I took a stab at the Jeremy Lin story when the Knicks came through Toronto two weeks ago. Beyond noting the large number of Asian fans in the crowd, I didn’t really delve into what Lin does or might mean for Asian-Canadian, or Asian-American hoopsters. That was at least partly because I was writing fast and writing fast about something like that is a good way to write something stupid. But it was also because I didn’t really know what I would say. Without going out and doing a lot of in-depth interviews—and not the kind of 30-second ones you get while covering a live sporting event—all I would
of have had were my own very surface impressions, and in this case I didn’t feel like those would be worth all that much.
Luckily Jay Caspian Kang, an editor at ESPN’s Grantland and a really smart, nuanced writer, has weighed in. I won’t describe much of his piece here. But the paragraphs below give you a pretty good idea of where he goes with it:
Of all the news that has come out about Lin’s former life — and there hasn’t been much — none excited me as much as a screenshot from his Xanga. In a series of captioned photos, a 15-year-old Lin wears a headband in the style of different NBA stars. It’s a funny, endearing look into Lin’s childhood and hints at a sense of humor that has mostly been absent from his media obligations. But none of the photos or the captions is as telling as the Xanga account’s name: ChiNkBaLLa88.
If you stare at the word “ChiNkBaLLa88” for long enough, you begin to see, a bit more clearly, the reason why Linsanity has sparked such an intensity of emotion among Asian Americans. Within that strange, thoroughly American word contraption, a racial slur is fused — using the somewhat infuriating capitalization habits of teenagers in the mid-aughts — with a highly racialized, identifiably black swagger. I don’t mean to be overly academic and certainly don’t mean to imply that Jeremy Lin thought about any of this when he was 15 years old. But I do think something like “ChiNkBaLLa88” comes from a series of learned reactions. When I was 15, I must have come up with at least 200 different nicknames for myself. Each one involved a racial slur and a hip-hop reference. Within those tight strictures — maybe while listening to Reasonable Doubt — there’s a decent chance I might have come up with ChinkBalla myself.
Anyway, go read the whole thing; it’s pretty great.