Sunday, February 12, 2012

Of Jeremy and John

The two big sports stories of the past week have both come out of New York City.  One is the Giants' victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, which is not relevant to this article.  The other has been the come-from-out-of-nowhere rise of Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin.  Last Sunday, as the garbage was being cleaned out of the stands of Lucas Oil Stadum, nobody outside of New York but the most diehard basketball junkies had heard of Lin--and even among Knick fans, he was generally regarded with the apathy that team benchwarmers typically receive.  According to reports out of New York, he was this close to being cut by the Knicks when he was asked to start in a pinch.  The rest, as Paul Harvey used to say, is history.

Or may become history, if Lin keeps up the pace.  A week into his new career as a starter, it's entirely possible that this is all a flash in the pan--a statistical fluke which will be followed by a regression to the mean.  It's possible that this is a case of fresh legs outplaying tired ones, in the compressed lockout-season schedule.  It's possible that this is a case of a largely-unscouted player beating defenses not yet coached on how to stop him.  Or, Lin may be the real deal--either way, we'll know more in a few weeks, when we have a larger body of work to examine.  Either way, Lin has garnered himself a lot of attention in the NBA the past week.

On the assumption that Lin is the real deal, many NBA observers are asking the obvious question:   How did this happen?  How did a supremely skilled player slip below the radar of the league's talent evaluation process, and get cut by several NBA teams before exploding onto the scene?  Lin was a star in high school (in Palo Alto, CA), but wasn't offered a scholarship by any Division I schools, and went to play at Harvard (which doesn't offer scholarships to athletes).  He had a successful career at Harvard, but went undrafted in the NBA.  He played in Summer League for the Mavericks, spent his rookie season on the bench for his hometown Warriors (where he was a crowd favorite, in a metropolis with a large Asian population, but did not get significant playing time).  Before the start of this season, he was cut by the Warriors, played in training camp for the Houston Rockets (but didn't make that team), and was picked up by the Knicks, doing a stint in the NBDL before getting his big break.

Many are focusing on Lin's Chinese ancestry as a reason for his talents being overlooked.  He's the first Chinese-American to make an NBA roster.  Several overseas Chinese players have made NBA teams, but all of the Chinese imports who have done so (Yao Ming, Wang Zhizhi, Mengke Bateer, and Yi Jianlian) have been big men, and only Yao has ever been any good.  It doesn't stretch the bounds of credibility to suggest that NBA scouts, executives, and coaches are skeptical of Asian players; at a minimum, they tend to be a conservative lot who are loathe to color outside the lines.  On the other hand, the Mavericks and Rockets (in particular) have among the most data-driven front offices in the league; both teams have had great success with foreign-born superstars (Yao, Dirk Nowitzki, and Hakeem Olajuwon), and both are generally regarded as top-notch operations--and yet both dropped the ball on Lin.  (The Knicks, ironically, are often regarded as one of the worst front offices in the league). 

How did this happen?

Of course, to ask that question with such incredulity is to pretend that this has never happened before in the NBA.  It has, of course, and I would to focus on a similar story, of a player who rose from obscurity to stardom.  It happened twenty years ago, in the same Madison Square Garden where Lin is now playing.

The player's name is well known to NBA fans:  John Levell Starks.

John Starks was a basketball player from Oklahoma.  Like Lin, he had a long road to NBA stardom, and was generally overlooked both in college and by NBA teams.  He played for several different collegiate teams, due in part to some legal difficulties, graduating from Oklahoma State.  He famously worked as a bagboy at Safeway during that time.  He went unselected in the 1988 NBA Draft, a slightly greater humiliation than that suffered by Lin in 2010 as the draft that year had three rounds instead of two.  He bounced around the league for a couple years until being picked up the Knicks--and only avoided being cut because he had been injured in practice (while trying to dunk on Patrick Ewing).  But like Lin, Starks soon rose from the end of the bench to the starting lineup--and was a fixture and a fan favorite on the Knicks for most of the 1990s.  His career highlight was posterizing Michael Jordan in the 1993 playoffs (the Knicks would lose the series to the Bulls, the eventual champion); his career lowlight occurred the following season when he went 2/18 in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, which the Knicks lost to Houston.

