The Great Unknown

by May 24, 2012

This is the cover story in SLAM 157 (May, ’ 12), which is no longer on newsstands. Purchase back issues of SLAM here.

by Adam Figman | @afigman

Jeremy! Jeremy!”

The voice, unavoidable on the court or anywhere near it, is coming from a young girl in a wheelchair, loud and excitable. She’s sitting amidst a shoulder-to-shoulder line of onlookers beneath the basket and along the perpendicular sidelines: fans, photographers, reporters, ballboys, John Starks, NBA staffers, their eyes fixated right where millions across this city, country and world will be a couple hours now. The girl’s hero looks over, forces out a smile and a wave, and returns to his streak of flat-footed mid-range jumpshots without losing an ounce of focus. On cue, she does what most prepubescent females with a hint of a basketball interest and/or pop culture penchant would do in her position, by completely losing her shit.

Two weeks ago, few beyond those paid to play with or against this 6-3 guard—and a group of Knicks executives, armed with plans to release him into free agency—knew more than a passing fact or two about him. Today, with a quick glance and a half-wave, he pushed an anxious tween into full-on “Just met Bieber” tears.

So yeah, Jeremy Lin has had quite the two weeks.

It’s Wednesday, Feb. 15, maybe 100 minutes before tip-off at Madison Square Garden. Bright lights shine from above, illuminating the court and the lower bowl surrounding it. Fans dot the arena, standing tall in front of their seats to get a peek of the talk of the town before he heads into the chapel for a pre-game prayer. His face covered the backpage of multiple New York City newspapers today, and yesterday, and will again tomorrow, after the Knicks make light work of the lowly Sacramento Kings and Lin puts up a cool 10 points and 13 assists. This morning, a report was released informing the public that President Obama is actively rooting for him, to which Lin would later respond with simply: “I mean, wow. The President. Nothing better than that.”

No, kid, there is not.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Linsanity.

The back-story is, by now, a familiar one. Born in Los Angeles to a set of Taiwanese parents and raised in the Bay Area, Jeremy Shu-How Lin’s love of basketball took him from Palo Alto High School—where he helped the varsity squad win a state title in ‘06—to Harvard, the college he selected after he didn’t receive an athletic scholarship from his dream schools of Stanford and UCLA.

He arrived at Cambridge with five other freshmen hoopers; Lin played the most among the first-year guys, logging 18 minutes a game, though he wanted more. “He didn’t think he got the playing time he deserved,” says Patrick Magnarelli, a teammate of Lin’s and fellow member of the class of 2010. “[But] it wasn’t that he was frustrated with the coaches or would act out at all.” Magnarelli says the other freshmen lived vicariously through Lin, as they rode the pine full-time while he saw decent action.

Over the next few years, Lin became the face of the school’s hoops program. By his senior season in ’09-10, he’d propel the squad to a 21-7 mark, the winningest season in Harvard history.

“The numbers that he put up here, and what he led us to, in terms of wins—it’s amazing what he was able to do here for us and put our program in gear and on the map,” says Harvard Head Coach Tommy Amaker, who was hired in between Lin’s freshman and sophomore years. “It’s nice when your best player is also your hardest worker. Days off, he was the kid that would still be in the gym getting shots up, just doing extra work.”

Lin would go undrafted in 2010, only to surface months later in the Summer League with the Mavs. He played well in five games there, well enough that a few organizations offered him a contract shortly thereafter; he accepted Golden State’s, where a partially guaranteed two-year deal allowed him to suit up for his favorite childhood team. But he struggled to provide more than the occasional flash of potential, and his rookie campaign included multiple stints in the D-League with the Reno Bighorns.

During the locked-out summer of 2011, like many NBAers with uncertain futures, Lin worked hard, hoping to secure a steadier role in the League once the standoff ended. (While training in L.A., he’d crash on Magnarelli’s couch, an activity he seems to have an affinity for.) But before he would eventually find his way, more turmoil: the Warriors dropped him on December 9, and the Rockets barely gave him a shot before doing the same on Christmas Eve. The Knicks, thin as dental floss at point guard, claimed Lin off waivers on December 27, then later demoted him to the D-League for a few late-January days. New York gave him some minutes in early February, a week before they had to guarantee his contract or kick him to the curb. And so it began.

