Last from me on this topic, until Jeremy Lin is MVP of the NBA Championships, followed by leading the U.S. to an Olympic win this summer. For maximum drama, the gold medal game should be against the team from China. Until then:
1) From a cultural, social, business, and individual perspective, every aspect of Jeremy Lin's identity adds to the fascination. That he's Asian; that he's Christian; that he's from Harvard; that overnight he became a star. It's legitimate and natural to dwell on each of these elements, including his race.
1A) On the cultural front, David Brooks's observed about Lin this morning that "we shouldn't neglect the biggest anomaly. He's a religious person in professional sports." This observation is ... surprising. Brooks might want to spend a little more time watching athlete interviews ("I want to thank Jesus for helping me on that field goal") on ESPN.
1B) Non-surprisingly, the Daily Show trumps all in cultural-social-racial coverage.
2) When it comes to his athletic performance (as opposed to cultural significance), I strongly believe that none of those "identity" elements means anything. I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates that what matters about Lin's basketball achievements is that he is exceptional as an athlete. Many commenters on TNC's post explain the shock of having known people who had made it as pro athletes: these people are different. They're different not in being black or Asian or Christian or anything else, but in being faster, stronger, better coordinated, better conditioned than the rest of us.
My story: in high school, I was a bad member of a tennis team whose #1 player won the national under-18 championship that year (the Kalamazoo tournament). He was just playing a different game from ordinary people -- and was faster, stronger, better coordinated, better conditioned. (Even so, he wasn't a big success in the pros, because there was a level above his of speed, coordination, durability, etc.)
Jeremy Lin is showing us his athletic skill now. Not his Harvard book-learning, his oriental heritage, his Silicon Valley optimism, or anything of that sort. Here he is doing his two-hand dribbling drill. Can you do this? No matter what your race?
3) Because a number of serious writers have based their theories of "Asian" behavior on the same social-science experiment, it is worth going into exactly what that experiment showed. Mark Liberman lays it out at Language Log, but here is the crucial chart. It tracks where different groups of people directed their attention when shown a set of pictures:
To simplify, the difference between "Asian" and non-Asian perspective is the gap between the red and blue lines. Among other things, the chart shows that on initial, "at a glance" perspective, for the first half-second or so, there's virtually no difference. Everyone is looking at the same things. For a point guard, or a fighter pilot, that first half-second would be what matters. This chart is the basis of the "Asian different perception" arguments you're hearing. Again see Language Log for more.
5) Another reader who knows the Asian basketball scene writes:
As a long-time hooper and resident of Taiwan maybe I can add something to this. Unlike in the US, where many more kids get coaching in rec leagues or basketball camps, in Taiwan the athletics path is limited to a small number of kids. This is not so much due to 'the system' but rather because most parents view sports as a waste of time / distraction from studies (which as you know, compared to US schooling, is gruelling). The result is that most people playing in the average pick-up game have never been drilled in the fundamentals, so mostly what they do is imitate what they see on TV / Sportscenter highlights.
As for why China hasn't produced an NBA point guard, well China has only had a handful of NBA players and they've pretty much all been big men. One possible explanation is that big men who can play are rarer than little men who can play - if you're 6'2, you are competing against many more people (locally and worldwide) for the limited number of spots than if you are 7' - so the best Chinese big men are naturally more in demand than the best guards.
After the jump, one more bit of eyewitness testimony.