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Jeremy Lin, 'The Prodigal Son': On Why We Love Homecomings

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The hoopla over Jeremy Lin's return tells us what we fans love about "homecoming" stories. Basketball "is a business," but our fandom isn't.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the themes of redemption, restoration, and undying love of God represented through family have been used widely to describe similar "returns" of athletes who left teams on not the greatest of terms only to return for a second chance. That is, the "Prodigal Son" in the biblical story has reached a low point in his life apart from his family, becoming so destitute that he takes on odd and demeaning jobs. His return to his family and father is less a move of desperation (and broke-ness) but a realization of the sins he has committed against his father, which he hopes to set right. It's a generic narrative with a happy ending of redemption, in which the son has become accepted again and made whole through the forgiveness of his father.

We easily find these themes of return, resolution and restoration when we talk about sports. It's this particular parable that offers us the unique lens to think about the competing notions of "home" that fans and, possibly, owners create about the "hometown hero." That is, as much as we know that professional sports are a "business," we fans still want to feel something more about our connection to a place through teams, players and other fans knowing full well that we give more to a team (financially) than they might ever give to us (emotionally). 

Jeremy Lin's "return" to the Bay Area, the place where he starred in high school and began his "David vs. Goliath" journey at every level of competitive basketball, has shown us what fans love about sports and, more deeply, their love for the places they call "home." Ironically, Lin's story doesn't necessarily have the same drama as most interpretations of the "Prodigal Son" narrative. In fact, Lin has done nothing "wrong" which he should demand support from his community. If anything, his "hometown" spurned him on various occasions as Cal and Stanford blew him off straight out of high school and then the Warriors during the draft. But the theme of return and the investment by fans in Lin's legend reveals more about the desire of fans for real feelings of attachment to place that strongly counter the money-making bottom line of corporations.

The rhetoric circulated online in various articles, blog posts, and forums about Lin's joining the Golden State Warriorsmconsisted of either describing the free-ageny pickup as, 1) Purely motivated by money, a temporary PR/business move by the Warriors corporation to attract Asian audiences and Asian money or, 2) A wonderful story about Lin's struggles to overcome obstacles around Asian stereotypes in professional sports to become a legend in a region not necessarily known for it's basketball talent. But what I want to argue is that these two arguments aren't necessarily diametrically opposed to one another. 

The arguments by some fans suggesting that Lin was a seeming waste of a roster spot to "appease" Asians for the Warriors financial gain also tells us that Warrior fans are tired of cheap gimmicks. And while generating profits is an undeniable truth of professional sports, these arguments against Lin, I would say, aren't necessarily about Lin himself as much as it might be about fans wanting something more, something to be proud of, which cannot be contained by demands and objectives of capitalist-driven owners looking to make some quick bucks. In fact, you could argue that fandom possibly exists in opposition to the capitalist dictates of owners if the shenanigans of the Oklahoma City Thunder are any indication.

This isn't meant to be a Marxist analysis of fandom (sorry if it sounds like one). But it seems that on the flip side of things, the local -- if not national -- support of Lin and his story is another explanation of how the parable of the Prodigal Son explains our desires to be connected to place and neighbors through legendary sports stories.

The theme of "return" gives us Warriors fans (or fans of Bay Area sports) something to hope for and something to bind us together. As many of our professional local sports teams (aside from the San Jose Sharks) have struggled to put together winning and playoff-bound seasons for quite some time, Lin's "return" is in a way less about him as much as it is about us fans. That is, if San Jose Mercury News Warriors blogger Adam Lauridsen claims that basketball is "the great equalizer," we could extend that argument that Lin has brought many Bay Area fans together across various backgrounds, united under one coliseum dome of Oracle Arena. To some extent, he embodies so many fans' dreams whether representing Asian American national achievements, a symbol of Bay Area pride, or both! And that in and of itself is pretty sweet. 

The prodigal son's return is about the restoration of the individual but could be extended to say it's the re-creation of "family" in whatever way you want to interpret that. Perhaps it's not the redemption of Jeremy Lin as the individual, but more so about the restoration of a damaged Warriors organization and damaged fans that have been witness to endless suckage. 

In another case, the LeBron James' "Decision" similarly illustrates the perfectness of this parable in explaining why fans love a good homecoming. I refuse to believe that Dan Gilbert's anger with Lebron is based around questions of hometown loyalty given that Gilbert is the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and stands to lose a ton of money with Lebron's escape to Miami. To me, Gilbert merely used the rhetoric of loyalty to garner support from Cleveland fans. 

But Cleveland sports fans and small business owners have much more invested as far as the welfare of the city and their identities as residents of a forgotten era and place of national significance industrially. Oft-repeated stories of the sadness of Cleveland professional sports failures coupled with the national forgetting of the Midwest when it comes to economic development (epitomized by its moniker as the ‘rust belt') has made that region a place in need of something to give people pride and hope for a future. (Similar stories could be said of Oakland.) 

And LeBron James did just that. 

Granted, businesses in and around the area and even farmers seemed more invested in Lebron's financial capabilities for the city and state. But fans truly seemed to feel excited about what LeBron meant to a place seemingly forgotten by the rest of the country. A place that once produced all kinds of commodities and was and is still considered the "heart of America."

LeBron as the "Prodigal Son" was as much about the city's redemption and how he was to restore Cleveland to glory (in addition to fattening the wallets of plenty of business people). 

The theme of return and home that we see so much in professional sports helps us fans cope with the reality of where we live. In fact, it helps define who we are and how we think about community in the face of the seemingly destructive effects of capitalism (former Warriors owner Chris Cohan is a perfect example of this). We are invested in these narratives of the return of the hometown hero because they matter to us more so than the pockets of owners. They give us something "real" to think about and hold on to even when we know fully well that we're getting ripped off buying a $6 scoop of ice cream or a $10 beer at a game. 

In reading about Jeremy Lin these last few weeks and the responses to his "return," his "homecoming" tells us a lot about what sports gives to us fans than how many jerseys the organization plans to sell.