Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why Jeremy Lin Matters to Me (and his left hand issue)

I previously covered Jeremy Lin and discussed his intelligence before he was popular.  I knew who he was.  But now that almost every person in the states and perhaps the world knows his name, it's probably time to write another piece on him.

I haven't had the time to write in a while since I've been buried in work and then the whole Linsanity thing came to light and I couldn't help but to spend the majority of my free and not-so-free time reading every article and listening to every game on the radio.  I was captivated.  Why?  Because I can relate, and not to sound pompous, but I can probably relate more than 99.9999% of his followers.

I am also a fairly tall Taiwanese/Chinese American brought up in the Church (though not a currently practicing Christian).  I was also brought up in the game of basketball and competed at a high level both in the states and back in Asia.  My father took a keen interest in my basketball education when I was younger and coached me until he was no longer able to teach me, at which point I was handed off to a series of private coaches (one a former NBA player).  I didn't take my team to win the championship, but I have a respectable number of awards sitting around the house and box scores that my family would save.  I know what it feels like to score thirty points in a game.  I know what it feels like to be the best player on the court.   To be honest, I haven't touched a basketball in quite a while now, preferring to pursue another more solitary sport, partly because of many of the tough issues (to be discussed) that would make basketball such an emotional sport for me to be involved in.  Short story, I was pretty good, but mentally, I wasn't tough enough.  So this piece will be part memory and part analysis, most of it scrambled, but my intent is to draw on my personal experiences in order to highlight some of the critical issues that many of the other commentators may have overlooked.

The odds are stacked high against any Asian-American who wishes to play competitive basketball at the high school level and beyond.  Player development starts at between the ages of 8 and 10, before that, kids playing basketball aren't really playing basketball.  I recommend that kids start their athletic careers with soccer, which will help develop the requisite speed that transitions well to the game of basketball.  The majority of kids start their development in recreational leagues with teams usually coached by fanatical sports dads.  At some point AAU teams will be configured from those that managed to be the stand out players on their recreational teams.  The same thing happens with soccer and club teams.   I was blessed to be part of both of these selections though eventually I had to choose one over the other.

What matters most to standing out in basketball (and soccer) at this level are speed and quickness.  The skill sets that all kids possess are rudimentary at best and what allows a kid to get to the bucket better than other kids and steal the ball from the other kids is speed and quickness.  There is a nuanced difference between speed and quickness (and even different modes of quickness) that probably evades most casual sports fans, but I will elaborate on this later.   So those who prosper are fast.  Or in basketball, unnaturally tall for their age, though this often can be a detriment to player development if their future physical characteristics do not match the skill sets they are taught.  For example, many of the front court players from my younger days who I thought were going to be good since they were so tall (to me at least) when I played with them turned out to be nothing in high school because they never grew tall enough.  At 6-2 with no speed, limited athleticism, and a post skill set, it's pretty damn hard to be good.  Morale of the story, don't lock your kid into a position from an early age since you don't know what their height ceiling will be.  To be on the safe side, teach them a guard skill set.

Asian-Americans and conspicuously absent from the development scene I just described for more than just one reason.  One of the biggest things keeping Asian-Americans off the court is that parents are simply directing their children to more classically Asian activities and sports such as tennis, swimming, violin, etc, etc.  And if parents do allow their young child to play basketball, few are willing to invest the resources in them for them to excel.  100$ per hour professional violin teacher?  Yes!  100$ per hour professional basketball coach?  Not so much.

That's one side of the equation.  Another is simply the physics of human biodiversity.  At young ages, Asians are less developed physically than whites and much less developed than blacks.  There are exceptions to the rule as always, but it does not detract from the case.  When talents are being filtered into their respective paths at this age, many Asian-Americans simply will not make the cut because they lag physically at that point in time and their parents will direct them to perhaps more "suitable" activities.  This is simply the white/black basketball development case that Steve Sailer is fond of referring to, but to an even greater extreme.  And at a young age, physical abilities reign above skill.  So whatever paltry number of Asians participate in traditionally non-Asian sports, a comparatively few of them will be "noticed" enough to be selected to play on more competitive teams and beyond.  Most will be the physical exceptions.

Just a note, this article covers only the male aspects of sport, no one really cares about women playing sports unless it is for a gold medal.   Sorry to be politically incorrect, but I have to say it.

The barriers to Asian-American advancement in basketball are high even before secondary school begins.  But what about the ever looming question of discrimination against Asians on the court?  Does it exist?  Yes it does, and I know.  The security at MSG wouldn't let Jeremy in--they thought he was a trainer.  On an AAU circuit, someone told him that there wasn't any volleyball tonight.

