There’s one podcast name that makes me chuckle every time I hear it, so I was delighted that James Herbert and Marc Juliar invited me to drop by Pod Shammpod for the podcast’s Hardwood Paroxysm reboot.
One of the things we talked briefly about was (of course) Jeremy Lin. Well not Lin specifically, but something I witnessed playing pick-up ball at the gym I belong to in DC.
The evening pick-up games at the Columbia Heights Washington Sports Club are uneven but generally solid, with enough people waiting to create a ring of bodies and gym bags around most of the court. About 80 percent of the participants are black and most of the people who show up to the run are regulars.
On Tuesday night, a flashy Asian-American point guard who wore “Run to Harlem” shorts and sported a slick handle and dead-eye jumper was tearing up the competition. Everyone knew him, or seemed to, and everyone called him Jeremy. When he would cross someone up, the spectators would gleefully yelp “Oh! Jeremy!”
This, by all indications, is not his real name.
This naming issue is not a new phenomenon, or isolated only to Asian-Americans. This summer I played regularly in an almost entirely black pick up game where I was known only as Jimmer. Previously I’ve been Redick, Ridnour or Dickau. These nicknames have never really bothered me, though I don’t think I really look like any of these players. I’m just white, sort of shifty and a good (or at least willing) outside shooter.
The kid going by “Jeremy” a couple nights ago was eating it up. He showed off his whirring handle for the small crowd and soaked in the praise. After his games, he would even do the little bow routine that Lin does with Carmelo—over and over and over. I wondered if he would have thought that was a weird thing to do pre-Lin.
Then a funny thing happened. Another Asian-American player showed up in what can be called “classic-contemporary white guy basketball clothes.” As a player he was workmanlike and fit, a savvy ball handler and a willing defender.
He also was called “Jeremy.”
Now there were two Jeremy’s on the court, playing against each other. It’s worth noting that neither player looks anything like Jeremy Lin and neither appeared—to me at least—to be of Chinese descent.
I never learned the name of the kid with the flashy handle (some people called him Hiro, but then followed it up with calling him Hiroshima, so I dunno), but when I played with Jeremy #2, he made a point of introducing himself to me as “Will,” and there was no bowing involved.
Here were two Asian-American ballers united in the eyes of seemingly everyone else at the court by the symbolic force of Jeremy Lin, the first super-famous (or even famous) Asian-American player. One appeared to see it as a means to acceptance and respect. The other viewed it as an annoyance, an impersonal way of connecting with someone who was a complex person before Linsanity, and will remain one when Lin fades from the public conversation.
It got me thinking about how when people talk about the “Asian-American Community” and its reaction to Jeremy Lin, it’s almost always intended to communicate some sort of empathy for a previously disregarded “other.” Often, we read an Asian-American writer’s reaction to Lin the player or Lin the symbol and think, “OK, so that’s how they feel!”
But it’s probably worthwhile to keep guys like Will in mind, too. Whenever we try to speak about a large group of people (especially when they are united only by having some ancestral relation to a ginormous continent) as having objective qualities, tastes or beliefs, we dehumanize them by denying them a subjective point of view, a personal identity that defines each person’s place in the world. When you get down to it, how different is the thought-mechanism behind “All Asians love Linsantiy!” from “No Asians can ball”?
As well as Lin has played, his symbolic force will always trump his on-court impact. That’s his burden as the singular public example of Asian-American ballers. Lin’s is a breakthrough that can expand widely held and limiting notions of Asian-American identity. Let’s not make the mistake of constraining an imagined community to the same viewpoint and beliefs in the wake of such a startling upheaval of unflattering expectations.