSO one of the greatest players of all time. For basketball fans that love great basketball players, the first discussion's sort of irrelevant. It's more fun to debate whether Lin's the next Steve Nash or the next Flip Murray, the same way debating Bird vs. Magic trumped any arguments about media prejudice. But if anything, the cultural differences added to the Bird-Magic rivalry. The same way Tiger Woods' roots made his story that much more interesting, the same way Lin's heritage adds to the myth.
Rodman probably wasn't wrong when he said Bird's race was why he got more attention than Isiah Thomas. It was calling Larry Bird "way overrated" that was ridiculous. Mayweather never called Lin overrated, just overhyped.
He said that black players do what Lin does every night, and that's more or less true. The same night Lin scored 38 against a ragged Lakers team, Russell Westbrook shredded the Jazz for 28 and looked incredible doing it. Only one of those players was the biggest sports story in the world the next day.
Mayweather made two mistakes, really. First, he was wrong saying it's ALL about race. There's more to it than that. It's also about where he plays (New York City), where he played (Harvard) and how he got there (there was a couch involved). But yeah, race is definitely the biggest factor in the fascination and how quickly it's spread. Mayweather's second mistake was implying that there's something wrong with that.
It's not like the NBA suffers from a lack of famous black guys. If Jeremy Lin's more famous because he's an Asian-American dominating in a sea of African-Americans, then what's really wrong with that? Who loses? Russell Westbrook may not be the biggest story in sports, but he was still a top 5 pick, and he just signed a max deal that'll pay him $80 million over the next five years. Next to Russ, Jeremy Lin is the guy who didn't sign a guaranteed contract until last week, when he signed for the league minimum. He's the guy who got overlooked by every major college, and nearly every NBA team, at least partially because nobody could envision "someone like him" thriving at this level.
But here he is on the New York Knicks, and it's still kind of insane to watch him slice through defense with his herky jerky game and have it actually work. Novelty or not, he's been as good as any point guard in the NBA over the past two weeks, and the Knicks are 5-0 with Lin as a starter. As a basketball story, Lin's given us plenty to talk about on the court. And as far as the hype elsewhere?
Floyd's not completely wrong about why it's happening, and it's okay for him to say it. But if the racial stereotypes that worked against Jeremy Lin for his whole life are suddenly working in his favor, that's okay, too. It only makes this a better story for the rest of us. So, good for Jeremy Lin. Maybe one day he'll be as rich as Russell Westbrook.