Thursday, January 8, 2009

Interpreter of Travellings

That post title is a riff on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book of short stories about people of South Asian background. Therein lies the stuff of today’s rumination.

I was shocked to see that Harvard College’s men’s varsity basketball team succeeded yesterday in knocking off Boston College, which only last week defeated North Carolina, the top-ranked team in the country. That must make Harvard the best team going, no? [You may laugh, but if we increased the sample size enough — say, we had the teams play seven-game series against each other — then we would give at least some credence to a transitive-property-based argument, no? Isn’t that the whole idea of an elimination tournament? Take the 2008 NBA Finals: The Celtics proved that they are better than the Lakers. The Lakers proved that they are better than the Spurs (who proved they are better than Phoenix and better than the Hornets, who proved that they are better than Dallas) and better than the Jazz (who proved they are better than the Rockets) and better than Denver. By a similar inductive argument, the Celtics proved themselves better than all the East teams. Ergo, the Celtics are the best team in the league.]

Anyway, I was struck that Harvard’s star is a young man named Jeremy Lin, who grew up in Palo Alto, California. Lin poured in 27 points against BC. Besides his cat-like quickness against slower defenders, Lin’s most distinctive feature seems to be that he is of Chinese descent. I cannot think of another Asian-American basketball player who has achieved national notoriety at either the college or professional level.

It is silly to say that the idea of Asians playing ball is unheard of. Thousands or possibly millions of young people play basketball in China, and the Chinese league is thriving. Five players from China have made NBA rosters: Wang Zhizhi, Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian, Mengke Bateer, and Sun Xue.

Perhaps there is something distressingly essentialist in my discussing Asians’ playing ball and Asian-Americans’ playing ball in the same paragraph. Yet, as I discussed in an earlier post, basketball success is, probably more than other sports, to a great extent a matter of genetics. And surely people here of Asian descent share relevant phenotypes with their brothers in the homeland.

Which sub-population is the tallest in Asia? To my mind, this question is easy: Punjabis. The biggest Asian movie villain I can think of is the 7’1” Dalip Singh, who was recently featured as a monster with a soft side in the Steve Carell movie “Get Smart”, and in the meantime wrestles for Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment. Try as I might, I can’t find any credible internet sources comparing the relative heights of various ethnic groups within East Asia and the Indian subcontinent, but if you know a whole lotta browns and yellows (sorry), it’s hard not to notice the uniform tallness of Punjabi men. Even Punjabi women are plenty big. It’s no wonder that Sikhism emphasizes the dual role of devotees as saints and soldiers, fighting for justice. Hard to imagine Gujaratis carrying a large dagger around: they might just try to sell it.

It’s not unheard of for Asian Americans to succeed at sports here. Many Samoans have excelled in both football and pro wrestling (The Rock, aka Dwayne Johnson, being exemplary of both those categories). High school tennis tournaments everywhere are filled with young Indian and Chinese kids whose parents have pushed them to develop killer forehands. But in basketball, which, at least in my view, requires the greatest athleticism of any major American team sport, Asian Americans are hard to find. This recent San Francisco Chronicle article provides an excellent review of the structural and cultural issues at play for young people of immigrant backgrounds. The article reports that only 19 of almost 5000 boys playing varsity Division I basketball in 2006-07 were Asian.

Given the altitudinally apt population, why don't more Punjabis succeed in basketball? Anecdotally, I know of at least a few six-foot-tall individuals of Punjabi background who like to ball in pickup games on the playground. It may be that heretofore, young people of Indian background in North America have all been immigrants or children thereof, and they were so busy being hectored by their parents to practice piano or study MCAT that they had little time for ball. (I lack the knowledge or space to effectively explore here the sociological literature on educational attitudes and achievement in immigrant generations, but a 2007 study by professors from Princeton and U-Penn found that among black students at Ivy League colleges, recent immigrants, i.e. those mostly from Africa and the Caribbean, made up 41 percent.)

I would not be surprised if we begin to see some tall Amardeeps and Sachpreets beginning to tackle the basketball world in coming years. But as for Jeremy Lin, I would predict that either Teach For America or law school awaits him. Dude is way too skinny!

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