July 29, 2014

The Linspiration

Linsanity may be over, but Jeremy Lin is continuing basketball's greatest underdog story

This feature was first published as the cover story of the 133rd edition (2014 - No. 12) of SLAM China magazine. Here is my original English version.

Even the greatest moments in history need perspective, they need some distance, an appropriate passing of time, and the appropriate understanding of that moment’s place in our memories. Sometimes, when we live through these great moments in real time, it is difficult to predict their long-term significance. A great moment thrills us in the present, a greater moment continues to amazes us in future years to come.

It seems like it happened an eternity ago, but it was only in 2012 that Jeremy Lin – in the space of a short fortnight – went from being the last guy on the NBA bench the most popular basketball player on the planet. After being cut from two teams and sleeping on a teammate’s couch because he was sure to be cut from the third, a string of injuries turned a dark cloud into a silver-lining for Lin. The young player out of Harvard took over the New York Knicks’ starting point guard position, and within weeks, became the living embodiment of history in very fluid motion.

The legend of ‘Linsanity’ is well known by now. A relative unknown in the big bad NBA world, Lin led the ragtag Knicks to an improbable winning streak, averaging 26.8 points and 8.5 assists over a six-game stretch (setting a record for the most points by any NBA player in their first five starts since the NBA/ABA merger in 1977). He secured a guaranteed contract with the Knicks, saved Coach Mike D’Antoni’s job, outplayed NBA legend Kobe Bryant, hit a game-winning three-pointer, heard ‘M-V-P’ chants at the Madison Square Garden, was named NBA’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week, found himself on the cover of ‘TIME’ and ‘Sports Illustrated’ magazine, and reignited the NBA’s popularity in China after Yao Ming’s retirement.

Eventually, the fairytale ended. Lin shifted base to the Houston Rockets the next season, and the insanity gave way for some stability. Over the past two years, Lin has been a solid, if not spectacular contributor. The day of Linsanity are over, but the young point guard has become a consistent player in the NBA, a dream that seemed far from his reach when he was struggling between the D-League and 10-day contracts.

Still shy of his 26th birthday, Lin has already survived a lifetime’s worth of highs and lows as he prepares to begin a new chapter in Los Angeles. And we – the audience who have been witness to the history he created – can now have the luxury of perspective. ‘Linsanity’ is over, but basketball’s greatest underdog story continues to inspire hundreds of thousands of young players around the world.

Lin returned to China this offseason once more in a move to once again bring him face to face and closer to Asian fans who have long been unconditionally devoted to him. His stock in the NBA may rise and fall, but out here, he remains a bright shining star, the living embodiment of proof that basketball is much more than a genetic code, that hard work on the court can reap rewards on the court for a person of any race.

Usually, international players in the NBA – particularly those from Asia – are scouted more on the basis of their size. The tallest players, like Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian, Wang Zhi Zhi, or Hamed Haddadi have a clear advantage because they offer the one thing that coaches say can’t be taught: height.

Until Lin’s breakthrough Asian guards rarely scratched the surface of their potential. Credit for his immense development must be given to the hard work he put in to become a rising star in High School, College, and the pros out in America. But still, Lin was able to prove that smaller Asian players – if they have the right combination of internal motivation, good coaching, and the right opportunities – can be just as successful as any of the other young players getting drafted into the NBA.

In his recent visit to Beijing, Lin spoke to SLAM about how his stardom proved that basketball success is clearly more than a game of genetics and that being bigger isn’t the only key for an Asian player to make it to the NBA.

“I hope that my achievements can be an inspiration to young Asians,” he said, “I think that height is just one component, but it’s not close to being the most important one. If you look at the NBA right now, you’ll see that it’s evolving and becoming more of a guard’s game. The most talented position is the point guard position all the way across the board.”

“I hope to see many more Chinese guards – and not just big men – make it to the next level,” he added.

Lin was among the first of a usual off-season flurry of NBA superstars that visit China and help to encourage the growth of the game in the country. As always, he showed enthusiasm for the reception that the game has been getting in China.

“I think that the growing interest of the game here is great,” Lin said, “It’s great for basketball, and it’s great for the country as well. Basketball is such a fun sport and now it’s cool to see how much China has really adopted the game.”

It’s clear to see that the game that Lin professes his love for has loved him back. Lin’s NBA story is markedly different from many of his peers. Unlike his former All Star teammates Dwight Howard or James Harden, Lin did not become a high lottery pick. He wasn’t drafted at all. Everything about his journey – from his Asian background to the fact that he attended Harvard, a Division II squad, in college – was unique.

And yet, years later, he made his uniqueness – as an undrafted, Asian-American smaller player out of Harvard – into his strength. The impact of Lin’s has surely smartened up NBA execs and scouts to think outside the box when searching for prospects and not turn anyone down based on their college, size, or ethnicity.

