March 7, 2012

Linsanity for the Latino Community

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Did you know that Carmelo Anthony is Latino? Neither did I until a few days ago. Actually, if you found out that he is of mixed descent — Puerto-Rican through his father and African-American through his mother — you might say to yourself that he isn’t “really” Latino. It might be because you think that Latinos, who can be any race, are not really black, or that anybody who is even partially of black descent is unequivocally “black.” For instance, President Obama is of mixed heritage, yet he is almost always viewed as unequivocally black. It might also be that because of the sport Anthony plays, the black portion of his heritage unconsciously takes precedence.

As a result of the excitement among Asian-Americans sparked by the rise of Jeremy Lin, I wanted to find a similar source of ethnic pride for myself and mi gente Latina. My search was not in vain as I found Carmelo as well as Trevor Ariza and Charlie Villanueva, both men of Dominican descent. I also found that the Lopez brothers — Brook and Robin — are of Cuban descent. And I might as well name the only other two native-born Latinos currently in the NBA, according to the NBA’s Spanish-language website, “enebea.com.” Udonis Haslem and Renaldo Balkman are both of Puerto-Rican descent.

There are also an additional 20 foreign-born players categorized as Latino or Hispanic, including Spaniards, in the league, according to the website. Here you will notice Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili and Ricky Rubio. Interestingly, it also includes J.J. Barea despite the fact that Puerto-Ricans born on the island are technically native-born Americans. The 27 may not be as lonely as the one and only Asian-American in the league, but it is still a small number compared to the number of black and white Americans playing in the NBA. So why aren’t there more Latinos in the NBA? Is it that, like white men, Latinos can’t jump? Are we not tall enough? (I can certainly attest to that.) The answer is probably fairly complicated, involving numerous factors beyond physical attributes — the most significant of which is, I believe, culture.

The fact that most of the Latinos in the NBA are foreign-born seems to support this theory. Whereas native-born Latinos do not see fellow Latinos like them playing in the NBA, Latinos in other countries (who, by the way, do not generally self-identify as Latinos) — although naturally exposed to the NBA — do not face the same sort of lack of cultural models within their own countries. It explains why the few foreign-born Asians in the league in recent years — Wang Zhizhi, Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian among others — outnumber the one American-born Asian who has played in the league in recent memory.

Not many Americans were even aware that foreigners played basketball too until the past decade when foreign national teams such as Argentina, Spain and Greece started beating the Americans in the Olympics and other international basketball competitions. Foreign leagues have gotten so good that many NBA stars considered playing in Europe or China when the NBA lockout threatened to foreclose on the season. The success of national teams from other countries, including countries where we would consider the players Latino or Hispanic such as Spain and Argentina, against American teams often replete with black players shatters the conceptions that we tend to have about who is good at basketball. After the “Dream Team” of 1992 and Michael Jordan, people around the world wanted to be like Mike and the Americans, and they have made great strides in realizing this.

The truth is that basketball is a very democratic sport. Like soccer, it does not require much equipment. It is why so many black kids in poor inner-cities play basketball and not other sports. Many Latinos come from similarly poor backgrounds and play basketball, but I believe the lack of Latino cultural models in the NBA or even collegiate level prevent them from looking at the sport as anything more than recreation. Furthermore, Latino kids may not necessarily focus their skills on basketball like black kids because there is also the allure of soccer — that other democratic sport which is ever-popular among Latinos. It is an established sport among many Latinos in a similar fashion that basketball is for blacks.

The consequence of these tendencies is to harden stereotypes about who is good at what sport, and this consequently influences the perceptions of scouts. Basketball scouts looking for the next Michael Jordan might underestimate the abilities of non-black players. It is part of the reason why people are so surprised by Jeremy Lin’s success. According to my basketball savvy roommate, it also explains why a kid playing on the basketball team at my old high school is not getting as much attention for his game as perhaps he should be getting. He averaged over 30 points per game this season and had 49 and 50 point games in the playoffs. He also happens to be a Mexican immigrant which is what the media attention seems to focus on.

From my experience, it also seems that there is not an expectation among Latino families that their kids could or even should grow up to be professional athletes. Of course, I speak from my experiences within a Mexican family and community. Latinos are not a monolithic group. Whereas Mexican families may not see any sport — except maybe soccer — as a viable career option, perhaps baseball is seen differently among Dominican and Puerto-Rican families. And as the ethnic origins of Latino NBA players seem to indicate, perhaps playing basketball is something that Dominicans and Puerto-Ricans might aspire to more than Mexicans.

Ultimately, these expectations would derive from the presence or lack of cultural models. Perhaps the current trend of more Latinos — although mostly foreigner-born — in the NBA points the way to a future where we might see a more significant presence of native-born Latinos playing professionally. Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili and Ricky Rubio inspire heightened coverage of the NBA on Spanish-language television, which adds greatly to their perception as models.

So like the Asian community, the Latino community can indeed find a source of pride in the league — in fact, it can find many of them. But this is precisely the reason that the Latino community will probably never witness its own version of Linsanity. The fact that there are already successful Latinos in the league eliminates the possibility that some phenomenal Latino basketball player would burst onto the scene and capture as much attention as Lin has. One is just a special kind of number.

Original Author: Brian Bencomo

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