By Johnny Walker
What I find interesting about Floyd Mayweather Jr’s remark about the New York Knicks’ rookie sensation Jeremy Lin (“Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.”) is how it echoes similar sentiments we’ve heard over the years from African-American basketball stars when someone from a minority (and in the NBA, whites and Asians qualify) race succeeds.
During the playoffs in 1987, star point guard Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons ripped Boston Celtics’ superstar Larry Bird, saying that Bird ““would be just another good guy” if he were black. The remark was at the time supported by his teammate Dennis Rodman, who said Bird was “overrated because he is white.” Rodman later recanted and admitted the remark was just made out of resentment. A white guy wasn’t supposed to be as good at basketball as Larry Bird—who, like many of his African-American peers came from a very poor background—obviously was.
Years later, this sentiment would rear its ugly head once again when insinuations were made by various black NBA players that Canadian star point guard Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns only won the league’s MVP award for 2004-5 because of his skin color. The totally deserving award recipient Nash was actually the first white NBA MVP since the aforementioned Larry Bird, twenty years earlier. Nash would win the award again the following year, and a miffed Shaquille O’Neal would call both of Nash’s wins “tainted” due to what he felt was favoritism showed to Nash because of his race.
So Floyd Mayweather’s comments about Jeremy Lin are really nothing new (except that they are coming from a black boxer this time). The NBA is a place where African-Americans form the majority, and there seems to be a feeling among some of the black players and observers of the game that the league and the sports media favors minorities such as Nash and Lin over the game’s black superstars.
But in actuality, the media fascination with players like Nash and Lin stem from (1) their great skills and (2) their minority status. In other words, it’s a novelty to watch a white guy or an Asian guy who is great at basketball. Just like it’s a novelty to see a black player who excels in the very white National Hockey League. In both cases, the minority player is the great exception to the rule. So naturally, people are interested in that player’s story: how he came to excel in a sport where he is in such a distinct minority. It’s not a case of racial preference, but rather of natural human curiosity.
And really: Michael Jordan didn’t get enough praise and publicity? Hell, LeBron James had an entire ESPN special devoted to a mere decision he was making on where to sign a contract. To argue that the media and/or the league is somehow ignoring or downplaying the NBA’s black stars is really pretty silly. But such is the sensitivity surrounding the issue of race in America, an issue that, sadly, is never too far from the surface, and always ready to explode.
And Floyd Mayweather Jr. is an expert bomb-thrower.