NewBlackMan (in Exile): Kevin Durant and the Myth of Michael Jordan’s America

Kevin Durant and the Myth of Michael Jordan’s America

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

With game #3 in the NBA finals set for tonight, and the series in question, one thing not in question is that the league has finally found its Michael Jordan for the twenty-first century. While others have fallen short for a number of reasons, it seems that Kevin Durant is on the precipice of following in Air Jordan’s footsteps.

Although the NBA lockout marked the end of this search, given the league’s focus on team rivalries over superstars, it now clear that Kevin Durant has taken the mantle. Irrespective of who ultimately wins the series, Kevin Durant has already been declared the winner of America’s next best commodifiable baller. His reign is not so much about basketball but the narrative, the embedded racial meaning, his appeal in “red state America,” and the representational possibilities available with Durant. Clearly LeBron James’ basketball resume is on the same level; in fact, with multiple MVP awards, endless skill, and an ability to dominate each and every game at both ends of the floor, LB6 has game that is once in generation. The same cannot be said for KD35, whose skills are unimpeachable yet his power and resonance rests with the story and ideological confirmation he provides the league and countless fans.

Since MJ’s retirement, the league, its marketing partners, and fans alike have pinned for someone to fill his AIR Jordans. Each anointed as the next Michael Jordan, Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Vince Carter, and Harold Miner (“Baby Jordan”) all failed to deliver because of injuries, limited production, or a combination of both. Each in their own right was imagined as a player who could fill the shoes, whose talents, charisma, and athleticism would propel the NBA during its post-Jordan era. None of them met these expectations resulting in an NBA in continued search for a twenty-first century basketball God.

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James each took the mantle of the next Jordan to places none of the other NMJ (next Michael Jordan) had reached. Kobe, because of his talents, the ways in which he patterned his game and demeanor after Jordan, his quest for rings, and most importantly his competitiveness, all elevated the comparisons, leading many to argue that he was the NMJ. Yet because of Eagle County, Colorado, because of his conflicts with Shaquille O’Neal and the ultimate demise of the Lakers Dynasty, and because he is said to have demanded to get out of Los Angeles, Kobe has fallen short in other’s quest to find the next Michael Jordan. Like Kobe, LeBron James has delivered on the court, dazzling fans with his passing skills, his athleticism, and his ability to make his teammates better. Worse than struggling to secure a title, LeBron James fell short in the MJ sweepstakes when he decided to take his talents to South Beach. Simply exercising his rights of free agency meant that James was no longer eligible for Jordan status within the national imagination.

While possessing the skills, charisma, and baller potential, the two most promising players to lead the NBA, to build upon the global popularity established by Jordan, have fallen short not because of any basketball deficiency, but their inability (or our inability) to fill some mythical shoes. The quest to find the Next Michael Jordan, thus, has nothing to do with basketball but rather is part of an effort to find a player who reinforces popular narratives about the American Dream, the protestant work ethnic, and post-racialness.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan (in Exile): Kevin Durant and the Myth of Michael Jordan’s America.

[OPINION] Give Arenas Another Shot – Entertainment & Culture – EBONY

Give Arenas Another Shot

By David Leonard Writer

It is February and Gilbert Arenas is still looking for a job in the NBA. While rumors swirl about his potentially joining the Los Angeles Lakers, “Agent Zero” remains a free agent. The lack of interest, whether it be from the many teams requiring greater depth in this injury plagued, compressed season, or those bottom dwelling franchises whose seasons’ are on life support (see: Michael Jordan’s Bobcats), makes one wonder if Arenas has been declared unemployable by both the media and the teams throughout the league.

The one-time NBA All-Star has had a few rocky years. Between 2007-2010, Arenas played only 47 games because of injuries and a suspension for bringing a gun into the Washington Wizards’ locker room. The 2010-2011 season was his first close-to-full season (with two teams), but his career low averages in points and shooting percentage while playing with the Orlando Magic has led commentators to question his ability. Ignoring the impact of injuries and suspensions and the fact that his numbers were fine while he was playing substantial minutes with the Wizards in 2010 (17.3 on almost 40% and close to 6 assists per game), the media and teams themselves appear to be written Arenas off.

Even Stan Van Gundy, the Magic’s coach, cautioned against selling Arenas short because of his performance with the Magic, prior to their releasing him by using their amnesty provision: “I don’t think it’s fair to judge Gilbert’s time here. If anything, if people are unhappy with the way Gilbert performed here, you got to lay that on me and the role I gave him. I don’t think you can lay that on Gilbert. I don’t think Gilbert really had much of a chance to play well consistently, with what happened.”

Fair or not, the lack of opportunities afforded to Arenas illustrate how he continues to be judged, although maybe not for on-court reasons alone.

