February 15, 2012

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Why Jeremy Lin suddenly such hot stuff?

Last night I listened to sports radio from ESPN, WFAN in New York, KNBR in San Francisco, and WEEI in Boston, as well as to KOVO here in Provo, Utah (where I’m hanging this week). One of the talkers put it best, saying something like this: “Let’s face it. There is no other story right now. Jeremy Lin is all we can talk about, because he’s too damned interesting.”

Tonight the saga continued. Jeremy Lin scored 27 points with 12 assists (and 8 turnovers) as the Knicks beat the Raptors in Toronto on a 3-point shot by — of course — Jeremy Lin. Also this: he made the winning shot with half a second on the clock. And that was after tying the game up a few seconds earlier with a drive to the basket in heavy traffic, drawing a foul, and making that shot too. That’s two three-point plays in a row. Great stuff. Legendary, considering that he’s done this kind of thing night after night, though a career that’s just six games long, so far.

So let’s pause to look at what makes a story — especially one so irresistible as this one:

  1. A character. That is, a protagonist. Somebody you can identify with, because they’re interesting and unique. Ideally, they aren’t from Central Casting. And they have flaws as well as positive qualities.
  2. A problem. That is, a challenge or a struggle that keeps you interested. (Turning the page, coming back for the next episode, whatever.)
  3. Movement toward a resolution. That is, the clear sense that this is all going somewhere, no matter how bad things might be now, or how complicated the plot lines thicken and braid.

Jeremy Lin scores big on all three. Like all of us, he’s not typical. In his case, especially for basketball. He’s 6’3, but that’s about average for a point guard. He’s also skinny, not bulging with muscles, not covered in tatoos. He’s also Chinese, in the ethnic sense, though he’s an American kid who grew up in Palo Alto. You don’t find many Chinese (or even Asian) players in the NBA, or even at the college level. He’s also a devout Christian who is quick to thank God, though not so quick as Tim Tebow.

He also has a problem: until just a few games ago, he couldn’t get much respect.

While he was named Player of the Year by many for leading Paly High to the state championship as a Senior, and was first team all-state in California that same year, he wasn’t recruited by any major schools, or even many minor ones. He ended up going to Harvard, which doesn’t give athletic scholarships and where he played four solid years of ball before graduating with a degree in economics and a 3.1 GPA. He was first team all-Ivy, and got kudos from many coaches, including Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun (on whose team he dropped 30 points and grabbed 9 boards), but went undrafted by the NBA. After excelling in an NBA summer league, he found his way to the end of the bench for the Golden State Warriors, his home team growing up. They cut him. Then he surfaced at the Houston Rockets. They cut him too. Then the New York Knicks picked him up off waivers from Houston. They were ready to cut him too, but needed help from deep in the bench after their two starting stars couldn’t play.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, the rest is history. Lin played only 55 minutes in the Knicks’ prior 23 games, most of which the team lost. Then he came off the bench in a game on February 4 — remember, this is just ten days ago — and scored 25 points with 5 boards and 7 assists. The Knicks won. The Knicks have gone undefeated since then, with Lin as their point guard. He’s scored more than 20 points in all of those games, and hit the winning shot in two of them. He also out-scored Kobe Bryant, with 38 points, in a game against the Lakers.

So it’s a triumphant story, but it’s not over. What keeps us tuned in and turning the pages is that we don’t know what will happen next. Is he really that good? Can he keep it up? If the answers to either of those questions is yes, how many other Jeremy Lins are out there, unrecognized?

We don’t know, and that keeps us interested too.

In my case, I’m interested in Jeremy Lin as a character because both my older kids went to Paly High when we lived in Palo Alto. My son and I probably played basketball on some of the same courts Jeremy played on later. I also watched Jeremy play when he was at Harvard. I remember one game where it was clear that Jeremy was the best player on the floor. But the next night we went to a Celtics game and couldn’t help comparing the two games. The difference was extreme. I couldn’t imagine any of the players I saw at the Harvard game playing in the NBA, Jeremy Lin included.

But here he is. I’ve watched some of his games, and it’s clear that he’s a solid point guard without a lot of flash, reminding me of Steve Nash, Derek Fisher and John Stockton in their primes. Good penetrator. Good shooter. Great at sharing the ball and running the floor. But I think there’s more going on than talent and style. Basketball, like all sports, is a head game. Skill isn’t enough. You’ve got to have your head straight. Wilt Chamberlain, one of the greatest players of all time, and the only one ever to score 100 points in a game (when there were no 3-point shots, not that he would have taken any), was a notoriously bad foul shooter. Yet in practice, I’ve read, Wilt was terrific at foul-shooting. He just choked in games.

What I’m saying is that Jeremy Lin is a head-case in the positive sense: he’s broken through into a zone where his head is level and his emotions are positive. He believes in himself, and he believes in his team. He has the poise of a player who has been a starter for ten years. The other players he makes look good include Bill Walker, Landry Fields, Jared Jeffries and Steve Novak, none of whom are big stars.

Can’t help loving it. The story is too good not to.

[Later...] Well, the Knicks played two more games since I wrote the above, winning one and losing the other. Jeremy Lin scored 10 points with 13 assists in the first, and 25 points with 5 assists and 4 steals in the second. Alas, he also had nine turnovers in that one. Protecting the ball is a weakness of his — and now he’s not overlooked by opposing defenses. Still, you can’t win them all. He’s clearly a solid NBA player on a team that was tanking without him and now has strong shot at making the playoffs.

So I want to add two more points to the ones I made above.

One is that Lin’s ethnicity, while it adds spice to his story, has nothing to do with his qualities as a basketball player. On this issue lots of commentators are quite wrong. Says Walt Frazier in this USA Today story, “This league is dominated by African Americans. What are the odds of an Asian guy coming on and having this impact? It’s amazing. It’s inexplicable.” No, it’s not. The chance is very small that the next NBA player coming through a door will be Asian, but the NBA has hundreds of players spread across 30 teams. It should be no surprise that an Asian guy would show up every once in awhile, especially if he’s an American who grew up playing excellent high school and college ball, as Jeremy Lin did. And his impact has everything to do with his skills as a player and nothing to do with his name or his looks. The only influence those had (I say, in the past tense) was on talent scouting. A big reason he escaped notice was that he didn’t look like a typical basketball player. This is now a mistake that scouts are less likely to make. (By the way, Lin’s agent is black, and Lin has a great sense of humor about his unique non-basketball qualities. I mean, you’ve gotta see this video.)

The other is that Lin has clearly worked on his game. By that I mean he is not the player we saw at Paly High, at Harvard, or even in games for the Golden State Warriors or the Houston Rockets. He has improved. Practicing with NBA players has made him a better player. Also, at the Knicks, he has been learning a new offense under Coach Mike D’Antoni. Remember how well D’Antoni did in Phoenix with Steve Nash at guard? That’s why the Knicks recruited D’Antoni. Turns out Lin is a lot like Nash: a smart non-egotistical high-energy player who runs the floor at high speed, can navigate through traffic, looks to pass before he shoots, and plays tough defense that forces a lot of turnovers. That’s why other players like to have him on the floor. The coach too.

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