These stories about Jeremy have affected me deeply, to the point where my thoughts are racing around like NASCAR cars on a track.  A few weeks ago before the whole Linsanity thing took off I was chatting with a good friend of mine about basketball who suddenly asked me a rhetorical question, "would anyone ever pick you first in a pick-up game"?  I laughed at told him that it was unlikely here in the states.  "This is what is wrong with the world," he said.  But in a game of rec ball, the heuristics of racism are abused to an almost comical extent.  The short pudgy black guy shooting the ball with two hands is almost always picked first.

In my first year of middle school basketball, I had to play on the "B" team.  Why?  I was better than the point guard on the "A" team, I played AAU ball, but I wasn't black or even white.  I am fairly certain my coaches in this part of the country had never before seen an Asian basketball player and this factored into their roster calculus. Let him play on the "B" team.  I scored and scored and eventually the PG on the "A" team failed a bunch of classes and up I went.  Kind of like Jeremy Lin and the D-League, but not really :).  I did exceptionally well there and proved my coaches wrong.  And plus, they never had to worry about my um, academic eligibility.  But with Jeremy Lin becoming a star in his own right, that's not going to happen anymore to any other Asian kids in the future who might face the situation I was in.  Coaches are no longer going to be so quick as to make judgement calls based on race.  They are going to think twice, once about their own player, and then once about Jeremy Lin.

In high school, I trained with one of my coaches at a gym located in a predominantly black part of town.  He was black, everyone else in the gym was black, and I was Asian.  I would often play pick-up with some of the other kids before training began and of course, I would be picked last, of course, what was I even doing in this place?  We would play, and then I would earn their respect with my play, and all would be good.  It's tough to even get respected in even such a small insignificant game because some of black kids wouldn't even pass it to me.  Every time I had the ball I had to make the most of it because the next time down some black kid would decide he thought he was Kobe Bryant and that was going to be that.

I remember a few years ago, I was playing a game (s) of pick-up ball, picked last of course, when I was being guarded by some black nerd who obviously had no experience playing much basketball.  I abused him repeatedly and finally the guy who picked him first on the opposing team ran over in frustration to defend me, to no avail.  We played eight games in a row on that court and only left because we were tired.  We never lost.  At the end, the guy who picked me last just kept giving me the ball, shaking his head, and laughing with a big grin on his face.  If he only knew.

When I was younger I always attended basketball camps during the summer where my favorite competitions were the 1v1 and 3v3 tournaments, because I wasn't very good at the shooting ones.  I won a few of the 1v1 tournaments in a camp full of three hundred kids or so but nothing compared to winning the 3v3 tournament with a very diverse team composed of myself, a random white guy, and this tall lanky black guy with glasses whose name I can't remember but whose face is etched into my memory.  I'll always remember that tournament because I was puking all over the floor from an pop-ice overdose at lunch before the tournament began.  I kept scoring and the black guy (who was tall and fast but wasn't very good at scoring) loved every moment of it.  The smile on his face after we were handed the trophy during the awards ceremony, I'll never forget.  Of course, next year at track, he did beat me by 4 seconds in the 200m dash, but that's another story for a different day.

I played basketball at schools in Asia for a few years of secondary school where almost everyone was Asian and I didn't have to face the doubt from coaches and peers.  I was good and people knew it.  But the Asian game is much less physical than the American game.  It was the only place that I could get ten rebounds in a game.

I accomplished some in high school, but academics and other obligations eventually led to me entirely losing focus on basketball the last year.  I just didn't care anymore.  Good enough to make all-conference the last two years to not playing at all the next.  I had to get into Columbia.  But that's neither here nor there.

I was fortunate enough to have a chance to play basketball competitively and I'll never forget the memories.  Especially the one when I was going up against a team with a  projected first round pick in the NBA draft and embarrassing him.  OK, so he did block my shot, like 4 times, but he does the same thing to pros now, so what the heck, right?

I never once played against another Asian in an American basketball game (non-rec).  Never.  There was one school in the area that fielded a roster that I've always thought reeked of racism and favoritism.  The school in question was only 18% black yet the entire basketball squad coaches included were always all black.

So what are my thoughts on Jeremy Lin's game?  Where does he need to improve?  Let's talk about the left hand issue, which you might be surprised to discover that is not so much of a hand issue but a leg issue.

