Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 16, 2012

The Zen Of Lin

Up until two weeks ago, the NBA season was offering fans little more than a daily dose of bad news. It all began with doubts about whether there would even be a season, as the owners’ lockout of the players dragged on through the summer and into the fall. The scheduled start of training camp came and went, with initially the first week of preseason games and then eventually the entire slate of exhibition contests being cancelled. A few weeks later all regular season games through the end of November were lost. Finally on Thanksgiving weekend, as predicted here at the time, the two sides jointly came to the realization that the cost of losing an entire season in terms of both dollars and fan support was a price neither wanted to pay.

The time lost to the lockout led in turn to what increasingly looks like an unwise decision to shoehorn in a 66-game regular season schedule into the time remaining on the league’s calendar. Teams played all of two preseason contests before the league tipped off with five nationally televised games on Christmas Day. While the yuletide TV ratings were good, it soon became apparent that many players were not in playing shape and many teams were anything but cohesive units. Those realities coupled with the schedule’s demands to often play on successive nights and sometimes even three nights in a row led to a plethora of injuries and meant fans witnessed a lot of sloppy and uninspired play.

In arena after arena, in big markets and small ones, that was the storyline on the season until the evening of February 4. That night the New York Knicks were hosting their cross-river rivals the New Jersey Nets. After starting the season well enough, including a victory over the Boston Celtics on Christmas Day, the Knicks season appeared to be slipping rapidly away. They had lost 11 of their previous 13 games to fall seven games under .500. Head coach Mike D’Antoni was well aware of the growing chorus of fans calling for his firing. Without an effective point guard to run D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense, the Knicks too often appeared disorganized on the court, with stars Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire throwing up shots whenever they touched the ball.

So perhaps D’Antoni figured he had nothing to lose when, with his team trailing midway through the first quarter, he looked down the bench and called on Jeremy Lin to enter the game. All the 23-year old second year player did that night was score a career-high 25 points with 7 assists and 5 rebounds, leading New York to a 99-92 victory. Two nights later Lin got his first career start. The Knicks were without Stoudemire, who had flown to Florida in the wake of his brother’s death in an accident; and they lost Anthony to a groin injury early in the first quarter. Lin more than picked up the slack, leading all scorers with 28 points while adding 8 assists. At Madison Square Garden, “Linsanity” was born.

Now seven games into the NBA’s Lin era, the madness shows no signs of abating. Lin added 23 points on the road in Washington; then outplayed Kobe Bryant while netting 38 points against the Lakers as chants of “MVP!” rocked the hall known as the world’s most famous arena. Then it was a 20 point effort in Minnesota, including the game-winning free throw. From Minnesota the Knicks flew to Toronto, where on Tuesday Lin tallied 27 to record his sixth consecutive 20-points or better game. New York trailed for most of the night, with the Raptors stretching their lead to 17 late in the first half. That’s when Lin hit a three pointer to start New York’s comeback. With just over a minute left in the fourth quarter and his team still down by 3, he faked another three then drove down the lane and converted a layup while being fouled. He made the free throw to tie the game at 87. But in doing so he was merely setting the stage. With the score still tied Lin dribbled patiently just over mid-court as the game’s final seconds ticked away. By pure happenstance it was Asian Heritage Night at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, and the cheering crowd was every bit as loud as the ones at Madison Square Garden. Somehow they managed to get even louder when Lin approached the three-point arc, then pulled up and buried the winning basket with half a second remaining.

Finally on Wednesday the string of high scoring games ended with a 10-point effort at home against Sacramento. But the scoring was replaced by exactly what the Knicks have needed all season; effective playmaking from their point guard as Lin deftly found open teammates time and again, tallying a career high 13 assists as New York ran its Lin-spired winning streak to seven and climbed back to .500 for the season.

There are many reasons for the tidal wave of publicity sparked by Lin’s heroics. In part it’s because he’s playing for the Knicks. New York remains sports biggest stage with the brightest media spotlight. Lin’s play would still be notable, but probably not as noted, if he were doing it in, say, a Milwaukee Bucks uniform. In part it’s his heritage. As the first American-born player of Chinese descent, Lin has sparked the interest of an entire segment of the population that had no personal reason to be interested in the NBA just two weeks ago. But mostly it’s because of his remarkable story.

He was barely recruited by colleges, despite captaining Palo Alto High School to a 32-1 record and a California state championship in its division. Harvard was interested, but their coaching staff kept expecting nearby Stanford to scoop up Lin. When that didn’t happen, Lin headed to Cambridge. Four years later he was undrafted out of college, despite being the first player in Ivy League history to record at least 1,450 points, 450 rebounds, 400 assists, and 200 steals. Eventually signed by Golden State, he saw little playing time during his rookie year, and was demoted to the Warriors’ developmental league affiliate three different times. Then he was cut by Golden State on the first day of this season’s training camp in December. Claimed off waivers by Houston, he was cut by the Rockets after just twelve days. New York claimed him only because of an injury to guard Iman Shumpert. Unrecruited, undrafted and twice waived, Jeremy Lin was spending his nights sleeping on a couch in the New York apartment of his medical student brother and his games sitting on the Knicks bench when Mike D’Antoni decided there was nothing left to lose.

Contrary to what some of their fans may be thinking, the Knicks aren’t going to win out over the remainder of their schedule and then sweep through the playoffs. It remains to be seen how the notoriously selfish Carmelo Anthony, about to return from his groin injury, can mesh with someone who has stolen the ardor of New York fans. Lin himself is quick to acknowledge that he turns the ball over too often and could stand to improve his free throw shooting. To one degree or another, reality will intrude. But even after it does, after the Knicks lose a game or Lin has a bad one, reality will have changed; it will have a new aspect. As “Linsanity” reminds us, two things sports fans everywhere love are underdogs and winners. After a dreary start, this NBA season has an exciting new reality. It’s that Jeremy Lin is the ultimate underdog who, given the chance, has proven himself to be a big-time winner.

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