Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Jeremy Lin Is Amazing and Banal

I blogged before at this site about Jeremy Lin, over three years ago in January 2009. Since then, Lin finished college in June of 2010, joined the Golden State Warriors for the following season, hopped aboard Houston's roster for a few days in December of 2011, and finally found his way to New York. As the undrafted, twice-cut Lin has risen to crazy prominence with his excellent play for the Knicks this month, it is time to revisit this nascent star with some new thoughts.

Via my personal (not my blog-based) email account earlier this week, I was approached by, separately, a New York-based talent agent and a New York-based journalist from one of the major television networks. Both of these individuals wanted to get in touch with Jeremy Lin: one to represent him in his putative Hollywood career and one to speak with him for a career-making interview. My connection with Lin is merely tenuous -- while I have never met him and I am 8 years older than him, I do know a couple of his friends and my name happens to appear on a certain webpage near his. But I was struck that the frenzy over Lin had suddenly made me important -- not for anything I did, but for my apparent indirect value in getting to Lin. (I was not able to help the entreators, as I have no clue how to contact the young Knick.) If I am getting these requests, then I wonder who else is, and what of the people who actually know Lin? Fame must be hard, and knowing a famous person must be hard, as all sorts of strangers suddenly want a piece of you, to help feed the public's thirst for heroes and demigods.

I have not seen any other writer note that with Lin, Christianity has returned to the Knicks, evoking thoughts of the regular Bible study circles that Charlie Ward, Allan Houston, and Kurt Thomas held 10 or 12 years ago during the Knicks' last era of quality ball. The much-lampooned "Nerd Handshake" between Lin and Landry Fields (a Stanford graduate) ends with a finger pointed upwards to the glory of God. And Tyson Chandler, New York's steady center, has a crucifix tattooed on his right arm. I am not aware of any other religiously observant players on the current Knicks roster; Amare Stoudemire may or may not be a converted Jew, but aside from donning the occasional yarmulke, I am not aware that he follows the Jewish rituals. At any rate, overt religious faith seems somewhat uncommon in NBA circles (in contradistinction to the NFL, where many players besides just Tim Tebow credit their maker for touchdowns), and Lin is changing things in New York.

I enjoyed J.A. Adande's article published today on, describing how Lin thrives in New York (but not in Oakland or Houston) because his strengths fit Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni's offensive scheme. Adande does not delve enough into the details of the "system", but D'Antoni gives his point guards freedom to dribble the ball all over the court, often moving off ball screens, waiting for something good to happen. To profit from this liberty, a PG needs skilled handle, great vision and passing ability, the ability to finish at the rim when the paint gets crowded, and deadly shooting ability for the moments when defenders hang back to deny any penetration. Steve Nash had plenty of this. Even Ray Felton had a bit last season. Chauncey Billups (at the end of 2010-11) and Toney Douglas (at the start of 2011-12) did not. Lin's herky-jerky driving mechanics are suited well to D'Antoni's plan.

This article from the New York Times published today suggests that every Taiwanese person has paid careful attention in real time to Knick games during the past 10 days, despite the 13-hour time difference between New York City and Taiwan. Other reports indicate that millions of Chinese mainlanders are following Lin daily like a cat eyeing a laser toy. These stories simply struck me that the American self-conception as the world's "indispensible nation" may still have some currency (and that the traditional Chinese casting as the "Middle Kingdom", 中国, may have less than total salience), despite recent economic strides in other large countries. Can you imagine the same type of hysteria in the States over, say, a skinny American midfielder scoring multiple goals for Chelsea or Liverpool? It wouldn't happen, though we know the world's finest soccer is played in Europe. To the Chinese, at least, athletic success on American terms is where it's at. (China's national athletic authority has cultivated young athletes to succeed at gymnastics and hurdles, rather than traditional tug-of-war or cuju.)

Can Lin keep up his great play from the past six games? Of course, a few players in the past have tossed aside a shroud and flashed into the spotlight with sudden bursts of greatness. Consider Ronald "Flip" Murray's play in the first month of the 2003-04 season, when he averaged 22 points per game while starting at off-guard for Seattle in relief of the injured Ray Allen. Murray never again reclaimed the same levels of performance in his career after that torrid stretch. Or, going back several more years, recall what rookie Negele Knight did for Phoenix towards the end of the end of the 1990-91 season, averaging 24 points and 11 assists in a five-game stretch while incumbent point guard Kevin Johnson recovered from an injury. And, well, who remembers Negele Knight? On the other hand, Lin could, in the event, grow into a career like that of Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft pick who became a Hall Of Fame-level talent after an injury to Drew Bledsoe cleared room for the youngster. (The undrafted Ben Wallace or the Arena Football League veteran Kurt Warner are also hopeful templates for Lin.) Who knows? Only time, the adjustments of opposing coaches, and the dedication of Lin will decide if he can sustain this play. At the least, he needs to cut down his turnovers.

Finally, I hope that the media fuss over Lin abates if he continues to play at a high level. Russell Westbrook delivered 22 and 8 in game after game last season, but his reliable play is not deemed "magical" or "Russdiculous", even though he never manned point guard before entering the Association. That is just what Westbrook does. Similarly, we may soon need to adjust our perceptions of Lin if he sustains his big numbers and his penchant for winning. Just as Darko Milicic should not be blamed for being drafted at a position above his ability level, Jeremy Lin should not be patronized as a hard-luck, low-odds, small-school miracle merely because the best college basketball program that recruited him was Harvard. Lin, the Northern California Division II player of the year in 2006, deserved to go to a major hoops university and it didn't happen. He tore up legitimate teams like Boston College or the University of Connecticut during Harvard's non-conference games. He is still of the same caliber as other 2010 draft picks like Evan Turner or Wesley Johnson.

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