Jeremy Lin feels like the NBA has given up on him. Could unconscious bias be part of the equation? How would we know if it was?
After scholars discovered that ancient texts from all over the world reference every color but blue — there’s literally no mention of blue anywhere but Egypt until modern times — linguist Guy Deutscher tried an unusual experiment. While raising his daughter, Alma, he made sure to never describe the sky as being blue. Finally, one day, he asked her what color the sky was. She couldn’t say.
It’s remarkable, the extent to which people can’t see something — not because it’s invisible, but simply because they’re not used to looking for it. I was reminded of this when Jeremy Lin, a free agent, opened up on a Taiwanese Christian television station about remaining unsigned this late in this offseason.
“Every year it gets harder,” Lin said. “In English, there’s a saying and it says once you hit rock bottom, the only way is up. But rock bottom just seems to keep getting more and more rock bottom for me. So free agency has been tough. Because I feel like in some ways the NBA’s kind of given up on me.”
Reaction on social media was, predictably, swift and mostly merciless. Lin, 30, has earned over $51 million over a nine-year career, twice as long as the average NBA career. He won a ring last season in Toronto. In 2012 he wrote, directed and starred in Linsanity, a seven-week magic carpet ride that turned the New York Knicks from a dead-in-the-water 8-15 to a playoff team and turned Lin from an end-of-the-bench nobody to the biggest story in all of sports.
His Broadway run was cut short by a torn meniscus in his right knee and a poison-pill contract that summer with the Houston Rockets that was backloaded in a way to discourage the Knicks, who had the right to match any offer Lin received, from doing so. Even during his heyday, there were hints that just as Lin’s run was unprecedented, so were the reactions it inspired. TV anchors, writers and editors covering his story were suspended or fired for racially-insensitive headlines. Was this an indicator of a great unspoken racist agenda against Lin? Probably not. But it did remind us how blind people can be to what they’re not used to seeing.
After he signed Houston’s offer sheet and the Knicks were on the clock to match or decline, two of Lin’s Knick teammates, Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, were openly critical of the prospect of New York paying him what Houston was offering. Smith was openly jealous: “…some guys take it personal, because they’ve been doing it longer and haven’t received any reward for it yet.” Melo went the passive-aggressive route, saying, “It’s up to the organization to say they want to match that ridiculous contract that’s out there.”
This was astonishing behavior. NBA players rarely, if ever, publicly criticize each other for their contracts, much less call anyone’s “ridiculous.” Ever. This despite the fact that there are always “bad” contracts being signed, always players angling for every last dollar. And they should be.
Anyone who saw how the Celtics exploited Isaiah Thomas — and you best believe players around the league noticed; it may have helped convince Anthony Davis to stay away from them — understands players look to maximize their earnings because pro basketball is a cutthroat industry where leverage, if it ever exists, can disappear in the blink of an eye, the twist of an ankle, the tear of a knee.
Perhaps no player in recent memory prioritized the bottom dollar over everything else more than Carmelo. Had the Knicks matched Houston’s offer, it wouldn’t have taken a dime away from Anthony. Nor was Smith some precarious no-name scraping by on 10-day contracts; despite lamenting whatever “reward” he hadn’t received, he’d already earned $26 million by the summer of 2012. Anytime any player signs any eyebrow-raising deal, it raises the bar for those who come after. The rising tide has lifted salaries for decades. So why did Lin face public criticism for something all players do? Not because of the action, but maybe because of the actor.
If race played a factor, how many of us would be able to see it? When Terry Rozier or Harrison Barnes sign deals that boggle the mind, we snicker, but that’s the end of it. We see African-American players sign questionable deals all the time. The same summer the Lin contract drama played out, the Knicks re-signed Steve Novak to a four-year, $15 million deal. Novak’s only value in the NBA was as a shooter. In the playoffs prior to signing his new contract, he played five games and made just seven baskets. Novak is white. We see white players sign questionable deals all the time. Melo and Smith didn’t have a word to say about Novak’s deal, despite him being exposed as a non-factor in the playoffs.
“I feel like in some ways the NBA’s kinda given up on me.” Lin is bothered. He’s confused. He should be. Are there flaws in his game? Unquestionably. While he’s not over-the-hill, he’ll be 31 next season; that’s definitely the start of the downward slope, especially for a guard whose biggest strength was his quick first step. He wasn’t much of a defender in his prime, much less now. There was an assortment of back and hamstring injuries; worst was the ruptured patella tendon in the 2017 season opener that cost him the rest of that year. Last season, split between Atlanta and Toronto, he shot a career-low 29 percent on 3s at a time when 3s are the coin of the realm.
I don’t know whether Lin’s job status has anything to do with his ethnicity. But I also don’t know if I’d know what that looks like if it were the case. I do see that last season he averaged 17 points and 6 assists per 36 minutes. Whatever his flaws, those are the numbers of a guy who can still play. He remains exceptionally popular with many fans in many cities around the league. Still. I wonder what his prospects are for getting as fair a shot as his peers when the people in power in his industry don’t look like him or share his background.
Many of us recognize the classic forms prejudice takes. We know one reason representation and diversity matter is because humans are often biased toward other humans who look like them or who share similar backgrounds. We learn about prejudice in school, learn what colors to look for in that equation and, unspoken, learn what colors not to. We see it in our daily lives, on the news, on social media. We see the president prejudiced against people whose skin is darker than theirs. This is prejudice we’re familiar with. But what happens when we’re faced with the possibility of prejudice we’re not accustomed to?
When Lin says he feels like the league has given up on him, it’s important not just to listen, but to hear him. What if a prejudice the league, its media and most of its fans are not familiar with is playing a role? How would we know what to look for? Just because we’re used to not seeing something doesn’t mean it’s invisible. Remember Alma Deutscher, the little girl who was never taught the sky is blue? She’s now a musical prodigy, a composer who at 14 has been compared to Mozart. When talent compels the creation of a whole new standard, we’re all richer for it. Hopefully, Jeremy Lin’s talents aren’t being silenced because of something he recognizes, but too many of us don’t have the words to describe or the vision to see.