Basketball fans have all pointed out that Lin strongly favors his right hand and is weak going left.  This is a partially correct analysis.  Yes he has used his left hand to score a few times but it is clear that he lets his preference for his right override a read of the defense which leads to forcing rather than letting the game come to him.  Even on successful plays where he employs his right hand you can see where a left handed finish might be preferable.  Watch him reverse on the left side of the rim and you will see what I mean.  Driving right on the baseline, the most efficient driving plays would be to finish left off the right foot and shielding the defender or reversing the same way.  Watch him drive on Steve Blake in the Lakers game.  He makes the driving layup but it is an awkward one.  Watch him drive on Matt Barnes in the closing seconds of the game.  He makes a reverse right hand layup which looks pretty, but a left would have been a better, quicker, attack.

But I wouldn't say that Jeremy doesn't know how to use his left hand, but rather, he doesn't know how to use his RIGHT LEG.  This is something that casual basketball fans and those who don't have a background in the game will miss.  Employing the left hand effectively requires careful coordination between the right leg and the left hand.  If you are right handed you typically jump off your  left leg and vice-versa for a southpaw.  But jumping off your left and shooting left or right/right doesn't produce the best balance (though Nash, Bryant, and a few others have managed to master it) or create the most efficiency.  So if you are right handed and want to improve your left you have to coordinate that with the right leg which is usually not as strong.  This is what I think is what is making Jeremy hesitant to finish left and why is always forcing the issue towards his right hand.  He is not as explosive off the right leg as he is with the left leg so he forces finishes to his right hand in order to take advantage of the dominant jumping leg.  You can see he doesn't get the same kind of explosive lift when he goes to his right leg/left hand and instead is limited to a scoop lay-up type finish.

Improving on the left hand/right leg issues would help his game immensely.  It's a difficult process (and I managed to become ambidextrous much too late but I did it, taking almost a year of gym time) but it can be done.  90% of right handed people can't make a left handed layup (reverse for southpaw).  For you non-basketball players out there, go try it.  Not as easy as you think.   Then there is the 5% who can do it but never actually use it (most HS players).  Then there is the 1%, where Jeremy is, who can use it, but only if they have to.  The elite level of ambidexterity comes when a player chooses which hand he wants to use according to the basketball situation rather than letting his hand dictate the situation.  This final level allows a player to take and make shots at angles that might not otherwise be conducive to shot making and make more efficient plays (it takes longer to get to your dominant hand when you go to it even when there is a better angle with your off hand).  Watch Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant play to see great examples of this.  These two have even managed to do the super difficult, same leg/same hand finishes.

In any case, this is not a big issue at all.  There are lots of players who aren't at the elite level of ambidexterity, even some who play even more skewed (i.e Chris Bosh), and still thrive in the NBA.  But it is something that can be worked on.

And then there are the turnovers.  Too many.

But he assists, scores a lot, and makes a game winning shot.  I'll stop complaining and just soak it in.

All negatives aside, this is the greatest story that I've ever come across in my lifetime, because it resonates with me personally, and because it has altered the way our society views a people like me, Asian-American males.  No longer are we going to be put down as quiet, subservient, but smart folk.  Jeremy has shown Asian-American men that we can become leaders, athletes, perhaps in an instant, even in the face of tremendous odds.  No longer will coaches overlook Asians on the court or on the field because of their race.  No longer will otherwise well-meaning people pick the Asian last (if the Asian in question is 5-5 and clearly sucks, then it's OK, but that's not the point) because he is Asian.  People will look at us differently than they have before.  Our sociological role has undergone a titanic shift.  Yesterday, I went to a track workout and a guy I didn't know looked at me once and said, "Oh, Jeremy Lin".  I just smiled and ran harder than I ever have this year.

Dreams and aspirations are an integral part of the human spirit.  They keep us going.  We all have them and most of us will have to settle for reality somewhere along the way.  I don't think Jeremy Lin will necessarily usher in a next generation of Asian-American guards to the NBA.  In fact, most of us and our children are probably still better off pursuing productive careers as doctors, engineers, businessmen.  But it is the notion of possibility that captivates our hearts and inspires, no matter what position we occupy in this world, be it working on the factory line at Foxconn or selling insurance,  and that is ultimately what matters.  Lin is a symbol of possibility.


  1. ***talents are being filtered into their respective paths at this age, many Asian-Americans simply will not make the cut because they lag physically at that point in time and their parents will direct them to perhaps more "suitable" activities.***

    Same thing occurs here in NZ with rugby. With the increasing number of polynesian players over the past 30 years, there has been an upsurge in white teenagers switching to soccer. They simply mature later and struggle to compete physically with polynesians during the mid teen years.

  2. Good post. Just wanted to say extra money and resources such as special coaching and training camps are given to those who physically mature earlier which increases the skill gap between them and those who mature later but have similar talent. The same can be said about academic ability. Rightly or wrongly, the early bird is given the worm.