By Doniel Akst
A ballplayer from a minority not normally associated with big-time sports bursts onto the scene, tearing up the league with his spirited play.
He’s an instant sensation with the fans — but especially those of his own tribe, overcome with pride at their champion’s success and eager to embrace his quintessentially American game as a sign of their belonging at last.
I’m speaking, of course, about Hank Greenberg, who drove in a mind-boggling 183 runs in 1937 and was baseball’s first Jewish superstar at a time — the ’30s and ’40s — when his co-religionists sorely needed some good news.
But I could just as easily be speaking of fluid young Jeremy Lin, who fell onto the Knicks as their new starting point guard last week the way sweet rain falls on soil parched by drought. Lin is the first American-born player of Chinese descent in the NBA.
A few hot games do not a Hall of Fame career make; New York’s newest hero could easily flame out or tear up a knee. Yet there are some important ways in which Lin is very much in Greenberg’s league — an American league much grander than the one the Hebrew Hammer terrorized with his bat.
Like Greenberg, Lin is an outsider who excels at a most American game. Like Greenberg, Lin is a member of an ethnic group historically victimized by discrimination, and better known for its intellectual achievements than its athletic prowess. Both men also have New York in common. Greenberg left it for Detroit. Lin, thank God, has come to us.
Both men have inspired ethnic followings. Like Greenberg’s Jewish fans, Lin’s Chinese supporters are no doubt aware that brains will carry you very far in this country, but America will never love its scientists and intellectuals the way it loves its sluggers and point guards. Lin could win a Nobel Prize and his family would be proud. But what most people will want to know is, how many championshp rings does he have?
The genius of America is that it makes you want to belong, and for better or worse sports are a great way in. We’ve seen this again and again, particularly in baseball. Tony Lazzeri and Joe DiMaggio were tremendous sources of pride to Italian-Americans. For male Jewish baby boomers, Sandy Koufax the Jewish fireballer not only mowed down opposing batters, but refused to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.
Perhaps the best example of professional sports as an engine of inclusion is that of the great Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color line for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, when he was Rookie of the Year and African-Americans still had to cope with Jim Crow.
Pro sports are quite diverse these days. But there are some new reasons for the outpouring of adulation Lin and his play have generated. At a time of high anxiety about the nation’s schools, when college sports scandals come and go as regularly (and distressingly) as Republicanpresidential front-runners, Jeremy Lin comes to us from Harvard.
Lin’s obscurity up until now is also in his favor. The Knicks traded a brace of popular players forCarmelo Anthony, but the team’s play this year has been dismal. Now it looks like they’ve found their messiah not in some highly paid superstar, but in a classic underdog who, at 6′ 3″ tall in a league ofgiants, is shorter than I am yet leaps tall forwards in a single bound, gets his teammates involved — and has the Knicks winning.
Thinking about him, like recalling Koufax, makes me happy. I’m happier still for his parents, who must be delirious. The only question now is, how do you say kvell in Mandarin?