So over the weekend, Daily News columnist Buzz Bissinger, a writer who should know better, whipped out the race card to explain why the world loves Jeremy Lin. Buzz opined in the Daily Beast that the reason so many NBA fans are gaga for the Harvard hoopster who’s been tearing it up for the Knicks over the past week or so is that we’ve all been covertly wishing for a Great White Hope. According to Buzz, we like Lin “because he is light-complected and, in his Christian beliefs and prayer penchant, echoes much of white America.”
What is wrong with America, dammit? Why don’t we love Buzz’s heroes? “It is a sad commentary on the way fans view the NBA,” Buzz writes, “that its two best players, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, are also among the 10 most-hated athletes in the country. They have made mistakes, but they are a pleasure to watch, and whatever they have done, they have never been charged with a crime.”
Um, Buzz. Ever hear of damning with faint praise? To say I should exalt the absolutely detestable Kobe and the whiny, playoff-dogging LeBron because they “have never been charged with a crime” is the very definition thereof. Not to mention the fact that Kobe WAS charged with a crime—sexual assault, to be exact. But that’s beside the point. A pleasure to watch? Which part of their games? The petulance? The entitlement? The bullying of refs? Kobe and LeBron are everything that’s wrong with professional sports. Do I dislike them because they’re black? No. I dislike them because despite their talent, they’re selfish, classless boors. Jeremy Lin is the latest sports hero precisely because he’s unlikely—and it has nothing to do with race.
In setting Lin’s rickety five-game win streak against the long careers of stars like Ben Wallace and John Starks—and then finding it lacking—Buzz misses the point completely. We don’t care if Lin goes on winning forever. We don’t even expect him to. What we love is that right now, he’s Everyman, Rocky, the consummate Philly-style hero. Sure, he wasn’t heavily recruited for college. Yes, he wasn’t even drafted by the pros. Hell yeah, the Knicks were ready to release him until Mike Bibby’s back gave out. And no, nobody I know is claiming Lin will keep outscoring Kobe for the next 16 years. We’re just delighted when he does so now.
Buzz knows that, deep down. He built his career on writing about unlikely heroes, from Brian Chavez and Ivory Christian in Friday Night Lights to Ed Rendell in A Prayer for the City to the racehorse Barbaro in Vanity Fair magazine. It’s a sign of how crankily contrarian time has made him that he’s picking on Lin. I suspect what really gets Buzz’s goat is that he knows all too well what it’s like to be a flash in the pan. When I interviewed him for this magazine in 2010, he told me: “The success I had with my first book”—Friday Night Lights—“is impossible to replicate.” An experience like that will make a man cautious about instant fame. I like Buzz. I think he likes Jeremy Lin more than he lets on. Let’s be charitable about it. Maybe he only wants to take Lin down a peg to keep him, eventually, from having to fall so far.