I didn’t want to do this. The last thing you want as a minority sportswriter is to be known as the guy who only writes about your specific brand of minority athlete. Short track speed skaters and midfielders for Manchester United have coasted right by me without garnering so much as a Facebook share. But back in January of 2010, I did find myself writing about Jeremy Lin, then a senior at Harvard.
What I was trying to describe was the very strange, specific, and rare pride one feels when watching one of their own succeed in a forbidden field. Basketball, more than any other professional sport, is an exhibition of the human body and therefore lends itself to heavy racial codification. The experience of seeing an Asian American body within that arena chased away all the standard emasculating stereotypes, at least for a while. Yes, Yao and his cohort of gawky, jump-shooting countrymen had already played in the NBA. But they didn’t count. For this particular revenge fantasy, our hero needed to be able to understand every single racist thing said to him on the court and respond by dropping 30.
All that is still relevant, but the dimensions of Linsanity 2012 have expanded. It’s not only about Asian Americans, Jesus, or postmodern think pieces about identity. (GLORY HALLELUJAH!) Yes, he will be claimed by all sorts of groups and converted into every imaginable symbol. But because Linsanity happened in New York, a city that collectively rolls its eyes at every overwrought racial or faith-based metaphor, his remarkable ascent has been processed through New York’s peculiar, impassioned take on basketball.
And because I couldn’t really ignore it much longer, I took the red-eye to New York to go see Linsanity for myself.
At shootaround about an hour before tip-off on Friday, Jeremy Lin worked on his 18-foot jumper. A small crowd of media people stood on the baseline to watch him work. The legend of Jeremy Lin says that his father, an engineer who had picked up the love of basketball in Taiwan, taught his three sons how to emulate Larry Bird’s shooting motion. But if that’s true, the lesson didn’t quite take. When Lin shoots, the ball hitches at his shoulder and he kind of slumps over to his right. Every player in the league has a different approach to shootaround — Kevin Durant almost treats it like Mark McGwire treated batting practice and puts on a show. Lin, clearly frustrated with himself, went through his routine with a grim frown on his face and quickly jogged off to the locker room before any of the media could catch up with him.
At half court, Charles Smith, Anthony Mason, and Larry Johnson watched the newest member of the Knicks family go through his preparations. Rembert Browne, who accompanied me to the game, asked if the ’96 Eastern Conference playoffs had just broken out at the Garden. I, too, felt a bit confused. The generation of Knicks fans who fill the luxury boxes and corporate seats at Madison Square Garden grew up with a very specific brand of basketball. They love nothing more than being haunted by the ghosts of playoff losses past. A style of play and a specific type of player has become emblematic, not only of the franchise, but also of the character of the city. Those Ewing teams created an expectation for their young fans. Unless you’re old enough to remember Clyde/Willis/Bradley and the “city game,” the prototypical Knick player is tough, can’t really shoot, plays defense, and goes hard to the rim.
The sight of those old Knicks cast a reminder on the current version of the team. These Knicks have been absolutely awful. The Amar’e Stoudemire fashion show has been put to rest, the “let’s give them time to figure out how to play together” honeymoon has ended, and the team now faces some very ugly truths. The first: They have a coach whose style of play is diametrically opposed to the gritty essence of New York Knick basketball. This would be fine if they were winning. They’re not. The second: They are paying close to $37 million to STAT and Melo. The third: The salary cap will probably continue to shrink. The fourth: They went into the season with Toney Douglas as their answer at point guard. The fifth: Baron Davis just asked for a release to go star in The Nutty Professor 4: Pumpin’ Klump.
Before Lin came around, the Grantland staff had discussed making the Knicks a staple of our running “A Fate Worse Than Death” series, in which various writers force themselves to sit through the worst games League Pass has to offer. The Bobcats and the Wizards were certainly worse, but no one team sucked the joy out of the room faster than the Knicks. How a team with Melo and STAT became the worst watch in the league is absolutely beyond me, as is the even weirder fact that a team that starts Jared Jeffries, Bill Walker, and Landry Fields has suddenly become the hottest ticket in town.
