The emergence of Jeremy Lin, or “Unheralded Asian Small Guy From Harvard” for short, has dominated pop culture for two weeks now. Currently in the midst of a 8-1 winning streak, he and his team, the New York Knicks, have risen from the ashes to be the toast of sports and social media alike, similar to how Tim Tebow’s story began captivating the casual sports fan this past winter. This comparison to Tebow has been made again and again, and it is warranted, as Lin taking over a downtrodden franchise is basketball’s first ever version of “back-up quarterback gets team to put aside personality differences, start having fun out there again” played out again and again in football; the most worthy historical comparison is probably Kurt Warner, mainly because Warner was bagging groceries just a few months before winning the Super Bowl–Lin has been allegedly crashing on his friend’s couch the past month.
I have nothing more to say about the Lin narrative or its shelf-life, especially how it relates to the specifics of his team’s outlook for the rest of the season or, on a generic Rick Reilly level, how ‘this is why we love sports!’
The recent phenomenon, or ‘Pho-nomenon’ (probably), I want to briefly explore is the explosion of puns and nicknames for Lin. The pun-making craze surrounding Lin has resonated in popular culture as much as the story itself. If you do not agree with this previous sentence, you probably have not seen Shaquille O’Neal’s recent tweet:
“Linderrella story of the year jeremy lin has lingle-handedly played lensational lincredible I’m linpressed all he does is Lin Lin Lin gd job”
Yeah, that was real. Glad we agree now, as this national obsession is the premise for my entire point.
We have spent a fortnight processing and creating every possible forced pun with the word ‘Lin’ involved. “Linsanity” or “Super Lintendo” or “Lin Dynasty” or “The VioLINist” — they all became a thousand others. And I could very well list 30 more and I bet all of us would laugh at some, cringe at others, and for the very legitimate reason that it’s, well, fun. Whether it be homemade signs at Madison Square Garden, Facebook updates, Tweets, we have all been subjected to non-stop comic ambition. ESPN anchors, former players, casual citizens, goddammit — we really think that we’re funny.
So my first question is: when did our culture become so obsessed with its own cleverness?
Actually, we’ll get back to that.
Let’s start with this: since when do nicknames matter in today’s sports world?
There are maybe 10 viable nicknames in the NBA and none of them belong to elite players. What young, elite player has a nickname that is not just a bastardized version of initials and syllables in the T-Mac vein? (LBJ, DWade, DRose, CP3, KD, KG, Melo, DWill) If we look at the 24 players set to play in next weekend’s All-Star Game, zero have an agreed-upon, non-initials-based nickname. Zero. Kobe Bryant may come closest with The Black Mamba, but I don’t count it because for one, he picked it ten years into his career, and two, Kobe’s efforts to be playful here fall short just as his charisma always does– he lacks the teasing swagger of Shaq declaring himself “The Big Aristotle” or Gilbert Arenas calling himself “Hibachi.”
Let’s quickly jump back in history. Ten years ago, we look at the 2002 NBA All-Star rosters and we come up with 6 of 24:
Allen Iverson = The Answer
Vince Carter = Half-Man, Half-Amazing
Kevin Garnett = The Big Ticket
Shaq = The Big Aristotle, Shaq Diesel, whatever he wanted (rare athlete in history where it sounds strange to actually use his full name, rather than a shortened version)
Karl Malone = The Mailman
Gary Payton = The Glove
[Note that I could have technically gone with 8 instead of 6. I did not include Jordan, who hardly had any ‘Air’ to his game in 2002, nor did I include ‘Stevie Franchise’ because it is too close to Steve Francis’ actual name, not to mention what a bold misnomer it looks in hindsight]
If we go back another ten years to the 1992 NBA All-Star rosters, we have 9 out of 24!
Michael “Air” Jordan = this seems antiquated now, but in ’92, we still said it.
Charles Barkley = Sir Charles
Dominique Wilkins = The Human Highlight Film
Clyde Drexler = Clyde the Glide
Karl Malone = The Mailman
Dan Majerle = Thunder Dan
David Robinson = The Admiral
James Worthy = Big Game James
Hakeem Olajuwon = The Dream
Look, I understand that Majerle and Barkley have just words like ‘Thunder’ and ‘Sir’ added to their first name, or ‘Dream’ and ‘Glide’ are just rhymes. But I am not trying to pad my stats, I have listed only nicknames that would likely appear on that player’s Hall-of-Fame plaque. Fair?
