Update on Lin, 'Jewish Dominance' of Hoops, and Ethnic Traits in Athletics and Life

By James Fallows

Following this item earlier tonight about the ethnic element in Jeremy Lin's athletic skills, and emphasizing that what follows is explicitly not related to Robert Wright's original post on the topic, several intriguing leads:

1) Adam Minter, a good friend from Shanghai, has a great item on Bloomberg about the way people in China are debating the racial / national / cultural aspects of Lin's recent success. Sample:

[One Chinese person's] observation raises an awkward question that's been ricocheting, in various forms, within Chinese microblogs since Lin first broke out on Feb. 4: Why is the first ethnic Chinese point guard to star in the NBA not a Chinese national?

It's a sensitive question with political implications for China's state-run sports establishment, which is responsible for training China's elite athletes. On Feb. 12, Mao Maozi, a cameraman with the state-run Shanghai Education Television network, tweeted an answer to that question on Sina Weibo:

>>If Jeremy Lin lived on the mainland, he would either be a semi-literate CBA [Chinese Basketball Association, China's state-run professional league] player or an ordinary undergraduate who likes basketball in his spare time. We admire him not because he is an ethnic Chinese, but because he has proved for a fact that the main reason that Chinese don't play basketball well is because of the system, and not their physique!<<

And, Yes, for the record, that's all one tweet! The writing system of the Chinese language has its drawbacks, but one of the pluses is that with 140 characters you can say a whole lot more in Chinese.

2) About the "bigotry of pattern matching" -- assuming that Asians (or Asian-Americans) won't be good at sports, and other groups will be bad at other things -- an essay from a venture capitalist.

3) About a now-forgotten cultural explanation of basketball success, several readers pointed out an essay on Jewlicious.com. It describes the days when basketball was considered a Jewish sport:

Along with stickball, basketball was the game of choice for the little Jewish ragamuffins living in the tenements of the Lower East Side of New York and elsewhere in the US. The poor little yidden, first generation immigrant kids, freed from their shtetl yoke of religion, needed something to do with their spare time and for many, sports was their new religion.

New York Daily News sports editor Paul Gallico wrote in the mid 1930s that basketball "appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background [because] the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smartalecness." We see how qualities such as cunning and wiliness were posited as the keys to Jewish basketball success and how these kinds of statements were indicative of early 20th century America.

4) David Ryan, former guest blogger in this space, points out a book about Jewish "dominance" of American basketball before World War II, and the ethnic/religious reasons for their success. As the abstract of the book's argument says,

During the interwar period, public recognition of Jewish basketball led both Jews and non-Jews to describe basketball as a uniquely 'Jewish game.' The 'Jewish game' existed not simply because of the prevalence of Jewish players, but also because Jews were considered inherently good at basketball.

More here. That's it for now.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/02/update-on-lin-jewish-dominance-of-hoops-and-ethnic-traits-in-athletics-and-life/253170/