Even on Friday, just three games in, it already felt as if Linsanity had been going on all season. I suppose print has its own specific timeline, so if thousands of tweets, shares, blog posts, columns, and think pieces all get produced within the span of a week, that week can feel like a month. But the newness of Linsanity could be felt all over Madison Square Garden as the team scrambles to find ways to monetize the phenomenon. There were no official Jeremy Lin jerseys for sale. At a kiosk just above the entrance to Penn Station, a vendor was selling cheap nylon knockoffs. Inside, a rack of blue Jeremy Lin T-shirt jerseys sold out before the end of the first quarter. A sign outside the team store offered fans the chance to preorder custom Linsanity wear. An abnormally high number of Asian dudes were in the media workroom, including a cameraman who broke press-box code by wearing a blue no. 17 jersey. A security guard who had worked at the Garden for years said he had never seen as many Asian people at a basketball game before.
Yes, it’s only been five games, but Linsanity should have some staying power over the course of what has been a particularly unwatchable regular season. The Knicks will sell out arenas on the road. Lin, himself, will sell thousands of jerseys, both here and in Taiwan. At some point, Nike will probably put him in a commercial. He’s already inspired hundreds of nicknames and a revolution on Twitter.1
So why did it take this long to happen? And why didn’t it take off in Golden State, the team that initially signed the undrafted free agent out of Harvard?
In retrospect, the pressure might have been too much for Lin to handle. He played at a small high school in Silicon Valley. He spent most of his college career torching Brown, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Yale. His great moments — the dunks against UConn, the infamous John Wall footage — far outpaced his actual basketball ability. Lin’s signing was one of the first moves made by the Warriors’ new ownership group. The rationale made sense: Bring back the hometown kid and put him in front of the most Asian crowd in the NBA. The marketing that followed Lin’s arrival at Oracle felt predictable, and frankly, a bit disappointing. He was featured during Asian American appreciation night. Any sportswriter with Asian roots was summoned to Oracle for a series of press conferences. (At the time, I had published exactly two pieces for a blog that no longer exists. Even I got a credential for Asian American Jeremy Lin night.) Lin has said he just wants to be known as a basketball player. Maybe the Warriors should have presented him as one.
It’s also a mistake to think that athletes of an anomalous race can only succeed in cities where their “peoples” are well represented. Seattle has a large Japanese population, sure, but Ichiro would have been a superstar in nearly any ballpark in America. And unless the player can sustain his excellence over a long period of time, the novelty wears off quickly, especially for those fans who might start getting a bit embarrassed by the anomaly’s level of play.
On the basketball front, he never seemed comfortable within Keith Smart’s run-and-gun offense. Lin’s strengths, detailed below, come in the half court, where he can use a variety of moves to get into the lane. It’s tough to do that on a team with Monta Ellis and Steph Curry flying up and down the court the entire game.
So, why, exactly, has it worked out with the Knicks?
Quick answer: He can get to the hoop. Lin has been most effective in the pick-and-roll, which makes up about half of his possessions. He employs a series of hesitations, crossovers, and spin moves to get into the lane, an old-school style reminiscent of Sam Cassell’s early days with the Rockets. Like the young Cassell, Lin uses his size and lateral quickness to shake defenders. Both have the ability to remain composed while driving to the basket. It’s this quality, more than the scoring totals, that has contributed to the Knicks’ five-game winning streak. Unlike Iman Shumpert, who seems to pre-program whatever he’s going to do before he receives the ball (a good quality for a power forward, but a terrible one for a point guard), Lin seems to quickly run through a litany of options every time he touches the ball.
The early comparisons to Steve Nash are ridiculous, sure, and probably have more to do with Mike D’Antoni than with either player. But, like Nash, when Lin dribbles the ball at the top of the key, there’s almost a teetering effect, where you don’t quite know if the player knows what he’s going to do. This is an immensely difficult style of point guard to consistently defend, especially if he can step back and shoot the ball from beyond the arc.
That’s where Lin still needs work. He’s shooting just 38 percent on his jump shots, which lies somewhere in the 50th percentile of NBA players. If he wants to keep up his run of 20-point games, he will have to start figuring out ways to get easy baskets. The Wizards sagged off of Lin for most of the first half and took away his driving lanes. Lin responded by dominating the ball around the free throw lane and ended the half with eight assists. But there will be nights when Lin will go up against long defenders who can challenge his shot at the rim. In those games, he’ll need to augment his driving game with a few open jumpers, or at least a reliable pull-up or teardrop shot in the lane.
