Jeremy Lin's Secret? It's Not That He's Asian

Once again I am on the road and off the Internet, so let me be the last person on Earth to weigh in about Jeremy Lin. I'll do so by disagreeing totally with my longtime friend and recent colleague Robert Wright.

In his item about Jeremy Lin yesterday, Bob Wright made the argument that Lin's "Asian heritage," including its philosophical aspects, helps explain his current success on the court. Some social scientists have contended that "Asians" -- a grouping that covers maybe two billion people -- perceive reality in a more "group"-like than individually centered fashion. No wonder Lin has such great court sense and can dish off those assists! Wright asks:

Is it crazy to think that the perceptual tendencies that [these social scientists] documented in East Asians could equip them for this sort of thing?

To answer that question: Yes, it's crazy. More precisely, it's horseshit. I say so in the friendliest possible way, but again: horseshit.

Everything about the Lin story explains why he is such a phenomenon. That he's Asian is part of it. Plus that he went to Harvard, that he's playing in New York, that he's a devout Christian, that he was undrafted, that he has come from absolute nowhere to outmaneuver Kobe Bryant -- and that he has done all this with a suddenness whose main American pop-culture precedent is the story of Joe Hardy (look it up). Some of these elements might have been enough, on their own, to get him extra attention. Think how the "Harvard quarterback" angle added to coverage of Ryan Fitzpatrick on the Bills, or how religion has added to the Tebow saga. To have all these elements together for Lin is truly riveting. I'm even willing to concede that his Asian identity, such a rarity in the NBA, is the single most attention-getting theme, though the Harvard angle is a close second.

But being Asian has nothing to do with how he plays ball. (Nor does going to Harvard.)

My evidence? Earlier this week, the Atlantic's sport columnist Jake Simpson analyzed Lin's game in terms of its real components -- shooting accuracy, willingness to take on double-team coverage, etc. I could leave it at that, with the reminder that considering his passing skills "Asian" is about as legit as saying that he has "a high basketball IQ" because he went to Harvard. Or a confident on-court manner because he's from Silicon Valley. [Update: Mark Liberman of Language Log absolutely demolishes the "science" that is the basis of this whole "Asian view" conceit.]

But let's go to the videos! It happens that there is a test case available: the millions of actual Asian people who play basketball  -- it's very popular throughout the region --  and the thousands who have played in professional or semi-pro leagues in China itself. These are real living-in-Asia Asians, without the diluting effect the immigrant experience might have brought to their "philosophical heritage." Overall do they play ball in a way the sociologists might predict?

Unt-uh. Here's one video, of the Dongguan Leopards playing at Shanxi Zhongyu, in a Chinese league. This features Stephon Marbury playing for Shanxi, one of a steady trickle of NBA stars who extend their careers with a contract in China. The first minute or so is the local equivalent of dancing Laker-girls. Some of the rest features crowd agitation, yelling at refs, general tumult, and some basketball. Virtually none of it fits with treatises on Asian "philosophical heritage" -- even though nearly every person you see on screen (apart from Marbury and a few other foreign players) is theoretically part of this tradition.

Or consider last summer's "basketbrawl," in which the Chinese military team Bayi Rockets slugged it out with the visiting Georgetown Hoyas. The gratuitous aggression all came from the Chinese side, as many Chinese commentators noted.

Obviously there are big differences between American culture as a whole and the varied cultures of mainland China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, etc. But (in my view) that has zero to do with Jeremy Lin's amazing recent run.

By happy chance, yesterday was the publication date for a wonderful book about the way those differences show up in sports, and the larger implications for U.S. and Chinese interactions. This is Brave Dragons, by Jim Yardley of the New York Times, which uses the travails of an American coach and player on a flailing Chinese hoops team as a way of explaining larger U.S.-Chinese interactions. The two countries' differing approaches to discipline, individuality, athletic training, and other matters show up on the basketball court as they do elsewhere, Yardley shows. But not in what we've seen from Lin and the Knicks.

Now you know. And for the record, I am going on at such length because I agree with Bob Wright on the vast majority of other topics.