The name “Jeremy Lin” was rolling off tongues all around Manhattan’s East Village last Friday night.
Just days beforehand — a few blocks south of where young New Yorkers in bars and at busy junctions were repeating his name in hushed tones — the Knicks’ newest star had been sleeping on his brother’s couch, unsure of his future.
By the time the LA Lakers rolled into Madison Square Garden at week’s end, he was celebrating a new contract with a 38-point haul that won him his duel with Kobe Bryant, copper-fastening an incredible week for the young man from Palo Alto, California.
Lin is the biggest story in American sport at the moment. But he was days from obscurity, the thin line between success and failure highlighted by his meteoric rise from Harvard, rejection and the Knicks bench to the biggest-selling NBA jersey in the last week and a half.
Lin is the first US-born Asian-American to play professional basketball which explains part of his appeal. There is also his stringent faith in God, always a bonus. Of course, both of those aspects, race and religion, can also be a heavy load to bear. Already a prominent sports journalist, Jason Whitlock of Fox, has been forced to apologise for a lewd tweet that, despite its brevity, managed to combine Asian stereotypes and a dash of sexism in an unfunny and career-threatening quip.
Even Floyd Mayweather Jr. got involved on Monday, tweeting in yet another bid for cynical publicity: “Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.”
Nobody would be agonising over what his success means to culture and sport nor would anyone be celebrating the game-changing abilities which have turned around the Knicks season had he not been given one last chance by his coach to secure a career in the game.
Lin had gone undrafted in 2010 and was subsequently picked up by his hometown NBA team in northern California, the Golden State Warriors. They had hoped to use his Taiwanese heritage as a marketing ploy for their predominantly Asian fanbase. That didn’t work out and the Houston Rockets gave him a quick trial before cutting him in December. The Knicks snapped him up on a whim but he was going nowhere fast.
February 7 was the deadline for players like him around the league on non-guaranteed deals to be signed or be gone — hence the reason he couldn’t commit to any other lodgings than his brother’s couch.
The fast-approaching D-Day, as well as a depleted squad that was underperforming, forced coach Mike D’Antoni into giving the young Californian a final chance.
Exactly a week before his Lakers display, he was unconvincing in a defeat at the Boston Celtics. However, just 24 hours later, D’Antoni tried again. Sprung from the bench, he destroyed the New Jersey Nets with 25 points and seven assists. Two nights later, he made his first NBA start and upped the ante: 28 points and eight assists in a 99-88 victory over the Utah Jazz.
“I don’t think anyone, including myself, saw this coming,” Lin said after the game. By Tuesday he had secured a $788,000 (€600,000) contract until the end of the season and he was free to go apartment hunting.
Playing the Lakers at the Garden was his first real test in his first full week of regular professional basketball. It ended up being the highest points total of the season for a Knick, beating injured star Carmelo Anthony who roared his team mate on from the stands.
In the run-up to the game, Bryant was his usual stroppy self. The common term for what was happening in New York was ‘Linsanity’. The Laker legend didn’t know what everyone was going on about. After his team was shredded, he chided reporters for the all too simple rags-to-the-riches line. “When a player is playing that well, he doesn’t come out of nowhere… Go back and take a look and the skill level was probably there from the beginning, it’s just that we didn’t notice.”
Now comes the tricky bit. Never mind his being claimed — through no fault of his own — by God-fearing politics and racially-charged debates, the future is all basketball. As Jay Caspian Kang wrote in Grantland.com on Monday, “(because this) happened in New York, a city that collectively rolls its eyes at every overwrought racial or faith-based metaphor, his remarkable ascent has been processed through New York’s peculiar, impassioned take on basketball”.
Whatever comes of this, it’s safe to say he won’t be sleeping on his brother’s couch again.
* email@example.com Twitter: JohnWRiordan