It’s been suggested that Lin’s scoring will regress back to something reasonable. But Lin’s never really been anything but a scorer. If we hold him to his record, he has far more in common with Dajuan Wagner than with the young Steve Nash. I’m sure we’d all like to peg the humble Asian kid as unselfish, but Lin can be a bit of a black hole. Some of his most exciting baskets have come on drives that start around half court. In the game against the Lakers, there were a few possessions where Lin looked like he was playing one-on-one with Matt Barnes.
Then there’s this very sappy reason for why Linsanity has taken off in New York: Basketball is at its best when five guys who love to play with one another outhustle and outplay a more talented opponent. It’s why March Madness still remains a viable institution, despite a gulf of talent separating college ball from the pros. It’s why every basketball movie follows the same storyline — some cute cartoons are outmatched by some cartoon aliens. They use teamwork to make the dream work. The Linsanity Knicks run hard, play unselfishly, chest-bump, and play with a swagger that has nothing to do with the other team. They aren’t the Ubuntu Celtics — nobody’s out there trying to prove that he’s tough. All this good energy has spilled over to the defensive end of the floor. Tyson Chandler has been among the league’s five best defensive players for years now, but on Friday night, he held Andrew Bynum to three points without once calling for a double-team. Kobe finally got around to torching Landry Fields late in the third quarter and carried it over to the fourth, but that wasn’t because Fields wasn’t playing hard. Sometimes, Kobe just torches you and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it but try to make the next possession harder. And there’s Lin, who busts his ass on D and disrupts passing lanes with his quick hands. Over the four-game win streak, the Knicks have given up six points less per game than they had before. What was once a team built around two prolific scorers has become the league’s scrappiest team, with Lin, Jeffries, Fields, Chandler, Walker, and Steve “the Novakalypse” Novak leading the way.
Lakers at Knicks
Rembert and I do not sit on press row. There’s no way I’m not yelling my ass off during this game and I don’t need to get frowned at by Peter Vecsey. Unfortunately, a family with two young kids is sitting in front of us. The crowd at the Garden doesn’t look particularly more Asian or less Asian. But they are pumped for the game. Justin Tuck, Hakeem Nicks, and the Rock are in attendance. Spike Lee, of course, is at his usual courtside seat.
7: 35 — Linsanity! Lin has a direct hand in the first 15 points of the game, with nine points and three assists. The Yellow Mamba nickname, while somewhat offensive (eh, not really), kind of works. When he’s feeling himself, Lin possesses some of Kobe’s aggression. Like a young Kobe, he’s got about six different dribble moves. The difference, of course, is that young Kobe could string all six of those moves together into one uber-move while Lin, like all of us mere mortals, has to settle for one move at a time. The Lakers, who
lost won an overtime game against the Celtics the night before, look absolutely exhausted.
5:25 — Lin has his first black hole moment when he can’t quite shake Derek Fisher. On this possession, Fisher set up on Lin’s right and dared him to cross over back left. Lin stubbornly spun to his right, trying to get an angle to the basket. So here’s a dirty little secret: Lin can’t go left. When he gets trapped going right, he tends to spin and then go right again. This is pretty cute, but he’ll need to either figure out how to shoot a mid-range jumper or finish on the left side of the rim.
3:45 — The first non-Lin basket of the game! The Knicks lead 19-8. The Knicks fans start chanting Jer-e-my, Jer-e-my.
2:31 — Mike Bibby comes into the game for Lin. The crowd groans. This is like swapping out a GT-R for an ’88 Pontiac LeMans with a fucked-up door and a few mysterious stains in the backseat.
5:37 — Lin throws the ball away on consecutive possessions. The first on a failed lob to Chandler, the second on a wild behind-the-head pass back to the perimeter. Spike Lee jumps up from his courtside seats and implores Lin to calm the hell down.
2:57 — Lin shows a real flash of competitiveness. After Fisher scores on a step-back jumper, Lin goes straight at him, backs him down, and buries a difficult (and probably ill-advised) fadeaway jump shot. On the next Knicks possession, Lin crosses over Fisher, spins past him, and scores at the rim. Spike does the “We’re Not Worthy” during the ensuing timeout.
