By Malik Grady – OGGOA Columnist
A great deal of national attention has been paid to NBA phenom New York Knicks‘ point guard Jeremy Lin as of late; unfortunately much of it has consisted of the second-year player being compared to former Florida Gators now Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who had a breakout season in his second year in the NFL.
And though Lin and Tebow do share a few parallels – mostly in the social realm – the less obvious and more interesting comparison is actually with another former Florida player – point guard Jason Williams. What Lin has done and continues to do night-in and night-out is without question on an exponentially greater level but there are historical, racial and other parallels to what happened when Williams burst on the scene.
WELCOME TO THE PARTY, PAL
* Feb. 6, 2012: In a season shortened by a lockout, Lin bursts onto the national scene at the age of 23 years and 167 days, posting 25 points in 36 minutes for the struggling New York Knicks, a team in need of a spark and plenty of victories.
* Feb. 5, 1999: Exactly 13 years earlier (minus a day) – after a bitter lockout and the second retirement of Michael Jordan sapped the NBA of fans and support – Williams, at the age of 23 years and 79 days, scores 21 points in 36 minutes for the Sacramento Kings, one of the worst teams in the league the year before.
A PLAY THAT WILL LIVE IN INFAMY
* Feb. 14, 2012: Lin’s game-winning shot against the Toronto Raptors is endlessly played on SportsCenter, furthering his breakout campaign.
* Feb. 17, 1999: Almost exactly 13 years earlier, Williams’s crossover of Gary Payton (video) in a win over the Seattle Supersonics is played on a loop on SportsCenter.
EARLY HYPE AND ADORATION
* The slightly offensive nickname “Yellow Mamba” pops up for Lin.
* The slightly racial nickname “White Chocolate” pops up for Williams (though it was started by a team staffer and embraced by Williams).
* Lin is prematurely compared to Steve Nash.
* Williams is prematurely compared to “Pistol” Pete Maravich.
* Lin’s No. 17 jersey (including counterfeit versions) cannot be printed fast enough to keep them in stock in the United States or China.
* Williams’s No. 55 jersey becomes one of the top five sellers nationally in the NBA.
Perhaps the most interesting parallel between Lin and Williams how their physical characteristics have played a role in their acceptance, popularity and backlash.
Any time there is something that is out of the ordinary or different, the curiosity factor becomes a compelling reason for people to pay attention. Whether a player is really tall (Shawn Bradley), really ugly (Shawn Kemp), really tall and ugly (Manute Bol) or has a certain characteristic that is stereotyped to be one thing and not another, he becomes particularly noteworthy to the masses.
Whether you’re talking about a white point guard from West Virginia with an accent who is flashy with his ball handling and play or an Asian-American player succeeding in the NBA at any level, people are going to take notice.
For Lin, beyond his uniqueness is a huge untapped audience of Asians and Asian-Americans who quite simply have had no reason to be personally invested in the league since Yao Ming’s streak of injuries turned for the worse.
Lin and Williams are also linked (and will continue to be) by the backlash they have and (in Lin’s case) may continue to receive.
The argument in 1999 was that black athletes who played like Williams were either denigrated for showing off or simply not lauded with the same praise, accolades and opportunity. There was some truth to the argument, when you consider that although Williams played like an And1 mixtape star at times, just a year earlier the first actual And1 mix tape came out featuring Rafer Alston (Skip to my Lou), and he struggled for years to even get a cup of coffee in the NBA.
In 2012 there have been arguments that Lin is doing things other players have done but is getting more praise and attention simply because he’s Asian-American (his most notable critic being Floyd Mayweather).
There is undoubtedly a kernel of truth in both cases but overall the arguments belittle both players’ actual accomplishments on the court because of their ethnicity.
In 1999 the flashy passing and ball handling of Williams became a reason to pay attention to Sacramento and either record (on a VCR mind you) or stay up for the late night SportsCenter. The Kings had won fewer than 30 games the season before but under Williams made the playoffs and even pushed the Utah Jazz to a deciding Game 5 before bowing out of the postseason.
Since Lin burst onto the scene, New York’s broadcasts on MSG are up 109 percent from a year ago (even without the network being available on Time Warner Cable). Pre-Lin, StubHub reported that Knicks tickets made up 17 percent of NBA sales, a figure that has now risen to 52 percent as of press time. New York is on a seven-game winning streak with Lin seeing major minutes and has won five of those games without either of their “star” players in Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudamire.
It is also worth noting that online streaming of games and video services like YouTube (2005) did not exist when Williams burst onto the scene, let alone microblogging websites like Twitter, which social media tracking company General Sentiment reports had 1.2 million “Lin” mentions after the Knicks beat the Los Angeles Lakers.
Lin has succeeded in making both die-hards and casual fans interested in the NBA to see what he will do next. His social media popularity, the way the traditional media is pouncing on his story and the way he’s burst on the scene when many doubted him is what brings us back to the Tebow comparisons.
Many are exhausted from how much attention, publicity and talk there was (and continues to be) about Tebow. Yet what some fail to realize is that Tebow has been much more of a polarizing national figure because of his unorthodox play, sometimes underwhelming statistics and outspoken religious beliefs.
Though Lin also strongly believes in God and has referenced that he is religious on numerous occasions, fans are not reacting to it the same way because they do not feel he is as “in your face” with his beliefs.
Unlike Tebow, who achieved the greatest levels of success in college and has been a national figure for more than half a decade, Lin is new to the media game and time will only tell what happens as he feels more confident and comfortable expressing himself.
It is worth acknowledging that Lin and Tebow do share a few similarities. However, being popular and overcoming lowered expectations are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. In Williams, Lin has a cohort who also entered the NBA as an “off-race” point guard and helped inject excitement into both the league and his team after a lockout.
Williams – after some twists, turns and plenty of maturation – eventually started and contributed to a team that won the NBA Championship. If Lin can stay on the path he has set out for himself, Knicks fans may see him lead them to a similar fate sooner than later.
You can follow Malik on Twitter at @MalikG.
Photo Credit: Unknown/New York Daily News