The Garden of Chelm

Russell’s Way, Lin’s Path

Philosopher-king Bill Russell used to say basketball is a simple game, played by grown men in short pants. As the hem-lines dropped, though, the force of Russ’s dictum waned. The Jeremy Lin phenomenon leaves one looking back to Russ’s clarities and ahead to a New Age of lucidity for homo ludens.

Jeremy Lin: so much has been said already; the drama of the seven week (February 4-March 23) Linsane interlude to the New York Knicks’ 2011-2012 season evolved faster than could readily be grasped, before its momentum was brought to a crashing halt by Lin’s season-ending knee surgery.

With Amar’e Stoudemire also side-lined for an undetermined stretch, this turn of events seemed to leave the Knicks no better than a potentially .500 team, locked in a battle with the Milwaukee Bucks for the last Eastern Conference playoff berth, dependent for their offense upon Carmelo Anthony, who had returned from being injured just as Lin’s magic streak – under Coach Mike D’Antoni – was ending.
The back story was that the return of Anthony, Lin’s antagonist, had proved just as disruptive as his detractors had predicted. Melo seemed to need the ball all the time, and openly expressed his discomfort with the system that D’Antoni/Lin had implemented with such success. His egotistical style of play quashed the hysterically harmonious festivities around Lin’s bursting from itinerant walk-on to nearly unprecedented newcomer greatness.

An undeniably superb individual talent, Anthony brought Syracuse its first and only NCAA title in 2004, but when he forced the Denver Nuggets to trade him to New York, it was the Nuggets, not the Knicks, who suddenly began to thrive. It was as if he could not play for a coach (Mike D’Antoni) who dared to use the possessive D’ before the name they shared. “Go ‘way, Mike, you ain’ shit.”
Home Again: Switching Mikes

Schlemihl I – the hero of Robert Brustein’s stage adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story – inadvertently returns home (again), without knowing that he had ever left, and marvels at the odd circularity of his journey, just as Freud told us is the case with the uncanny actually being eerily familiar, or to paraphrase Yogi Berra: “it was déjà vu all over again.”

Adapting Brustein’s story to this year’s Knickerbocker journey neatly takes the shape of a five act farce: “The Garden of Chelm.” After a dreary (8-15) curtain-opening Act I, Lin stepped to center stage and orchestrated an over-the-top second act that turned out uncannily to pre-figure the climactic fifth, under the direction of new Coach Mike Woodson, who had been a Knick rookie under the late great Red Holzman after playing for Bobby Knight in college, making him arguably the perfect choice for the lead role, after the brief but stunning Act Four of D’Antoni’s sudden resignation. Act Three (Melo’s Return) had been the most agonizing, as the Knicks resumed their losing ways, and the magic faded, despite Lin’s presence.

Woodson actually outdid D’Antoni/Lin’s stunning seven game winning streak by starting out 8-1, winning his first four games by margins (an average score of 111-88) almost as ridiculous as Lin’s statistics in the six game tear he embarked upon when D’Antoni turned him loose. Successfully limiting Anthony’s minutes, while exploiting Lin’s talents, Woodson got an assist from Baron Davis’ stepping off stage with another injury, until his great run was interrupted by the injuries to Stoudemire and Lin. The wild ride seemed about to end. Stoudemire, having journeyed to Israel last summer after discovering his Jewish roots, was duly mystified as to whether he, like hapless Schlemihl, was in fact in the same place where he had started.

Miraculously though, with Anthony moved to power forward in Stoudemire’s absence, Tyson Chandler’s defensive force led to yet another Knick re-incarnation, a speed and defense oriented team with three guards starting alongside Chandler and Anthony, who responded to his return to center stage with 28 points and 12 rebounds against Toronto, when his competitors for the spotlight (Lin and Stoudemire) were first out together.

On Easter Sunday, with the Knicks in danger of falling into a tie for the last playoff spot, an enthralled Garden crowd watched Anthony explode for 43 points against the league-leading Chicago Bulls, including two magnificent three pointers that sent the game into overtime and then won it outright.

After his game winning three, Carmelo raced around screaming “This is my house!” (not “our house”), but Tyson Chandler’s great “tap-outs” of two missed shots should not be forgotten as crucial contributors to Anthony’s heroics.

Thoroughly confounding his many maligners, Anthony continued to play – not just score – at an MVP level, racking up better than thirty points a game for Woodson the rest of the regular season. Woodson’s patched-together Knicks finished at 18-6, (36-30 for the season), and passed the Philadelphia 76’ers for a seventh-place Eastern Conference finish, thereby setting up an exciting – if not winnable – series against Melo’s buddies on the Miami Heat.