The analogy between Starks and Lin isn't exact, of course.  Starks' college career was dogged by legal trouble, and during his NBA career he was widely regarded as a hothead, with good reason.  (In some ways, he was his generation's Rasheed Wallace).  Lin has never had any issues with the law.  On the other hand, Starks' ethnicity (primarily African-American, with some Native American ancestry as well) didn't work against him, whereas Lin is blazing a new trail for Asian ballplayers.  

John Starks, however, is just but one example.

There have been many other players who also have similar career paths--lightly regarded in lower levels of basketball, undrafted (or drafted late) in the NBA, followed by stardom.  Sports Illustrated has a photo montage full of examples of undrafted players who became starters or stars, and to that list you can a good number of late draft picks such as Manu Ginobili.  Conversely, the first round of the NBA draft is chock full of busts.  While NBA scouting and talent analysis has gotten more professional than the days of the cigar-chomping GM making draft decisions based on the sports page, it's still a major crapshoot, which many things that can go wrong (or right):  Players who are a bad fit for teams.  Players who excel against lousy competition.  Players whose skills are suppressed (or featured) within a given coach's system.  Injuries.  Players who blossom late.  NBA coaches and executives who don't trust rookies.  And of course, players who come from backgrounds or situations that seldom, if ever, produce NBA-level talent.

The surprising thing about the Jeremy Lin story is not that it's happening.

The surprising thing is that it doesn't happen more often.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Did the 9th Circuit just legalize same-sex marriage--in Oregon?

Today, the 9th Circuit issued its decision in Perry v. Schwarzenegger (also known as Perry v. Brown, as Ahnold is no longer the governator), overturning California's Proposition 8, clearing the way for same-sex marriage to once again be legal in the state.  The ruling was "on the merits", as opposed to based on side issues such as the Prop 8 proponents standing to appear in court (this was granted).  However, the ruling was narrowly tailored to the facts in California--where a prior state court ruling legalized SSM, and was subsequently overturned by Prop 8, a voter-approved initiative amending the state Constitution.  The ruling, citing the SCOTUS case Romer v. Evans as precedent, essentially holding that the revoking of privileges of a subset of the citizenry for reasons derived only from animus, rather than compelling state interest, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.  In Romer, the voters of Colorado passed an initiative invalidating gay-friendly civil rights legislation passed by several Colorado cities; and the Court said that this could not be done.  The court in Romer did not rule that gays and lesbians had an inherent right, under either Colorado or US law, to not be subject to private discrimination in employment; merely that this right, once granted, could not be taken away.  Likewise with SSM--the Court did not grant the right to same sex marriage generally; it only stated that once it had been granted under California law, it could not be subsequently revoked. 

So what does this have to do with Oregon?  Two things:
  • Oregon is within the 9th Circuit and subject to its precedents and authority
  • Oregon residents--specifically those in Multnomah County--briefly enjoyed the rights to same sex marriage (or they did at least under one interpretation of the law).
Several years back, when same sex marriage started becoming a major political issue, and Massachusetts became the first state to permit it, officials in Multnomah and Benton County decided to start issuing same-sex marriage licenses, as Oregon law, at that point, was somewhat ambiguous on the subject.  (It described marriage as involving "men" and "women", but did not specifically say that individual marriages had to be between one man and one woman).  Several such licenses were issued, and an anti-SSM group, the Defense of Marriage Coalition, sued claiming that the county officials in question had exceeded their authority.  The state attorney general's office issued an opinion that Oregon law at the time did prevent same-sex marriage, but that this interpretation of the law might be in violation of the state Consitution.

The suit was stayed pending the outcome of Ballot Measure 36, a 2004 initiative to ban same-sex marriage by explicit language in the Oregon Constitution.  Measure 36 passed 57%-43%, and the marriage licenses granted by the counties during the brief period they were available, were voided.  (This is a difference from California, where there are approximately 18,000 couples with valid same-sex marriages, granted between the legalization of SSM and the passage of Prop 8; Prop 8 was held to not be retroactive).