It is hard not to think that Arenas has been unable to change his reputation and the widespread demonization he has experienced over his career. No amount of apologies, efforts to redeem himself, or even time has allowed Arenas to shake the “bad boy” label like he use to shake defenders.

In the aftermath of Arenas and then-teammate Javaris Crittendon bringing guns into the Wizards locker room and pulling them on one another, and Arenas later making light of the issue with a myriad of tweets and his decision to simulate holding a gun during pregame warm-ups, the media denounced him not only as someone who made a bad decision, but as a bad person that deserves to be in prison for a significant amount of time. He was part of a generation of arrogant, entitled, uneducated, and otherwise despicable hip-hop ballers who lacked respect for the game, the fans, and basic civility. For example, Ed Berlinger, in “Next Stop for Gilbert Arenas? Prison Basketball team,” defined Arenas in relationship to a criminal (Black) underclass, all while depicting Arenas as representative of the pathological and destructive culture of today’s (black) athletes.

Praising David Stern for his giving these players 1-year suspensions, Berlinger offered the following: “Nothing could be more necessary in teaching our generation of spoiled, morally inept, law breaking athletic sycophants that they can no longer fall back on the “my dog ate my homework” excuse…He’s a common, street level criminal. One who just happens to wear tailored suits. A convict in the making who may luckily have been revealed before he truly decided to take a life with what would have been spun as an “accident”…His complete disregard for human life and a simple level of societal behavior puts him just above the gang-bangers who revel in their ability to shovel guns in the face of anyone who dare to question their superiority.”

Evident here, much of the media saw Arenas a symptom of a larger problem within the NBA, one that needed correction if the league had any chance of prospering into the future. Not surprisingly, Jason Whitlock seized upon the opportunity to denounce Arenas as an example of what happens when professional athletes do not go to college: “Singling out Arenas as the NBA’s lone idiot gunman is as naive as believing Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone…Harsh sanction is not the cure for ignorance. Education is…Gilbert Arenas can’t think critically. Like most elite athletes, no one has ever tried to teach him to think in a language and field he enjoys.”

The continued penalization (or ostracizing) of Arenas, who like so many others confined to the criminalized class has not been given a second chance, illustrates the ways that his mere presence in the league was seen as a threat. The efforts to imagine Arenas as pathological, uneducated, and unredeemable highlight the context of his difficult employment prospects within the NBA.

Continue reading @ [OPINION] Give Arenas Another Shot – Entertainment & Culture – EBONY.

Linsanity! What Jeremy Lin Means to the NBA – Entertainment & Culture – EBONY

Linsanity! What Jeremy Lin Means to the NBA

The first Asian American player’s storied path triumphs against-and highlights-sports racism

By David Leonard Writer


Unless you have been stuck on Newt Gingrich’s moon colony, you probably have heard about Jeremy Lin – AKA “Linsanity”. Trending on Twitter, saturating the social media scene, and commanding ample attention from sports media outlets, Lin has entered the national cultural landscape with vengeance. While his rise most certainly reflects his recent success within American’s media market and the renewed hope from New York Knicks fans, who have increasingly embraced the cynicism usually reserved for the Cubs, the hoopla has larger implications. The power and popularity of Jeremy Lim rests with the appeal of the constructed narrative around him.

Since Lin emerged on the national scene during his playing days at Harvard, the media discourse has focused on his experiences as an immigrant. Lin’s parents emigrated from Taiwan to the U.S. in the 1970s. According to an ESPN article, his Dad dreamed of coming to the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. and “watch the NBA.”

The narrative is one right from the playbook of the American Exceptionalism and American Dream crowd: Gie-Ming (his Dad) dedicated himself to fostering their academic success (they would only get to play basketball after finishing their homework), along of their basketball prowess. Having studied the great players of the NBA, he passed this knowledge onto his children. According to Dana O’Neil, Lin’s story is one of the “immigrant dream”:

All those years Gie-Ming Lin spent rewinding his tapes so he could teach himself how to play a game he never even saw until he was an adult? All those hours spent in the local Y with his boys, schooling them in fundamentals over and over, building muscle memory without even knowing what the term meant? That silly dream, the one in which his children would fall in love with basketball as much as he had?

The underdog, bootstraps, and sticktoitness narrative that ultimately depicts Lin as “overlooked.” According to Howard Beck, the recent ascendance reflects a “continuing a long pattern of low expectations and surprising results.” Noting his success in high school and at Harvard and the lack of attention from coaches, scouts and teams, Beck further argues: “At draft time, in June 2010, Lin was again overlooked. NBA teams…They were the kind of concerns scouts have every year about dozens of prospects, from all sorts of programs and all sorts of backgrounds. Yet there was no escaping Lin’s unusual pedigree and the subtle sense that he did not fit a profile.” His success is attributed to his intelligence, dedication, and his fundamentals. It is attributed to his hard work. Thanks to our culture’s attachment to stereotypes, stories focusing on talent and athleticism are rare.