Might this all be an Act Six, as unprecedented in New York sports as a second act in American life was in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s imagination? The latest version of the team is a work in progress, but it has got the Knicks into the playoffs. And if they go further than the first round, they might even pick up Jeremy Lin: you’ve heard of him, I’m sure.
Personal Perspective

Though a native New Yorker who grew up with Joe Lapchick’s Knicks, I have lived in San Francisco for the last quarter century, and have known about Jeremy Lin for a long time. He and my son, David Liss, led their California high school teams to state championships in their respective size divisions in 2006, when Baron Davis was having his brief but magical run with the Golden State Warriors. The Lin family probably has some equivalent photograph in their home to the one I have of David with Baron Davis (now filling in for the injured Jeremy Lin!).

I have seen Lin play countless times in the Bay Area Kezar summer Pro-Am league. Right away, it was clear to me that his athletic gifts far outstripped what met the eye: he had an uncanny way of regulating pace, and of finding unique angles to navigate his way through traffic, always keeping the entire court in view, and he was a lot stronger than he looked.

So Lin was familiar to me, but I still had no idea what to make of his dazzling streak. It is more than just difficult to evaluate Lin as an NBA player – in the wake of that unbelievably perfect storm before the shipwreck (evoking for me The Tempest, with Melo as Caliban), especially since his meteoric rise was under a coach for whom he was ideally suited, as a player who was malleable into the Steve Nash mold. The outrageous numbers (both points and assists) that Lin was getting were way beyond those of point guards, historically, including Nash. Oscar Robertson had such numbers; no-one else. Only Lebron James had flirted with their likes. Oscar, Lebron, and Jeremy: how does that triad sound?

Yet the simple-as-it-gets game that Lin had brought to Madison Square Garden was not a new game: pick and roll, ball screen, pick and pop, and dribble penetration. He’s terrific at it, but why so much better than other point guards? Being adept at the point is not simply about, like with Oscar and Lebron, the ability to take defenders to the basket, merging size and athleticism to beast pitiful defenders. The difference has to be mental: focus, concentration, vision, pacing, and decision-making. Lin’s success exposed the frivolousness of many of the more sensationally athletic guards that have shown themselves lacking in what used to be seen as more basic skills: what Red Holzman loved to call the fundamentals.

Lin’s impact off the court was similarly outsize: Time Warner Cable and the MSG network after spending a full seven weeks squabbling about their contract in such a way as to keep Knick games out of countless living rooms, resolved their dispute quickly when Linsanity hit; Madison Square Garden’s stock rose a full 11% in the month of February, during which Lin made consecutive appearances on Sports Illustrated’s cover, an unprecedented phenomenon, and in same month that he made his initial start (February 4); New York sports vendors were completely unprepared to handle the fierce demand for Lin gear from his newly adoring multitude.

Language and Race: The Politics of Orientation

It was not only the vendors who were caught off guard. The Lin story, which rapidly eclipsed Tim Tebow’s bizarre heroics, had as many angles as the passes Jeremy was so deftly completing. Here was an Asian-American kid who went to Harvard after having been ignored by Division I recruiters and spurned in the NBA draft, who had brief undistinguished trials with two other NBA teams, and who rode the Knick bench until injury and ineptitude in the Knick backcourt combined to force a desperate D’Antoni to try giving him the reins. How and why? Sports fans abhor an explanatory vacuum.

Not just sports fans. We are all constantly struggling to get our orientation. The door was open for the race card to be played, and an ESPN reporter stepped right in with a comment describing Lin’s on court weaknesses as constituting a “chink in his armor.” In the ensuing chaos and furor, it did not matter that the reporter apologized profusely and even revealed that his wife shared Lin’s ethnicity. He was, of course, summarily fired.

Basketball has always depended for its co-ordinates upon race. Larry Bird said that it’s a black man’s game, and they just let him play. Charles Pierce entitled his 1992 Esquire paean to Bird “The Brother From Another Planet.” Billy Cunningham proudly carried the reputation of being the greatest white leaper in the NBA. Bill Bradley, when he dazzled audiences at Princeton like no other player after Oscar Robertson, was known as “the White O.” The phrase “white man’s disease” means someone who can’t jump.

Jeremy Larner’s classic novel Drive, He Said (1964) traded openly in racial matters in highlighting the close friendship between protagonist Hector Bloom and his black team-mate Goose Jefferson. Nelson George’s Elevating the Game describes the evolution of basketball in the direction of incorporating the black improvisatory style well known to jazz musicians.

