Respect the Dragon

by Casey Barrett

Splash Time with Jeremy Lin…

Make a splash, they say. Stir it up. Welcome some new folks into the pool, open it up for all. Damn right, the more the better.

That goes for every sport, right? Even when our notion of “diversity” is turned on its head, or when our definition of diverse is far too narrow…

Over the last week and a half, the NBA has bore witness (Lebron who?) to one of the greatest sports story ever. Yes, ever. The Arrival of Jeremy Lin has already reached folklore status. Did this kid sell his soul at the crossroads, Robert Johnson-style, for the devil’s gift of basketball genius? Is Jeremy Lin about to usher in a new era of Moneyball-thinking in the NBA, proving the blindness of so many men paid so many dollars to assess basketball talent?

Make it a tale of dark mystery at the crossroads or a prime example of paradigm shifting sports economy. Or make it a Disney movie. Take your pick. Jeremy Lin’s already epic story fits every template of storytelling. Here’s what else it does:

It reveals the too-often forgotten minority in our earnest discussions about diversity in sport. The Asian-American community.

According to the latest demographic figures from the 2010 U.S. census, the African-American community makes up 12.2% (37 million) of the U.S. population. The Latino community makes up 16.3% (50 million). And what about Asian-Americans? 4.7% , 14 million.

Now, I can tell you that African-Americans are 2.6 times more likely to drown than white Americans. I can also tell you that the drowning statistics for Latinos are almost as grim. I can tell you these things because programs like USA Swimming’s Make a Splash campaign have done a fantastic job about getting this message out. However, never once, not a single time, have I ever heard a thing about the Asian-American community in this campaign, or any other like it. Why is that?

We all know that swimming has been an embarrassingly almost-all white sport for far too long. Gratefully, great strides are being taken to change that. The African-American and Latino communities deserve every bit of attention and focus they are receiving in this regard. But how many Asians do you see on the blocks at U.S. Olympic Trials? Fair to say this is a group equally underrepresented. Yet where is the outreach to them? Hell, where is even an ounce of acknowledgement?

Now, full disclosure: I am married to an Asian-American woman. My daughter will grow up identifying herself with two ethnic identities. This thrills me to no end, the opportunity to embrace and understand two cultures… So, this is a subject, quite literally, close to home. Scratch that, not close, it’s a subject that is home.

So, where are her examples?

Actually, there’s a wonderful one right in our midst. Not that anything’s being said about it. The greatest sprinter in America today happens to be Asian-American. That is, every bit as much as he is a Caucasian American. His name’s Nathan Adrian. You might of heard of him. His mom is Chinese, born and raised in Hong Kong.

I’m not trying to heap any unfair responsibility on Mr. Adrian. This can be uncomfortable terrain, being of mixed race and suddenly facing questions about barrier breaking for a culture that is, by definition, only half your own. Nathan’s training partner, and soon-to-be teammate on Team USA, Anthony Ervin, understands this better than most. Back in 2000, when he was the 19-year-old sprint phenom stroking to gold in Sydney, Ervin found himself being asked about his African-American identity. Being of mixed race himself, he was caught unfair and unawares. What are you supposed to say?

Unfortunately, that’s the way it goes with these delicate subjects. Celebrate and simplify. It’s well meaning, we all get that. But these aren’t exactly sound-byte reduced issues.

I’m not interested in hearing about anyone assuming the mantle for an entire race and competing as the shining example of a certain minority. No more than I’m interested in Michael Phelps representing all of the good folks of Baltimore. Where you’re from should be shared and celebrated, sure. But sports fans are really just interested in celebrating one thing – winning.

Which is why, like the rest of New York City, I am currently obsessed with Jeremy Lin. Because the kid is sick. I watched him out-Kobe Kobe at the Garden last Friday night. He’s been the best basketball player on earth for the last 10 days. I’ll be looking forward to jaw-dropping times from Nathan Adrian this summer for the same reason. Because watching athletes kick ass and do something transcendent is why I watch sports.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that these guys share some proud ethnic heritage with my wife and daughter…

In this Year of the Dragon, it’s about time they got some respect.