Part of the narrative of Lin exceptionalism has focused on how he has overcome racism and bigotry during his meteoric rise. His Harvard-to-riches story, his struggle to garner acceptance and an opportunity, reflects anti-Asian prejudice that led teams and fellow competitors to underestimate him. According to Pablo Tore, “the Kansases and Kentuckys, however, didn’t exactly knock down … Only four schools responded. Out of the Pac-10, Lin recalls, UCLA ‘wasn’t interested,’ Stanford was ‘fake interested,’ and during a visit to Cal a staffer ‘called me ‘Ron.’” Lin specifically has cited racial stereotypes as an impediment to his recruitment: “I think in America, basketball is predominantly for, you know, black and white people. And so, I think it is just, yeah, I mean, I guess people aren’t used to it and people don’t expect it,” he noted during an NPR interview, “In general Asian-Americans are seen or looked down upon on the basketball court.”

Through his career, he has experienced prejudice from fans, who have yelled “wonton soup,” “sweet and sour pork,” “to play the orchestra,” “beef and broccoli” and “sweet and sour chicken” in his direction. He has been called a “Chinese import” while others have demanded that he “Go back to China.” The narrative of Lin exceptionalism, one that cites racism and prejudice, as yet another obstacle overcome is emblematic of the power of the constructed narrative surrounding LinThe Jeremy Lin story (coming to theater near you) is evident in the ways in which media narratives are used to convey racial and national meaning, the ways in which he has been ideologically marked, and the ways in which they have been used by the NBA and sport media to attract Asian and Asian American fans throughout the Diaspora. “In the era of globalization, the Phantom of race is articulated not through the body of the NBA’s black majority, but in the event of the minority athlete, who is not white but Asian,” writes Grant Farred in his thoughtful discussion of Yao Ming, race, and the globalization of the NBA. “‘Asian-ness’ has often located Asian Americans outside of African-American Blackness, which is to say, ‘above” African Americans

Continue reading @ Linsanity! What Jeremy Lin Means to the NBA – Entertainment & Culture – EBONY.

NewBlackMan: Pride and Prejudice: Jeremy Lin and the Persistence of Racial Stereotypes

Pride and Prejudice:

Jeremy Lin and the Persistence of Racial Stereotypes

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

The recent success and national visibility afforded to Jeremy Lin has both inspired Asian Americans and has been driven by the adoration and pride he elicits from some within the community. Whether on twitter, Facebook, or in the stadiums, it is clear that Lin is not simply a national phenomena but a treasure for the Asian American community.

According to Jamilah King, “regardless of how the rest of the season goes for Lin, and the Knicks, his moment in the spotlight is an important time to reflect on how the country views its Asian American athletes.” Whereas past Asian athletes, whether it be Yao Ming or Ichiro captured the global Asian Diaspora’s imagination, Lin is the most widely recognized Asian American athlete on the American team sport scene. Timothy Dalrymple highlights the appeal of Lin to Asian American males:

He particularly has a following amongst Asian-Americans. And some Asian-American young men, long stereotyped as timid and unathletic, nerdy or effeminate or socially immature — have fought back tears (which may not help with the stereotype, but is understandable under the circumstances) as they watched Jeremy Lin score 25 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds for the New York Knicks.

In “Asian Americans energized in seeing Knicks’ Jeremy Lin play,” J. Michael Falgoust elucidates his cultural power within the Asian American community in quoting the thoughts of several different people:

“I don’t care about the outcome. I just want to see him in action. He’s as good of an Asian American athlete as there is” — Rose Nguyen

“I’m so proud. I don’t care if he is Chinese or Korean. I had to see him … my boyfriend has been talking about him so much” — Christine Lee

“I’m really excited. He breaks so many stereotypes. And my friends are just as excited. If you go to my Facebook feed, it’s all Jeremy Lin. I like that he plays smart. But then he’s from Harvard. So that is expected. He is also humble. He reminds me a lot of Derrick Rose, who’s always crediting teammates” — Andrew Pipathsouk

Andrew Leonard similarly argues that Lin’s popularity amongst Asian Americans is emblematic of the power of social media and also the pride that athletic success garners for Asian Americans, otherwise seen as “nerds” not “jocks.” While problematically invoking the language of “genetics” that erases Lin’s tremendous athleticism/speed, Leonard concludes that Lin inspires Asian American kids who yearn for a masculine role model given persistent invisibility and anti-Asian racism within the public square. “He’s a triumph of will over genetic endowment, a fact that makes him inspiring to an entire generation of Californian kids restless with their model minority shackles,” he notes.

