Sunday, February 12, 2012

Crossing Borders in the Garden

As my seniors begin to count the days to graduation, I try and keep them engaged in high school English by giving them assignments they’ve never had before. One such assignment involves a film-analysis unit. Their job is to study a movie as closely as they would a book, then write an essay on the film. This year, I chose John Sayles’ Lone Star, the 1996 indie classic. As they watched the film, I asked my students to write an essay analyzing the borders that are crossed, both literally and figuratively, in this story.

As Chris Cooper’s Sheriff Sam Deeds seeks to solve a long-ago Texas murder mystery, Sayles opens up his screenplay and camera to take on more than just a classic Western plot – he turns his movie into an exploration of what it means to be an American. Issues of race, immigration, assimilation, ethics, historical accuracy, family strife and the burdens of our past all come together in this movie. There are, to say the least, a lot of borders to cross. As my students watched the film, it was fascinating to see which borders they were willing to grapple with in their analysis, and which ones they chose to avoid.

Border-crossing is a theme we’ll be sticking with for a while this semester, as we’ll follow up Lone Star with Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner. As we explore this film and book, we might find ourselves more aware of other borders being crossed in the world around us.

If we follow basketball, we might have noticed one such crossing at Madison Square Garden Friday night. The World’s Most Famous Arena has been noticeably quiet during basketball seasons for more than a decade now. But this year was supposed to be different, as the New York Knicks sought to end their years of misery by suiting up two perennial All-Stars. Yet, despite the presence of stars Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks were off to a dismal start as February began. Then, a week ago, Anthony was lost to injury and Stoudemire had to leave the team due to the death of his brother. That left New York in even worse shape, and set up for a lost season.

So, with nothing to lose, the Knicks handed the ball to an undrafted, second-year point guard out of Harvard. A California-born kid of Tawainese and Chinese descent. A young man who could have walked the streets of New York at any time and been recognized by no one. Jeremy Lin is his name, and his NBA career includes two brief stints with teams that let him go.

Sometimes, those borders get crossed when you’re least expecting it. The undrafted point guard has scored 20 or more points in five straight games – all them won by the Knicks. After Friday’s 38-point outburst against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, Jeremy Lin is the toast of New York sports. The Garden is rocking. The Knicks can’t keep Lin’s jersey in stock. Linderella, some are calling it. Linsanity, others say.

Less than a week after the Giants claimed their fourth Super Bowl title, all eyes are on the Knicks. Less than a week before Yankees pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, all eyes are on the Knicks. This is the way it’s supposed to be in New York in February. But it hasn’t been that way since the Patrick Ewing Era ended, and that’s a long time ago. Now, as a skinny, slick-moving guard slices through opponents’ defenses, there is hope again for the Knicks.

And as many hibernating Knicks fans cross this sports border into basketball fandom again, we find ourselves dribbling across other lines as well. As we watch a basketball player who is neither white nor African-American guide the Knicks to victory, we smile at the knowledge that anything can happen in sports, and our assumptions and expectations can be proven wrong as quickly and as emphatically as a 360-degree spin move.

There are a lot of people out there who love basketball and play it really well, and Jeremy Lin is one of them. He is by no means New York’s lone star – in fact, his style of play encourages teamwork much more than ball-hogging. But as Lin and the Knicks find themselves playing their best basketball of the year, and as an arena full of New Yorkers of all races and ethnicities shout this young man’s name, it is a moment worth noticing in sports.

Sure, it’s just a hardwood floor with a bunch of sweating athletes on it. But at its best, sports is a place where borders get crossed left and right – so much that it’s hard to see the dividing line at all. So embrace the Linsanity, New York. Embrace it fully.