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.
6) From a reader who has played basketball in China:
I just read your post on pick up games in Beijing. I can corroborate the style of play practiced on the Chinese hardtop. Playing in games around the Beida [Peking U] campus, I found that finishing around the rim and creating earned the most admiration. Bringing a 5'10" blonde girl as your teammate stirred a similar amount of admiration, but that's another story. Maybe in Anhui there are some Chinese Hoosiers that pride themselves on ball movement and sharpshooting, but in Beijing it's all about one's ball handling and dexterity at the rim.
All that said, I'm still partially sympathetic to looking at the "spatial perspective" of Chinese basketball players. Hear me out. I'm no monocausalist, and I don't think Lin is great because he is Asian. Still the notion that a Chinese player might see the court differently rings true to me as a basketball player.
First let me start by pointing out the dearth of development Chinese players received. If you go to a pick up game in America, your average player will have had some time spent coaching him/her. Whether it's AAU, high school, or college, a very large proportion of Americans have played with some level of organization. I didn't get that sense in China. It seemed to me that players were just figuring things out on there own and emulating what they saw on tv. You're average Chinese pick up player had never been coached. I mention that to say that just because the Chinese playground looks one way, doesn't mean that way is the purest expression of "Chinese basketball." We would need to examine the Chinese Tex Winter or John Wooden to understand how the Chinese might view the game on deeper examination.
I played basketball competitively in high school. I was good enough to start for my middling Single A team in rural Virginia, but not much better than that. From my time spent playing, when you're on the court there is basically a fog of war going on. There's so much going on around you that you can't possibly keep conscious of it all. You're understanding of the game is mostly reflexive. You can want to be a good distributor of the ball, but unless you have the mental acuity to actually keep track of all the various openings on the floor, it's just not going to pan out for you.
When I think back about games, most of the snap shot memories that come to me are of the rim or the ball. I was more than a willing passer though. There were a few games where I had more assists than points. Still, I had trouble really visualizing all the players around me. The assists I did get were usually to one teammate from working in a two man game. Even when I would hit him with a good pass, it wasn't a conscious decision. Most of the time it felt like I'd passed the ball before I even decided to.
My point is this, athletics are much more subconscious exercises than we might think. I know I probably experienced the game a lot different than a teammate of mine might have. Now are Asians the supreme PG race? Most certainly not. Racial explanations of greatness are foolish. Greatness is more about a drive to work harder and focus more than anyone else, and that drive is universal. I do not, however, have any trouble believing that a Chinese person or Chinese people in aggregate experience being on the court in competition quite differently than I did or Americans do in general. We have no qualms about comparing "English football" to to Italian or Argentinian or Brazilian styles. I firmly believe that different people experience things like sports fundamentally different. Why would we think race or culture shouldn't affect that?
I believe that culture matters a lot, in lots of ways. American culture is distinctive -- optimism, openness to immigration, an impressive degree of deep patriotic pride by world standards. Japan's culture is extremely powerful and helps explain a lot of what is best and worst about that country. Etc. Different teams have different national styles. But when I look for an explanation of why Jeremy Lin makes an alley-oop pass, I look to his training, and athletic talent, not to where his grandparents lived.