The City Game

We made it to the NBA. When Jeremy Lin sized up Pau Gasol a few feet beyond the 3-point line during a key moment in the 4th quarter of friday’s New York Knicks – Los Angeles Lakers game, I knew he had him. Gasol, the Lakers’ star center, was backing up as Lin dribbled threateningly towards him. He rose for a long jumper over Gasol’s long, futile reach. Water.

Basketball in New York City. In 1970, sportswriter Pete Axthelm mythologized the sport’s significance to Gotham in The City Game, weaving together anecdotes of the 1969-70 Knicks team that won the championship with back stories of playground legends like Earl ‘The Goat’ Manigault and ‘The Helicopter.’ “If the Knicks brought a special pride to all New York, they were only multiplying the feeling that the playground kids have always understood,” he wrote.

It’s true that only the success of the Knicks can galvanize and focus New York City basketball interests into pure mania, but since I’ve lived in New York, the Knicks have been a tired joke. For the last decade, the team’s leadership has stacked one star player on top of another in hopes of manufacturing that fleeting magic known in sports as chemistry, or at least buying enough talent to render chemistry irrelevant. But each addition only brought greater disappointment. Madison Square Garden was a place where promising careers went to flounder into incoherence.

Lin was inserted into the Knicks’ lead guard role in pure desperation after a listless start to the season made last year’s gains seem like a mirage. After leading them to five wins in a row with virtuostic performances, he has bridged the 1% row of Madison Square Garden with Korean church pick-up basketball in Long Island City; outdoor runs in the shadow of the 7-train on a 30 degree, windy day in Flushing; rec league games in Upper Eastside gyms; and little kid basketball in legendary Rucker Park in Harlem.

Did you see that move on Luke Ridenour on Saturday? Lin took it hard right then screeched into a crossover. Whoops, sorry! Left Ridenour somewhere out in the forests of Oregon circa 2002, then rained a 15 footer on his head. It was like when Randolph Childress crossed up Jeff McGinnis in the ACC tournament in 1995. Childress motioned for McGinnis to get up off the floor before he drilled a 3. But getting back to Lin.

Asian Americans from California recognize the type: Taiwanese and religious, studious and quiet; there’s something dorky and utterly suburban about him. He crashed on his brother’s couch in the Lower East Side between monster games like a clueless under-rested student. We haven’t yet figured out what Jeremy Lin means, and why this moment feels so historic to us. But even if he is our Jeremy and even if we want to apply the lessons of race to his rise, the most important thing for me is that he’s been tagged by New York’s unforgiving, jaded basketball fans with the most elusive and important of titles: a baller.

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Old Hats

Description of an old hat I lost a few years ago: It was a forest green baseball cap made by Nike, part of a series of gear they used to produce based on legendary playground basketball sites, for instance The Cage on West 4th Street here in Manhattan, Rucker Park in Harlem and Wilson Park in Compton, California. Each one had a distinct graphic identity. My cap recognized St. Cecilia’s gym in Detroit with a simplified graphic of the church’s facade, the words “St. Cecilia’s” stitched below it. “3 Detroit” was embroidered on the back next to the velcro strap used to adjust its size. I loved that hat in all its detail, in all that it conjured about a dank, musty gym housed in a church, but other hats have come into favor.

I’ve had my Kangol fisherman’s hat for almost 10 years. It’s the typical tan colored bucket hat with a big brim and a dark red and blue ribbon around its base; it’s my preferred rain protection over umbrellas. The hat’s been crushed into bags and suitcases, left in my car for weeks, drenched in torrential rain, nearly blown out of my reach, and baked in the sun all over the world. It’s a formidable hat that shows its age and battle scars better than the young show off markings of youth.

I’ve collected a couple of free hats since working at the Museum of Chinese in America. One was left on one of our common tables along with other discarded office accessories. An abject sign grouped them together with “FREE: Please Take By 5pm Today or They’ll Be Thrown Out.” It was a black baseball cap with orange tiger stripes embroidered on the bill and on its side, framing a tiger head image with the words “Chasing A Legend” underneath. Nobody really knows the back story to this hat, but one of my co-workers surmised that it might have been made in honor of the Flying Tigers, a crew of Chinese American air force pilots that fought in World War II and who hold their annual reunion at the museum.

That turned out to be false, but I did get an authentic Flying Tigers reunion hat just recently from a co-worker who couldn’t stand me wearing the tiger striped one and claiming it to be the real thing. This cap features a much more subdued, eloquent design befitting its honorees – a navy blue cap with a round royal blue logo featuring a full bodied tiger with a red and white star above it. The words “WWII Veterans” are stitched in yellow thread above it and “Chinese American Combined Reunion 2011” flank it. It is unspectacular, but has a grace and restraint that most commemorative hats lack. Nevertheless, stylish types and guys that know hats appreciate both of these pieces.

I wear my Oakland Raiders cap on fall Sundays while watching their games and in the winter I throw on a dock worker-style wool knit hat. I’ve lost two of these in the past month, such is the fate of hats constantly being taken on and off during the day. I used to wear a Houston Astros cap because its logo was a large white “H” with an orange star as its backdrop. Hats get better with age and when you lose them, you remember them well. But you also realize: they’re just hats.


On Losing (Seeing the World Through An Orange Rim)

We lost again tonight – our basketball team. And now the Mavericks/Heat NBA finals game taunts me from the living room TV, the championship trophy seemingly predestined to be taken to South Beach, like a certain King’s talents. The losing side will include Jason Kidd, a flawed but historic player who me and my friends Derrick Nam and Ben Lei used to watch play summer league basketball in a musty gym on the outskirts of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco when we were in high school. (Can’t remember the name of that gym.) In one indelible play Kidd, wearing a high top fade, caught a pass at the three point line and without looking, and in one motion, fired a rocket pass to a cutter at eye level underneath the basket, inches away from a defender’s fingertips. Kidd’s anonymous teammate, a local baller who probably played a little division II hoops, dumbfounded by the dime, finished with a servicable, if pedestrian reverse layup. I remember looking around and making eye contact with some old school basketball junkies. We shook our heads in unison with a satisfied half smile as if to say, “in 20 years, we’re gonna remember we saw him here and recognized his genius first.”

And now 20 years later, if he wasn’t as flawed as he is, if he could hit a mid-range jumpshot, if he were more athletic, if he had a reliable post move, then maybe I would be a different kind of person. Someone who isn’t agitated by the easy excellence and near perfection by bulletproof types like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade. Instead I’m loyal to players like Marcus Liberty, Harold Miner, Lamond Murray, Anfernee Hardaway, Kenny Anderson, Chris Jackson (Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf), Lawrence Moten, Bob Sura, Jimmy Jackson, Gerald “Sky” Walker, Steve Smith, Billy Owens, Jalen Rose and others whose games were glorious and poetic, but in many cases, lacking efficiency and cut-throat professionalism.

Efficiency and professionalism are fine, admirable traits in business and you want to impart those in the workplace, but in basketball I’m down with those who just barely missed out and didn’t quite live up. They exist on the margins of basketball’s history book, but their games survive in the memories of those that appreciated their fleeting success. And the margin’s where it’s at anyway in creative fields like basketball and art. Those that are outside the lines of history, who aren’t included in the story, can make their own. They can play ball with a loser’s edge and make some fine art, but only if they stop caring about winning all the time.