The story is one of subplots and subplots, piling on top of each other like bodies scrambling for a loose ball: He’s the only Asian American in the NBA. He’s single-handedly legitimizing Ivy League basketball. He’s a deeply religious God-fearer, invoking Tebow comparisons left and right, for better or worse. He’s experienced that familiar uncertainty of post-grad underemployment, sleeping on couches of family members and teammates while unable to afford a place of his own.

And then there’s the part where he takes the New York Knicks, a superstar-laden franchise failing to live up to even the lowest of expectations, and transforms them into a top-tier NBA contender, damn near overnight.

The fascination with Jeremy Lin has sustained because there’s one question that’s yet to be answered. It’s one that reporters flood the MSG locker rooms and press conferences chipping away at, moving closer and closer to something resembling an actual answer that never comes. It’s a pretty simple query, albeit one with a truly impossible response.


How does a skinny Harvard graduate fly beneath the radar for a year and change before exploding out of the blue, proving himself the savior of an NBA team? Aren’t there protocols set up to avoid this kind of thing, to groom talent through the standard channels and deliver it to franchises under the public’s watchful eye?

How the hell could this happen?

We’ll leave the Basketball Gods to that one, but here’s what we do know: For one, he brought the perfect style of play at the perfect time. Lin favors the up-tempo madness fostered by Mike D’Antoni, and he thrives in the pick-and-roll, a staple of D’Antoni’s seven-seconds-or-less production. He is adept at using pockets of space—either creating more of it while snaking to the basket or creating less of it while drawing a teammate’s defender and then finding him for an open look around the painted area or for an open jumper. And he has the perfect surrounding cast for this technique: alley-oop finishers like Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Landry Fields, and trigger-happy swingmen like JR Smith, Steve Novak and Bill Walker, two categories of players who benefit most from the added space begat by an imaginative point guard. (Carmelo Anthony had not yet rejoined the lineup as of this writing, so there’s no use in guessing how that’ll work itself out.)

Lin’s game isn’t perfect. He turns the ball over too much. He’s a subpar defender, unable to lock down opposing PGs. (Though his quick hands help him amass an impressive number of steals.) Sometimes, when his shot isn’t falling, he’ll continue to fire away at a costly rate. But he’s incredibly self-aware, knowing exactly where improvements need to be made. “As a point guard, my field goal attempts have been really high,” he says after the bout against the Kings. “I don’t think that’s necessarily good. I think it’s more my job to distribute and get people in rhythm.”

Simply enough, the Knicks are a different team when the ball is in Lin’s hands, and the results speak Charles Barkley loud. When this piece went to print, in games he played double-digit minutes: nine wins, three loss.

A quick taste of the events that transpired between February 15’s Knicks-Kings tilt and February 19’s Knicks-Mavericks tilt: the MSG-Time Warner dispute ends, giving thousands of NYCers the ability to watch Lin and Co. through their home television sets; the Knicks fall into a trap game against the New Orleans Hornets, losing 89-85 in a shameful stinker; a racist headline is posted atop a Jeremy Lin story on, leading to the release of the ESPN employee responsible for the blunder; an SNL short takes on Linsanity, mocking both the over-punning of the media and the casual racism that’s accompanied the frenzy; and the Knicks sign free agent guard JR Smith after his return from China.

That Hornets game was a mess. The Knicks came out flat, distracted, purpose-less and altogether useless in what should’ve been an easy victory against a modest opponent. Lin went for 26 points, 5 dimes and 9 turnovers, while his team shot 41.3 percent from the field, 16.7 percent from deep and 65.6 percent from the stripe. Embarrassing stuff, but the kind of thing that happens from time to time during a fast and furious NBA season.

Up in press row, a newspaper reporter rants about Lin’s flaws—he can’t shoot free throws, can’t find open teammates without giving the ball away, can’t live up to the lofty expectations. Meanwhile, on Twitter, where thoughts are streamed faster than D’Antoni’s ideal offense, fans are questioning the hype.