We went from 9 nicknames amongst the best players in the league, down to 6, down to zero now. So what do nicknames mean now?
Unless you’re 10, or continue to read Sports Illustrated For Kids, they mean nothing. Yet, we are behaving like having a sticky nickname is part-and-parcel to getting a shoe contract. We did this same thing a year ago where Blake Griffin became a household name and an informal survey was conducted in the media (usually by sportswriter-cum-internet-mogul Bill Simmons) for an appropriate shorthand. Guess what, we never came up with one. Durant, what did we settle on, hmmm, was it Durantula? Nope, just saying it out loud sounds forced and almost undermines his significance in the league. Nicknames, I would argue, only matter for the players where the most interesting thing about their game is their nickname (see Chris ‘Birdman’ Anderson or Glen “Big Baby” Davis). It makes them cute, it makes them sideshows, it gives you an entertaining detail to repeat to your bored girlfriend while attending a game live.
So if that is what we do now–give only B and C-list players lasting nicknames–what are we saying about Jeremy Lin? It makes it seem like he is just a fun little Asian novelty act that we want to pet on the head and put in our pocket at the end of the day. And more importantly, given the number of accepted aliases I outlined in 1992 and then again in 2002, why can we no longer come to a consensus on a nickname?
The short answer (to just about everything) is the internet. This should come as no surprise. There is no consensus on anything because we have spread ourselves too thin as a culture of opinions.
The long answer, if you are ready, is the internet because….. Something Happens in the world, it is scrubbed and rinsed through thousands of media outlets, official and unofficial alike, then hung outside on a clothesline for the social mediasphere to nip and nip until we have all had enough. It’s our news cycle at this point, for better or worse. And while it certainly sounds like I am arguing the ‘worse’ of that spectrum, I would prefer not to, seeing as how, well, Welcome to The Computer Newspaper!
It just seems that, universally, we all are seasoned enough to blame the media as some faceless enemy, to the point where “I blame the media!” will warrant a laugh for its triteness in the same fashion that pigeonholing the Economy for any social ill became a hilarious non sequitur over the past several years. Right now, in thousands of living rooms and bars, people are complaining about how much the media is cramming Jeremy Lin down our collective throat. What we do not always acknowledge, however, is what a non-entity the ‘media’ even is, how it is becoming a shorter and shorter extension of the casual citizen’s internet life. The distinction between media and what was coined as ‘social media’ is hopefully blurry enough now that we can drop the ‘social’ qualifier. For the majority of us that spend our daily lives with close access to an internet connection, there is no need for such a distinction. It is all one interconnected blob, and in most cases, a bacterial one; a headline infects your Facebook or Twitter feed to the point where you can expect a 24-to-48 hour recovery period that spans
1. the event
2. the reaction to the event
3. backlash to the reaction of the event
4. backlash to the fact that the event warranted both (2) and (3)
The timetable on the above decay is always unpredictable. The only modern certainty is that we will participate in Something and grow tired of that Something within the hour.
Which brings us back to Jeremy Lin. He, as the central figure to this, barely matters. The only thing that matters is the bullet points of the Jeremy Lin story, we will (blamelessly) spin it from there and discuss amongst ourselves, give it a new angle. Wait, I can post pictures of myself Tebowing? Okay, deal, this story just spread its wings even higher. Hold up, there is temporarily no cap on how much pun fun I can have with Jeremy Lin’s name? Sweet, it’s perfect, it sure does rhyme with a lot so the possibilities seem unLinited.
See what I did there? I slid the word ‘Lin’ into unlimited and I enjoyed it. And so did you. Because we have decided that we are clever enough to play games like this (cough cough ‘That’s What She Said’) and because Lin’s on-court performance is keeping up its side of the deal, this pastime does not have to die quite yet. It will, probably in one week, and then we’ll leave these jokes behind like bare carcasses, but for now, it is fresh fucking meat.
I’ll stop now. A hyena with glasses on is still a hyena.