Looking back now, it is still surprising that Lin slipped past the eyes of so many NBA teams: future prospects can be grateful that his explosive breakout will serve as an example so others like him don’t slip by, too.

Now, Lin has found a role for himself in the NBA beyond the explosive breakout, beyond ‘Linsanity’. He is now fully focused on remaining a regular NBA contributor going forward, and on evolving his role to remain efficient in the NBA.

“I want to keep getting better,” he said, “I saw some improvement in my game over the past year; and I hope that, over time, I’ll be able to see more and more improvement. Hopefully, as a team, we’ll be able to go further and further into the playoffs.”

This offseason, Lin told SLAM that he has plans to continue sharpening the edges in his game. “I want to continue to work on what I worked on last year,” he said, “On aspects of my game like three-point shooting, defense, on improving my left hand. I’m also adding floaters and stuff like that to my game to be a little more versatile on the court.”

Lin’s uncertain off-season finally came to a conclusion when the Rockets sent him to Los Angeles to become a Laker. When SLAM met Lin two days before this trade, he didn’t comment on his team status, but instead looked back on what it would take for Houston to overturn the recent First Round playoffs loss.

The 2014 First Round series between the Rockets and the Trail Blazers saw featured several memorable moments, including two 40+ games by Lamarcus Aldridge, two games that were settled in overtime, and a game-winning three-pointer by Damian Lillard that beat the buzzer and beat the Rockets for good in Game 6.

Lin’s personal high-point in the series came in Game 5 – his strongest performance of the playoffs – as he bounced back from a tough outing earlier to score 21 points off the bench and help Houston secure a victory. It was true to form for Lin, who turned disappointment and despair into motivation and success.

“I just took a step back after Game 4,” he said, “I prayed to God, and I just kinda calmed down, and I realized that I can only control so much and I have to trust in Him. Going into Game 5 I told myself that I have to be really aggressive and I’m gonna play for God’s glory and be okay with whatever happens. That’s the mentality that I had between Game 4 and Game 5.”

But overall, Lin and his team have been left with a sense of incompleteness after their season of hope was cut short so cruelly in the playoffs. Lin – who played 38 of the 71 games last season of the bench and didn’t start in game of the playoffs – saw his scoring and assist numbers take a dip from last year. He, along with his teammates, must bear the responsibility for the playoffs loss, and as he looks forward to starting over with the Lakers, he has to also focus on bouncing back to answer his critics.

The shadow of the past will always hover above him – and not just his past with the Rockets. Lin spoke about how the Rockets struggled with ball-movement last season, and as the eventual NBA champions showed, ball movement can be the key to overcome any challenge in the league.

The Spurs – who on their way to the Finals defeated the Trail Blazers in the Second Round – were the NBA’s best passing team, leading the league in assists, a wonderful habit that they continued as they demolished LeBron James and the Miami Heat with ease in the NBA Finals. Every success story in the NBA inspires others to try and emulate that success: watch out for more NBA teams attempting to copy the Spurs’ model and become better passers of the ball.

Despite being the second-highest scoring team in the league, Lin’s Rockets only ranked 18th in assists per game in the NBA, a statistic that immediately makes clear that the team relied more on isolation opportunities and individual brilliance than team interplay for their points. As a point guard – who believes that the NBA is moving in the direction of becoming a point guard’s league – Lin’s next challenge is to become the type of floor general that can orchestrate the flow of the offense and leads his team to play unselfish, pass-first basketball.

It is also no secret that the Rockets, including Lin himself, struggled on the defensive end. They ranked in the league’s bottom ten in opponent’s points allowed, for which both individuals as well as the system has been the culprit. Lin has vowed to work on his defensive duties this offseason, and his fans will be hoping that he can bounce back to become a consistent performer when guarding the ball as well.

From one perspective, the road ahead looks rocky, as Lin has to take several individual leaps forward to raise his game to a higher level. But history has taught us perspective, hasn’t it?

History has taught us about the underdog who defeated the odds to become a superstar, and let that stardom flicker to help redefine himself in the NBA. History has given us the perspective to look back at the phenomenon that ‘Linsanity’ once was two years ago, and given us the time to see the influence and the inspiration that phenomenon has had ever since. History tells us that Lin toiled night and day in practice to fight for a chance in the NBA, and that perhaps he has the drive to do it again.

But most importantly, the history of Lin’s career tells us that we still don’t know anything at all. Lin is still only 25 and potentially has many more years with the game ahead of him. We’re still watching history being made in fluid motion, and we’re still experiencing Jeremy Lin in the midst of basketball’s greatest underdog story.

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