So, the obvious thing to ask:  Did Measure 36 take away a right previously enjoyed by Oregonians based on an essentially suspect classification, with no compelling interest?  Or is it essentially a codification of existing practice that had insufficient effect to be caught within the ambit of Rover v. Evans or today's decision in Perry?  Were the handful of couples who were granted marriage licenses, only to see them voided by Measure 36, similarly injured--or did officials in the two counties exceed their lawful authority, hence no valid marriages ever existing in the first place?  There was an Oregon court case, Li & Kennedy v. Oregon, in which a couple who were granted a license in Multnomah County sued to keep it, stating (in particular) that Measure 36 was not designed to be retroactive.  The Oregon Supreme court ruled that Multnomah County authorities had indeed exceeded their authority (despite arguments on the constitutionality of the SSM ban prior to Measure 36), and that the marriage licenses granted were null and void; as such, it did not matter whether 36 or not was retroactive.  The decision didn't go any further than that; as the passage Measure 36 had foreclosed any arguments under the Oregon Constitution that a SSM ban was invalid.

But the question remains:  Even though no lawful same-sex marriages were effectively performed--those which had been performed were held to be unlawful under pre-36 law--did Measure 36 remove rights based on suspect classification?  Or not?  There are quite a few other states in the US (though none in the 9th Circuit) that have explicitly banned same-sex marriage only in response to the recent controversy; prior to that the "ban" against such was only a remnant of custom and/or common law.  (A few other states have had explicit laws on the books banning the practice for a long time).  Do such bans fall under the Romer standard, or does something concrete have to be granted first, and then taken away, before Romer applies?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Presdiential Candidate's Song

Scholars at Oxford have recently discovered, within the archives, the libretto to a previously-unknown Gilbert and Sullivan opera, The Pirates of Finance.  One aria is of particular note, as by utterly strange coincidence, it resembles recent events in United States presidential politics.  Given this relevance to current events, the lyrics to this tune are reproduced in full below.

Near the end of the first act, a group of journalists, in search of cocktail parties at which to booze and schmooze, is accosted by the former Governor-General of one of the lost American colonies.  The aria begins thusly:

I am the very model of a Presidential Candidate
I've customized positions tailor-made for each and every state
From Boston to Los Angeles, and Miami to Anchorage
There's no stopping my pandering, although it sometimes nukes the fridge
In Texas I'm a teabagger, in Cleveland I'm a center-ist
All around the country there's no baby that I have not kissed
In lib'rul Massachussets, I'm the father of Obamacare
But please don't tell the GOP, for that they do not really care.

But please don't tell the GOP, for that they do not really care
But please don't tell the GOP, for that they do not really care.
But please don't tell the GOP, for that they do not really care!

Although my policy positions seem to be expedient
I promise, Mr. Limbaugh, to the right I'll be obedient!
At least until the nomination, then I will "self-moderate"
I am the very model of a Presidential Candidate!

At least until the nomination, then he will "self-moderate"
He is the very model of a Presidential Candidate!

I am the very model of a Presidential Candidate
I'm a friend of Wall Street, proud to pay the carried interest rate
I'm schooled in foreign policy, to many lands I'm proud to go
Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, Switzerland, and Monaco
My father was the boss man at an auto manufacturer
Instead I think Detroit it ought to be put out to pasture-ure.
I worked as a consultant, to improve corporate efficiencies....
(ponders briefly) Hmm, I know!
By firing all the workers and then closing all the factories!

By firing all the workers and then closing all the factories!
By firing all the workers and then closing all the factories!
By firing all the workers and then closing all the factories!

Though being a corporate raider is the lowlight of my long career
Don't call me a "pirate", I would rather be called "privateer"
'Sides, envy at my wealth is rather rude and inconsiderate
I am the very model of a Presidential Candidate

(Envy at his wealth is rather rude and inconsiderate
He is the very model of a Presidential Candidate)

I am the very model of a Presidential Candidate
I've studied all the scandals big, from Teapot Dome to Watergate
I've read the memoirs of great men, from Coolidge up to Double-U
I've got a team of focus groups, who guide me in just what to do!
I'm manicured and groomed and styled, in all ways quite presentable
But pollsters give me news that my election's quite preventable
Can someone please inform me what's the beef with the electorate?
Maybe more commercials cause the voters just don't know me yet?

Maybe more commercials 'cause the voter just don't know him yet
Maybe more commercials 'cause the voter just don't know him yet
Maybe more commercials 'cause the voter just don't know him yet

Although I seem quite plastic and my speeches are a sedative
I still don't understand why my approval rating's negative
My super-PACs are loaded, and I'm ready to recalibrate
I am the very model of a Presidential Candidate
His super-PACs are loaded, and he's ready to recalibrate
He is the very model of a Presidential Candidate

OK, so this isn't the first G&S parody on this subject (see this, for instance).  But Mittens is such a perfect target.