By Travis Waldron, cross-posted from ThinkProgress
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
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
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.