One thing I’ve learned in the last ten days is that the sports world moves a lot faster than you can anticipate. Not too long ago, on this very blog, I wrote confidently that “The Knicks’ season is going to live and die by how quickly they can get (Baron) Davis in the starting lineup”. It seemed like a fair statement to me at the time. The Knicks needed a point guard desperately. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an undrafted Harvard graduate, who had been previously cut by two NBA teams, threw that silly notion back in my face. Wow. Thank you Jeremy Lin.
In my defense, I would like to think that not many in the basketball world anticipated the craziness that has engulfed the league over the last couple weeks. Jeremy who?! That was the response of many fans and pundits who witnessed his 25-point effort against the Nets on February 4th.
They know his name now. Even Kobe knows his name now.
Jeremy Lin’s rise from D-League and 13th man obscurity, to the league’s hottest commodity, is quickly becoming one of the biggest stories in North American sports. Lin’s incredible play has invigorated a team that was wallowing in the depths of the Eastern Conference. He has also likely saved Mike D’Antoni’s job for the present time. There is a sensational media storm surrounding Lin, with people who previously had no interest in the NBA now admitting to watching Knicks’ games and anxiously checking box scores to see Lin’s stat-line. Although Lin’s rise to sudden stardom has been covered extensively over the last week, it is worth briefly recapping his staggering story.
An Inconspicuous Beginning
Lin was born in Los Angeles, and grew up in Palo Alto, California. His parents, both a very un-basketball-like 5 foot 6 inches tall, immigrated to America from Taiwan in the 1970s. From birth Lin’s statistical odds of making the NBA would have been very slim.
His father introduced him and his brothers to basketball at his local YMCA, and Lin went on to be a star for his high-school team. Lin was not recruited out of high school however, and chose to attend Harvard, a school that does not issue athletic scholarships. At Harvard, Lin majored in economics, while making the All-Ivy League First Team on more than one occasion. Unsurprisingly, Lin went undrafted out of Harvard, and was later cut by his boy-hood team, the Golden State Warriors, and subsequently by the Houston Rockets. After being waived for a second time, the Knicks’ picked him up after Iman Shumpert got injured. D’Antoni needed a third-string point-guard to back up Toney Douglas and Mike Bibby. D’Antoni thrust Lin into action again New Jersey, more out of desperation than anything else and the rest, as they say, is history: Ten day old history, but history nevertheless.
Why People Care
Lin’s sudden meteoric rise to fame has captured the public imagination for a number of reasons. The first obvious reason, perhaps unfairly to Lin, is his racial background. Lin is one of a very few number of Asian Americans to play in the NBA. His story has attracted an enormous amount of attention among that demographic in the United States, and in China and Taiwan, where Lin has become an overnight sporting sensation.
Secondly, Lin graduated from Harvard, probably the most prestigious University in the world, and not exactly known for producing NBA players. The last NBA player to come out of Harvard was Ed Smith in 1953 (And no, I did not know that off the top of my head).
Thirdly, Lin’s incredible story is evolving in the NBA’s biggest and most volatile market. New Yorkers love their stars, and Lin’s improbable story and play on the court, have been greeted with incredible fanfare. Knicks fans can make an underachieving athlete’s life hell, but boy, do they love an underdog. The dire situation the Knicks were in, prior to Lin’s entry at MSG, immensely contributes to this stunning narrative. If he were putting up such numbers on an already streaking team, in a smaller market, perhaps it would not have quite the same impact.
Lastly, and most importantly, in my opinion, what makes the Jeremy Lin story so absorbing, is the ‘never say die’ nature of his rise. Here we have a player that has constantly had to battle against the odds. Either because of his race, build, or general humble demeanor, Lin has been overlooked his whole basketball career. It is also worth mentioning that Lin could probably have a relatively comfortable career right now outside of basketball. Perhaps it would have been easier to head back to Silicon Valley with a Harvard degree under his belt. Lin however, decided to chase down his dream of playing professionally, and deal with the setbacks that came his way. It resonates with everyone who enjoys cheering for the underdog.
The Boy Can Play
Many outside of the basketball world have covered the intangible aspects of Lin’s incredible feel-good story, but what does Lin actually bring to the Knicks on the court? The short answer: Everything they have been lacking so far this season. Lin has all the attributes necessary to run Mike D’Antoni’s desired up-tempo offense. Most importantly he has a high basketball IQ (And I’m sure, a high non-basketball I.Q.) Lin can play the pick-n-roll and has made good decisions on the court for the most part. He is a more than competent passer, able to drive to one side and swing the ball out to find the open shooter. Lin has also displayed a quick first step and has shown the ability to drive and finish in the paint. Opposing guards have had an extremely tough time staying in front of him. Most refreshingly Lin displays a ‘nothing to lose’ attitude that is always the most dangerous trait in any athlete.
The frenzy surrounding Lin in the last week has been compared to the hype surrounding Tim Tebow. Such a comparison holds weight only when you consider their intangible attributes and religious faith, but is mostly an unfair comparison. Tebow has been a star athlete his whole life, but has been heavily criticized for not possessing the classic technical skills necessary to play Quarterback in the NFL. Lin on the other hand, has played under the radar his whole career, but has displayed a classic orthodoxy in his point guard play.
Melo, the Ball’s in Your Court Now
Are the sudden expectation levels for Jeremy Lin unfair and unrealistic? Probably. Lin will not be able to perform like an all-star every night. We might not see him put up 38 points again this year, or even in his career. There will be an inevitable let down in performance, as there naturally is with every professional player in the league. Lin played a ridiculous 45 minutes against Utah and D’Antoni needs to be careful not to wear out his new favourite toy.
On the positive side for Lin and the Knicks’ however, is that he will not be relied upon to put up such ridiculous numbers every night. That onus should be transferred to Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony when they return. Lin’s role will be to do what he has been doing so far: Running the offense, playing the pick-n-roll, and knocking down the open jump shot, without having to jack up twenty-five shots a night. Stoudemire will be desperate to get back into the team to play with Lin.
Stoudemire excels at pick-n-roll basketball and should be able re-enter the system effortlessly. Carmelo’s return may prove to be a different proposition however. He has been frequently criticized for slowing down the play: Requiring too many touches and taking too many shots. Anthony will have to set aside his ego and allow Lin continue running the offense. The pressure will be off Lin and firmly on Anthony in that regard.
Jeremy Lin’s rise to stardom has taken us all by surprise: Fans and analysts alike. Athletes in all sports have risen quickly and fallen just as fast. Will Jeremy Lin prove to be just a ‘flash in the pan’, as some of his detractors have asserted?
The honest answer is that I do not know. All that anyone can judge right now is his play on the court. That has been spectacular. His play has made the Baron Davis injury saga (and my previous article on it!) largely redundant for now. Whatever happens in the future, Jeremy Lin has provided us the best sports story I can remember in a long time. For now, I’m getting on eBay to place my bid on Landry Field’s couch.
Zach Salzmann is an avid follower of the NBA. When he is not watching basketball, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend, he is watching something else sports-related.