The proverbial road less traveled is on display this week for all the world to see. HBO's intimate documentary, Namath, and the NBA's reality show, Jeremy Lin, spin fascinating narratives of athletes who couldn't be more different . . . or similar.
The larger-than-life arc of the Beaver Falls/Broadway Joe tale is familiar to all and the stuff of pulp fiction: small town boy from a troubled home doesn't make the academic grade, finds salvation in sports, thumbs his nose at convention, battles debilitating injuries and pain, wins the big game, then squanders his talent and meets his demise in a sad, boozy haze.
The spontaneous combustion that is Jeremy Lin, on the other hand, is playing out in real time with an uncertain ending: good-boy son of Taiwanese immigrants grows up Ivy-League-smart in an affluent town, defies racial stereotypes by taking up basketball, plays like a star but can't get no respect, never quits trying, then explodes onto the scene as a take-it-to-the hoop savior of the woebegone New York Knicks. He has single-handedly, and forever more, redefined "driving while Asian."
The world is filled with wannabe iconoclasts who confuse "different" with making a difference. They come and they go, like New Coke and disco, blips on the cultural radar. The true iconoclasts set off cultural earthquakes--and it can't be done unless you got game.
Joe Namath's style, verve, brinksmanship, and ability to deliver the goods when it counted were seismic qualities that brought down many of the NFL's antiquated structures . . . and then catalyzed the league's growth. The magnitude of Jeremy Lin's jolt is smaller, of course, and still being calibrated. But it's shaken a locked door off its hinges.
Sport has a way of alchemizing "can't" into "can" with a white-hot immediacy that cools over time and then morphs into uplifting legacy. Is it magic? Heck, yeah. Common? Well, no. And that's why we come back for more. Right, Joe?