On Monday, the social media world was also getting worked up about Michigan Republican Senate hopeful Pete Hoekstra’s racist Super Bowl ad, featuring a Chinese woman (labeled “yellowgirl” in the HTML code for the Web version) gloating over all the jobs her country was taking from the U.S. Once thrown into the 24/7 crazy cultural mashup perpetual motion machine, it didn’t take long before anger about that ad ran head on into Jeremy Lin pride. I have seen tweets urging Jeremy Lin to run for the Republican nomination for the Michigan senate seat, tweets warning that the only American jobs in danger from Asians are those belonging to New York Knick starting point guards, and even a tweet riffing off Kobe Bryant’s self-identification as “black mamba” — Jeremy Lin is suddenly the “yellow mamba.”

Lin has trended #1 on twitter on three successive game days, was top-10 searched items on Sina Weibo and is all the talk of the sports world. For the moment, it is Jeremy Lin’s world and we are all just living in it.

The pride and possibility reflects the broader erasure and invisibility of Asian Americans within popular culture (minus this year’s Top Chef). “Asians are nearly invisible on television/movies/music, so any time I see an Asian on TV or in the movies, I feel like I’ve just spotted a unicorn, even though usually, I see them being portrayed as kung-fu masters/socially awkward mathematical geniuses/broken-English-speaking-fresh-off-the-boat owner of Chinese restaurant/nail salon/dry cleaners,” writes one blogger. “Anyway, this phenomenon is 10x worse in sports. While there has been some notable progress with Asians in professional baseball, Asians are all but non-existent in the big three sports in the US (football, basketball, baseball).”

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: Pride and Prejudice: Jeremy Lin and the Persistence of Racial Stereotypes.

NewBlackMan: Taking Their Talents to the Rucker, Watts and Manila: What Lockout?

Taking Their Talents to the Rucker, Watts and Manila: What Lockout?

Taking Their Talents to the Rucker, Watts and Manila: What Lockout?

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

In recent weeks, LeBron James decided to take his talents to a high school gym in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and a number of other NBA players decided to take their talents to the Philippines and Kevin Durant took his talents to Rucker Park. On, August 2, Kevin Durant dropped 66 during a Rucker Park game. For the footage I was able to watch, it wasn’t an average 66 but a performance that included several thrilling dunks, smooth drives to the basket, and a sick number of three pointers over at times three “defenders.” His performance wowed an excited crowd and has mesmerized fans on YouTube (almost 600,000 views for one video of his performance). Marc Berman describes the scene as a reminder of how “how much the hardcore fans still love this game, why it matters, why an NBA season can not be lost so billionaires can get a sweetheart deal.” Emphasizing the context of the lockout, Berman illustrates how this was not just another July game at the Rucker.

It was quite a basketball doubleheader on Monday – covering the lockout labor talks at a ritzy midtown hotel on 52nd Street and Park Avenue, then cabbing it 100 blocks uptown to Harlem for Kevin Durant.

More than 2,500 fans jammed into Rucker Park – standing room only on 155th street and 8th Avenue. The 6-11 OKC superstar played for free and the fans of the EBC Rucker League watched for free, but what they saw was priceless.

Going from the disillusioning labor talks and the dour David Stern bashing the Players Association to Monday night’s basketball bedlam in Harlem was a shot in the arm for this basketball scribe.

The game was living and breathing and still pure, with fans screaming their lungs out, jumping up and down in their metal bleacher seats, almost every time Durant brought the ball up court. Durant, wearing the orange of DC Power, dumped a near EBC Rucker record 66 points on the Sean Bell All-Stars . . ..

Durant was not done. For his encore, he scored a mere 41 in a pro-Am game at Baruch College once again reminding fans around the globe of the amazing talents of NBA stars. Yet, this performance was overshadowed by the efforts of John Lucas III, who netted 60 in that game.

Durant has not been the only one ballin’ this summer. LeBron James played at in the Drew Summer League dropping 33 points at the Leon H. Washington Park gym, which is located in the heart of Watts, California. Casper Ware described the situation as “a great experience.” Challenging the media demonization of LeBron, the senior guard from Long Beach State was immensely complementary of James: “He was still passing even though he was LeBron. He just wanted me to play my game. He told me, ‘Don’t stand around and just throw me the ball. Play your game. I can get mine. Play your game and don’t change for me.’ He was very cool and down to earth. You could talk to him like any other player.” From coast to coast, NBA basketball fans have been treated to the greatness of the league.

Continue reading at NewBlackMan: Taking Their Talents to the Rucker, Watts and Manila: What Lockout?.