“I don’t think this is good, because I hate losing,” Lin will say minutes later. “But in terms of everything dying down a little, from that end, it may help me, may help the team a little bit in terms of having everything off the court cool down for a little bit.”

Jeremy Lin will return another day, but Linsanity, with it’s seemingly endless supply of wins and glory, appears all but dead. Long live Linsanity.

Sunday, February 19. The Knicks have their third straight home game, as they take on the Mavs in a nationally televised afternoon spectacle. That Friday night loss took place years ago, or maybe never took place at all.

At least that’s how it feels. The Knicks bring a fresh vigor, delighting the Madison Square Garden crowd by keeping pace with the defending champs for two and a half quarters. Then at the end of the third and through the fourth, Lin pushes New York to a new height, plowing through expectations like a finish line. One minute he’s snagging a Dallas pass in the backcourt, racing to the opposition’s basket and throwing it down with passionate tenacity, the next he’s pulling up over Dirk Nowitzki and draining a three that turns the MSG crowd upside-down. In between those two, he dishes to teammates Novak and Smith (making his debut) over and over again, and the sharpshooting pair combine for 29 points and 7 threes.

“He’s doing a good job of keeping everyone honest on the floor, because he can make any pass,” says Walker. “It’s been a fun experience. He just gave us new life. We just have a new confidence to us.”

Novak confirms the obvious, that Lin’s teammates were as astonished by his rise as the public was. “What he’s done, I think, how good you’re seeing that he really is, consistently, it’s surprising to all of us,” he says. “Now it’s something that we hope never goes away.

The Knicks win 104-97, both Lin and the team’s most impressive showing to date.

Before the afternoon battle, opinionated Mavs owner Mark Cuban held court with the media alongside the hardwood, spilling his mind into the notebooks and recorders of a curious mob from a front-row folding chair.

“It’s such a great, feel-good story,” Cuban says, asked about the wiry Knicks pg. “It takes the game, it takes the sport, it takes the League, it takes the brand into other areas aren’t typical sports fans. So any time you can attract attention from non-customers and turn them into customers, it’s a beautiful thing.

“It’s Rocky versus Apollo Creed. The more Rocky opportunities we have, the more non-sports fans get involved. Particularly because of Jeremy’s ethnicity, it just—again it doesn’t fit the profile—so when you look at the NBA you don’t see a Jeremy Lin popping to the top as Rocky, which is why Rocky was popular in first place. ”

Minutes after Cuban’s media huddle, a SLAM writer is seated courtside upon the scorer’s table, taking in the MSG atmosphere and killing time between locker room accessibility and tip-off. It doesn’t take much of an investigative reporter to look around and notice the biggest difference between the crowd this afternoon and the one a few weeks earlier: fans clad in No. 17 LIN uniforms suddenly fill the arena. Immediately following his initial explosion not long ago, Lin’s jersey became a hot item. Stores hurried to stock up on them; many sold out within a matter of minutes. At this point, though, supply is no longer an issue. Lin jerseys hang  all over kiosks throughout the arena, right alongside Anthony 7s and LINSANITY tees.

Over the next few months, inevitably, Jeremy Lin will evolve into a different entity than the superstar/superhero he’s currently playing like. Maybe he’ll prove himself a true All-Star, capable of competing with the best on any given night. Perhaps a solid NBA starter, the Knicks’ point guard of the future, distributing the rock among the scorers and deferring to them during crunch time. He could devolve into a mere role player, a flawed talent that cruised on momentum for a few weeks before breaking down, a gas-less racecar skidding off the track.

But before this process unfolds, it’s worth a deep breath and a look around. Of course, Linsanity will soon die down, as Internet phenomena tend to. But in New York City, and each city across the country where the Knicks will travel over the course of the next few months, Jeremy Lin will be very present, the guiding force of a renewed basketball team and the energy surrounding it. That much we know, and somehow, even with the guy’s back-story stamped into our collective knowledge, we still have barely any idea how it happened.