The fervor over Jeremy Lin – the Knicks point guard who has catapulted from obscurity to lead the team to seven straight wins (and counting … maybe) – has inevitably been linked by many a sports writer to the fervor over Tim Tebow. Because, it seems, for now at least, all sports stories must be linked to Tim Tebow (and all “fervor”).
But the comparison only serves to highlight (again) how overblown the whole Tebow thing really was/is/will be. Lin is an underdog, come-from-nowhere, feel-good story. Tebow was a politically correct, media-enhanced tale of a top prospect finally making good. There’s a big difference.
Lin never won the Heisman Trophy (I know, he plays basketball; work with me here), wasn’t drafted out of college and wasn’t recruited out of high school. He’s played on three teams … this season alone (four if you count the NBDL’s Erie BayHawks). He didn’t win one national championship in college, much less two. He was never on the cover of Sports Illustrated in college (I’m not even sure he was IN Sports Illustrated). He’s not a physical specimen. He has a horrible haircut. He doesn’t have one attribute – quickness, speed, passing eye, shooting touch, dazzling smile – that could possibly revolutionize his position. In short, he’s no Tim Tebow.
The fact that Tebow has all of that on his resume – and we were still willing to buy the hype about how “no one believed” in the former first-round pick – is the real story that should be forming in 2012. That we (both the sports-loving public and the media that helps us form our opinions) bought what the culture warriors and marketing geniuses were selling is a shame.
And, hey, that’s not an insult to Tebow — unless you’re one of the few people who think calling someone successful and insanely talented is an insult. Tebow was. He IS. Lin wasn’t the former, at least until two weeks ago, and I’m not sure he was even the latter. Yes, he was a good player at Harvard. But so was Joe Carrabino. Exactly.
But to really get at the difference between the two players, you have to look further. For starters, the NBA is not the NFL. Nothing is. The NFL is the single biggest sports league on the planet. Anything it does creates “seepage” into the rest of our culture, from big wins to big scandals. It’s only natural Tebow has more wattage, given the power of the NFL spotlight.
The NBA was on strike for the first three months of the season and came back without missing a beat. Why? No one cares about the first three months of the season. And, really, it is debatable if anyone cares about the second three months of the season.
Also, Tebow played once a week. A six-game win streak lasts six weeks. That’s a lot of time to build someone up. By contrast, Lin’s win streak started Feb. 4. Tebow was a slow burn. Lin is a fireball. And while Lin is the talk of the sports world, it’s not enough hype to have him carry over into the “real” world. If we’re still gaga over Jeremy Lin in four more weeks – given the way we flit from topic to topic in pop culture land – then it’ll mean Lin is the next coming of Isiah Thomas (the point guard, not the douche bag who ran the Knicks for years).
Time (and other factors, that we’ll get to) helped give Tebow “crossover” appeal. When your grandmother hears about an athlete, that’s when you know they’ve made it. Jeremy Lin is still “just” a sports story.
And, let’s face it, it also has to do with the fact that Tebow is a good-looking, all-American white guy, and Lin isn’t. Here is a little secret that maybe you’ve heard but didn’t want to believe is true: It doesn’t hurt to be a good-looking white guy. (Don’t I know it!)
As proof, I could start listing mediocre but successful, good-looking white guys, but that might take a while. Just look at any soap opera, Channing Tatum, Congress, Abercrombie and Fitch ads, The Situation, the last few winners of “American Idol,” most corporations, most world leaders and pretty much anywhere, at all, the end.
The flip side to that argument is boxer Floyd Mayweather, who Tweeted that the hype surrounding Lin is “just” because he’s Asian. And even though no one should ever give a shit what Mayweather thinks about anything — he has a point. Sort of.
It’s not “just” because he’s Asian, but OF COURSE this is a big sports story because Lin is the first Chinese American to play in the NBA, much less be this successful. We love “firsts.” Always have. See Woods, Tiger.
But we also loved Kurt Warner, who was not the first slow, white quarterback to play in the NFL. He was, however, a guy who went from bagging groceries to leading his team to an NFL championship.
We loved Spud Webb and the 2006 George Mason basketball team and Rocky and the 1980 U.S Olympic hockey team and Hoosiers and the rebel alliance in “Star Wars.” We like small people (metaphorically) who do big things. We are big on odds and beating them. We’re such a cynical, jaded society that when someone does something unexpected, we’re thrilled — not just that they DID something unexpected, but that there is still the potential for something to BE unexpected.
That is what Lin taps into. If Jordan Williams suddenly comes from nowhere to lead the Nets to a six-game win streak – and does so in such a dramatic fashion, with a touch of panache – we’ll love him, too. (Possible future New York Post headline: “Jordan-sanity!”).
Yes, Lin is Asian, and he plays in New York. That helps. Him being unique certainly elevates the story from lead on SportsCenter to cover of Sports Illustrated. But it also hurts. And that gets to the biggest difference between “Tebowmania” and “Linsanity.”
The reason Tebow transcended sports to become a national obsession, why he was just as big in hair salons as he was on ESPN, is because he was embraced and promoted by social conservatives who loved the fact he talked about Jesus and against abortion. Tebow became a cause, a rallying cry in the culture wars.
Lin, apparently, is also really into Jesus, but he doesn’t seem to be getting the same kind or promotion. One doubts he will be named-checked in a presidential debate the way Texas Gov. Rick Perry mentioned Tebow. I haven’t seen Bill O’Reilly discussing Lin on Fox News.
Why? Not sure. But point to the OTHER really popular Asian man in social conservative circles. I’ll wait.
(Let me play devil’s advocate: It doesn’t help that Lin plays in the NBA, a league that doesn’t have the squeaky clean image that the NFL does — you can come to your own conclusions as to WHY that might be. Also, he plays in New York. And while that helps him in terms of media coverage, no Republican presidential candidate will win votes in the rest of the country by embracing a point guard from liberal New York City. With that said, I still think I am right about my bigger point.)
Which is a shame. Lin is a MUCH larger story than Tebow, even if he fades the rest of the season. Forget his heritage- did you see the game against Kobe? Did you see the buzzer beater against the Raptors? Have you read the story about him sleeping on his bro’s couch? It’s not just that he is winning, it’s HOW he is doing it.
If Hollywood proposed two movie premises to you – college All American and first-round pick leads his team to a six-game win streak, thanks to an effective run game and strong defense, OR undrafted Harvard grad gets cut by two teams, only to sign with Knicks and lead (not “help” lead, but actually lead) team to improbable win streak, including 38 points over Kobe and the Lakers – which would you want to see/be less likely to believe?
Tebow was a good story. Lin is a great story. If nothing else, we owe Lin for reminding us of the difference.