In his 1974 essay “The black and white truth about basketball,” political journalist Jeff Greenfield argued that, along with blacks and whites, there can be white blacks and black whites, and that a blending of the characteristically different styles of black and white basketball was necessary to create the perfect team. As the Marquette Coach, quintessential New York legend Al McGuire (who let his players not tuck in their shirts, and insisted that he wanted guys who could win on chocolate bars and coca-cola) put theory into practice by keeping one spot in his otherwise athletic starting line-up strategically reserved for a white guy who was a pure shooter; many teams do the same thing today.

“When they circumcise Jews, they put springs in negroes’ legs,” was how one Columbia freshman explained why blacks jumped higher, back in the day when everyone freely called them “negroes.” A Sports Illustrated reporter once asked Gus “The Great” Johnson – as yet an undiscovered talent, playing for a below-the-radar University of Idaho – to explain his incredible jumping ability. “I just sez ‘Legs jump,’ and they sez ‘How high, boss?’” The would-have-been starting 1959 Columbia freshman point guard failed to survive the final cut when he ridiculed the coach’s questionnaire inquiring as to what were the three most important things needed for a winning team by answering “three 6’5” negroes.”

Spoken/Unspoken

In the early NBA, even after integration marginalized the Harlem Globetrotters, there was an unspoken “rule of three” that limited the number of black players on any team’s roster. Known but unspoken; unspeakable: when the University of Cincinnati put three black players on the court the year after Oscar graduated, my friend Hank shouted out with unconcealed glee: “Look at all the boys out there,” horrifying most everyone in the Garden.

Race is and has always been a sub-text around basketball. It’s just that until Lin, there were only two races. With Yao Ming, size was the crucial variable, so race didn’t matter, but Lin seems so utterly ordinary in so many ways that he got sent to the food service entrance by unknowing Garden officials. “I’m their ebonics tutor,” he might have quipped, “we Asians are very smart, you know.”

In the early 1960’s, the Village Voice ran a cult classic piece of hipster-ese called the “A Player’s Primer on Ethnic Basketball.” (It still pains me to have lost it in a house-fire twenty years ago). It discussed the emerging playground basketball styles of various ethnic neighborhoods which were just beginning to catch on to the game that had only recently welcomed black players into its union. Before European basketball came of age, third race meant third world.

With Lin proving himself a very formidable player, suddenly, stunningly – as with post-modern queer theory’s emphasis on there being not simply two sexes, but a gender continuum – there were no longer just two races. Where might this lead?! It was disorienting, and alongside all kinds of idiotically defensive linguistic attempts to restore equilibrium[1], the unconscious began to emerge. Chinks in the armor, indeed. So what? Where would we get our permissible colloquial idioms, if not from toned down racial stereotypes?

There will always be bad apples; even in Chelm. Who among the Knicks player’s embraced the Lin phenomenon? Amar’e Stoudemaire, who recently found out about his Jewish ancestry; not Carmelo, who brings his posse to New York and demands that the offense be run through him.

Defense involves playing Simon Says, aping the other’s reactions, like the Marx Brothers scene in Duck Soup, where Harpo duplicates Groucho’s movements so precisely that Groucho is confused as to who is who and whether the mirror is still there. To guard is to imitate the other’s movements, with unsparing exactitude. “Take who takes you.” You have to know what to make of the person you’re guarding. To do that well requires a sense of familiarity, capturing the others’ rhythmic essence. “Your man” and “man-to-man defense” are still used in women’s basketball.[2]

It’s just unnatural – unlike basketball and unlike idiomatic speech – to say “Jeremy Lin Exposes An Imperfection in Our Linguistic Armor.” It wouldn’t even work as a thesis title in academia. I can’t imagine Lin taking that “chink in the armor” comment seriously. My son, white and clean-cut, was chosen to play in a high school all-star game out here. If he hadn’t flashed his pass, he might have been told: “Choir practice isn’t until Monday.” Far from feeling offended, I would have chuckled proudly. So would Larry Bird. There’s a reason they let him play.

Like Schlemihl, we are back home after our circular journey: in Act Six, but after Linsanity, and what it taught us, Lin’s predecessor racial pioneer Bill Russell’s simple game in short pants will never be seen quite the same way. In the end, whatever happens after he returns, Lin’s inspired play created opportunities, opened (if not blew) some minds: the old cliché: “he can play” can apply to anyone. Perhaps, Schlemihl, it’s all in the journey.

Notes

1 In excited states, people say strange things: there’s an old joke about a radio announcer’s getting so excited reporting the launching of the first black astronaut into outer space that he shouted out “They’re sending the coon to the moon,” and getting fired by the station owner who broke the bad news by telling him “the jig’s up.”

2 Before transgender consciousness emerged from its closet, I used to quip that if you were a white basketball player, it was wisest to be a woman.

From April, 2012

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