For what it’s worth, that’s my favorite part of Lin’s game. He’s fiery. Back in college, whenever someone in the stands or on the court said something racist to him, he’d use that as motivation to play better. I’m sure he heard Kobe’s dismissive remarks about Linsanity prior to the game and made sure to put on a show.
9:24 — Lin goes to the line. The MVP chants start up. The crowd’s a bit drunker now and the energy in the stands has been outstanding. You can literally feel the collective joy of 19,000 people who have been waiting all season for a reason to cheer on this team.
2:26 — Kobe buries a turnaround jumper to get to 16. I ask Rembert how many points Kobe will score over the next 14 minutes of game time. He says 24. Kobe, of course, hits his next three shots. The crowd grumbles a bit, but good lord, what can you say when Kobe starts hitting a bunch of impossible shots? You’re just lucky you were in the building to see it happen, I guess.
1:26 — Lin hit two free throws to get to 27 points. Maybe it’s all the time I’ve spent watching Kobe this year, but Lin’s 27 are almost a quiet 27. He’s just very consistently gotten to the rim and knocked down a couple jumpers. Kobe, in the meantime, is lighting up poor Landry Fields. I wish I had Spike’s seats right now so I could offer up some words of solace.
10:42 — Kobe drags the Lakers back into the game. This is the one game this season where I’ve really felt like Pau and Bynum were dragging ass and Kobe really had to shoot 25-30 times. The kid sitting next to us can barely talk because he’s so stunned at Kobe’s display. After I wrote a column on Kobe, I got a lot of e-mails and tweets from Lakers fans that accused me of being a Kobe hater. Quite the opposite! I love watching Kobe Bryant play. How could you not?
5:35 — That was just the best six minutes of the regular season, to date. Lin and Bryant trade buckets. I can’t believe I just typed that. Jeremy Lin and Kobe Bryant going head-to-head is the best six minutes of an NBA season? As Lin gets to 34, I get a bit choked up. Never seen a crowd at a regular-season game with this much joyous intensity. If only Vic the Brick Jacobs were here …
2:29 — Kobe’s heroic act falls a bit short, but he’s not leaving the battle of the differently colored Mambas without getting his. Lin stalls out at 38 points and then misses a jumper that would have gotten him to 40.
After the game, Lin answered questions from the assembled media. There’s an earnestness in the way he deals with reporters that’s endearing — you can tell he’s still trying to figure out which clichés to drop. A Chinese reporter asked about his relationship with Yao Ming, to which Lin responded, “I talk to Yao after every game. He’s taking me out to eat every time we’re in the same city. He’s a role model and mentor to me.” At first, I thought Lin was kidding. Why the hell would Jeremy Lin talk to Yao after every game?
It has become standard issue for successful Asian Americans to just sort of avoid talking about race. This, I guess, makes sense along the spectrum of assimilation, but it’s an inherently elitist stance that plays a bit too coy, especially in a country that has largely decided to turn a blind eye toward racism against Asian Americans. I have no doubt, given his comments in the past, that Lin thinks about his peculiar role in America’s blackest network TV show. But for now, he and the Knicks have not said much about anything, really. In preparing for this story, I spent the better part of three days trying to pin down Jeremy Lin or his family. I, and the rest of the sportswriting world, got shut out, including a young reporter at a major magazine who knew Jeremy from Harvard, had written about him in the past, AND had offered to tutor a Knicks official’s kids in exchange for 20 minutes of alone time. And maybe, for now, that’s for the better. Because no matter how perfectly he fits into a sports-talk discussion or a talking-heads show, Jeremy Lin won’t mean anything to anyone if he stops playing well.
In the tunnels outside the Lakers locker room, Ron Harper and Charles Smith chatted up Metta World Peace. Seeing those three together reminded me of the last reason why New York is the perfect place for the Jeremy Lin show. Traditionally, the New York City point guard dribbles too much, can’t go left, can’t shoot, finishes at the rim after contact, plays with an edge, and, perhaps most important, came out of obscurity to be the city’s underdog hero. How else would you describe Jeremy Lin?