I was about 11-years-old when I learned one of sports’ most enduring life lessons: that practice does eventually make perfect.
I had just begun to take basketball as seriously as middle school would allow and, out of necessity, began climbing a nearby fence to get to the closest court with my cousin and a couple of the kids from his neighborhood. The court was one of two in his area, and the only one we’d be sure to have to ourselves on most weekends.
But it was at a high school and tucked behind an ornate, black iron fence meant to keep trespassers out on weekends. The fence was obnoxiously tall and made of the type of San Francisco Victorian-era construction that’s nice on the eyes but completely impractical to a few kids craving a little bit of mischief and some fun. To make the whole ordeal even more dramatic, it was on a hill that was also a thoroughfare for traffic from a nearby freeway. Which meant that yes, we could be badly hurt if we fell. But even worse: everyone traveling into the city might see it. So we took our time learning, and eventually we got it. We knew we needed a good running start, sorted out exactly which of the fence’s patterns was best to wedge our feet into, and how far to jump once we got to the other side without breaking any bones.
I’d forgotten completely about my fence-climbing days until recently, over a dozen years later, when I was asked to describe what was so compelling about Linsanity. I should’ve known; after all, I’d already written about it and come out publicly as a full fledged devotee. I had a whole lot of really important stuff to say about race and the role that sports plays in our culture. But when I thought back to what brought me to a basketball court at a young age, I had to be a little bit more honest. Sure, I was often the only girl on the basketball court. But I wasn’t out deliberately trying to shatter stereotypes. What I loved about basketball was simple: it was fun.
Sports fans in my circle did a collective sad face this past weekend after it was announced that Jeremy Lin is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury. To be sure, the 23-year-old still has a promising NBA future ahead of him. But the announcement helped shed light on why his story captivated so many people in the first place: it helped bring some of the magic back to a game that’s become one of America’s most commercially viable products.
Commercial entertainment only works if we’re able to relate to what’s being sold to us. Maybe we played basketball back in the day. Maybe we remember watching it with family growing up. Maybe we root for the hometown team because we’re not there anymore. Or maybe we just like an underdog. Whatever the case, we need strong plots, compelling characters, and a sense that we’re also part of the story. That’s what’s made Lin’s story so popular. There were so many entryways, and just enough unpredictability to make it an almost universal narrative.
As fans, we often only care about the end-product of that magic, not how it’s made. And Lin’s story has so many of the elements that we, as a society, love: he was the underdog who’d been crashing on his brother’s sofa while playing for one of the NBA’s most storied franchises. He came off the bench and flipped popular myths of what Asian American male athletes were capable of. But best of all: he seemed to be having a blast doing it on one of the world’s largest stages.
The line between passion and product is a tough one to walk. But for a week, or two, or a month, most of us treaded it happily. We gathered at sports bars and newspapers went into Linsanity overdrive. I soaked up some of the magic in my first Knicks game at Madison Square Garden. Never mind that the Knicks ended up losing to the Nets in a lopsided game. Or the clinical basketball analyses that said how Lin’s run-and-gun style of play wasn’t suited for a team whose two superstars worked best in slower pace, post-up offenses. Or the fact that Lin’s rise to sports superstardom highlighted just how ill-prepared the country was to have meaningful discussions about race (see: ESPN or sportswriter Jason Whitlock’s Twitter account). The Knicks were winning and it was largely due to a kid who’d been written off and cast aside. As David Carr pointed out at the New York Times, that underdog narrative was easy to relate to for anyone who’s felt overlooked and needed just one chance to show off their talent and hard work.
But it can be hard to relate to today’s sports world. Corporate forces have worked for decades to build the NBA into one of the world’s most profitable brands. Teams have gotten richer and athletes have morphed into mini-corporations. Kids are plucked from playgrounds and middle school gyms and groomed for professional stardom. Players have massive multimillion dollar contracts, endorsement deals, and reality TV shows. Blake Griffin can dunk over cars. Kobe Bryant can carve apart defenses with a surgeon’s precision. What can you do? Probably not that.
And that’s the point. We pay attention to these athletes because they’re above average. They’ve put in years of hard work to do things that we can’t. The process of them doing those things isn’t all that interesting to us because it takes away from all the magic. The same goes for Jeremy Lin: he didn’t come out of nowhere, and there’s YouTube footage of his workouts to prove it.
One of the downsides of believing in that magic, even if it’s for part of a season, is that we lose sight of the fact that athletes are actually just people. The NBA is, at its core, a business that’s fueled by the labor of over 300 talented male athletes who put their bodies through a physically brutal schedule. And it’s all for our entertainment. We pay for game tickets and merchandise, cable TV packages and Internet streaming deals. In each and every case, those bodies eventually give out—either for a couple games, maybe a season, sometimes a career. Usually when that happens, there’s a new phenom waiting nearby for their chance at the spotlight, something to remind us that the NBA is a business dedicated to sustaining itself.
But that’s been the truly addictive part of Linsanity. For a little while, at least, the business of the NBA didn’t seem to matter as much. And whatever happens with Jeremy Lin and the Knicks this season and the next one, it’s been a great ride.