For anyone who covered “Linsanity” and Jeremy Lin’s career with the New York Knicks, the crowd response to Lin emerging from the tunnel on Wednesday night was striking for its absence of emotion.
There were some scattered boos, less a referendum on Lin it seemed than the typical Madison Square Garden response to any road team. Kevin Huerter, by virtue of growing up a quick jaunt up the New York State Thruway in Clifton Park, and Vince Carter, thanks to the universally lauded skill of staying young into his 40s, heard more from the crowd than the man who launched an international movement around what amounted to a few dozen games.
Then again, as Lin reminded me, it’s been a while.
“I didn’t really make too much of it,” Lin said of the non-response, icing his knees as he sat in front of his locker following Atlanta’s 126-107 loss to the Knicks. “I think it’s, we’re talking seven, eight years ago. I think for me, I know there’s still a contingent that comes out and supports me and I saw a lot of familiar faces.”
He added that he “lived in New York the past two years”, itself a reminder of the many missed opportunities, the virtual curse that has seemed to follow Lin ever since breaking through in New York like few players in the history of the game.
A brief journey through the unfortunate path: Lin was chased out of town soon after turning in a star performance, done in by the combination of Carmelo Anthony’s pique and something between a misunderstanding and a random bit of regal cruelty from Jim Dolan over a restricted free agent contract offer from Houston.
From there, Lin experienced the twin frustrations of the Rockets adding James Harden, a ball-dominant teammate who took him out of what he does best before Lin ever played a regular season game with the Rockets. After the added humiliation of the Rockets wooing Anthony in Houston with a display featuring Lin’s jersey number, he was offloaded to the Lakers, where he had the chance to stand by and watch Kobe Bryant, the only more ball-dominant guard than Harden, bounce the last few shots of his career discordantly off the side of the rim. Then he headed to Charlotte, where he played well but largely behind Kemba Walker, and then it was off to Brooklyn.
This might have been the most frustrating of all: finally, a chance to start, playing for Kenny Atkinson, a coach who had been on the Knicks staff during Linsanity and loved Lin. Only now, his body betrayed him instead of opportunity. His numbers in 2016-17 looked a lot like Linsanity but he played only 36 games thanks to a hamstring injury that recurred and followed it up in 2017-18 with less than a single game before a ruptured patella tendon ended his season on opening night. The Nets dealt him to Atlanta, and with it, his final chance to establish himself as a starter may have disappeared, along with his 20s.
Somehow, it has all conspired to turn that 23-year-old with such promise into a 30-year-old backup to Trae Young, who is getting the opportunity to lead a team that Lin may never receive again. It hasn’t changed Lin’s approach in intensity, though he has altered the way he moves on the court.
“I used to have a lot of bad habits in terms of like letting my knee cave in and not really using my glutes on my right side,” Lin said. “Using my knees and my back, using a lot of muscles that I hadn’t been using. I think I’ve changed a lot in how I move and it’s not apparent to the spectator or to the naked eye.”
Lin demurred when I said that he looked stronger in his upper body — giggling, he responded “I don’t know if I’m any stronger my upper body, but I appreciate the compliment” — but perhaps it is just the visual of the young Lin splitting double teams on the way to the basket giving way to a more mature version. His quickness is not what it was when he finished routinely among the NBA’s leaders in getting to the rim, the superpower that led to everything else — the elevated assist percentages, the crowd-pleasing plays, the fun that comes from watching a truly elite basketball mind figure out the game and finish at his strongest.
Still, he’s returning from almost two years away, so while he isn’t close to 100 percent, Lin simply may not know what 100 percent is at this point. To him, it’s about rhythm, rather than maximizing speed, and he knows that isn’t back yet, either.
“I think it just takes time,” Lin said. “Some days it’s going to be amazing. Some days it’s going to be a grind. But no, it’s going to take time. I understand that, but I’m not really at a point where I’m trying to make excuses either. I just think I need to get continuing to work out, get my body right.”
His basketball IQ is as strong as ever, something he showed over his 14 minutes Wednesday night. He recognized Ron Baker was overplaying him and took a give-and-go backdoor route to the rim to punish him for it. The following possession, he stepped into a passing lane, picked off the pass and headed straight to the rim, utilizing strength over the circuitous routes he often took when he had quickness in abundance, drawing the foul.
And yet, there were the setbacks as well — Trey Burke pressured him in the backcourt on a possession late in the second quarter, ultimately forcing Lin into getting tripped up and turning it over. The Hawks called timeout, and after the respite, Lin was back on the bench, Young in the game.
“I asked Jeremy after the game, I said, ‘How do you feel?’”, Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce told assembled media in a back hallway of The Garden following the game. “I said, ‘You should feel great. You played more games than you played last year… Now we can move forward, now you’re good, you’ve gotten over this hump.’ He’s good, I’m glad that he was able to finish the game, feel good about himself. From a competitive standpoint, he doesn’t feel like he had a great performance, but that’s what we all should feel like after a loss.”
What Jeremy Lin understands now, in a way few players ever truly get it, is how little he can dictate the circumstances of his career. And so Lin has made the decision to find the joy in whatever he gets to do on the basketball court, to “ride the wave of my circumstance”, as he put it, knowing that he can work as hard as he did in his 20s at his craft, but a most improbable journey is entirely out of his hands.
“I think the older we get, the more we realize we just can’t control anything,” Lin said. “I mean not anything. There’s a few things, but when it comes to like you can do all the right things and it won’t matter if it’s not meant to be. So, if I have five years left, or eight years left, or only one year left, it’s going to lead whatever it will. And if I didn’t enjoy it, I feel like it was a waste. Even if I was healthy, I played well, if I didn’t enjoy it. If I didn’t really appreciate it, then I think I’ll have wasted it.”
Pierce also gave him the psychological gift of finishing the game itself, putting him back in with just under four minutes to go. He dribbled out the final few seconds, finished with eight points, an assist and a steal. Hardly Linsanity numbers.
But that’s not the metric anymore. Did he enjoy it? That’s a work in progress, too.
“It’s hard,” Lin admitted. “There’s times where my ambition means that I want to be out there. Of course I want to play and play well, I’m looking around at the stands, seeing how many people are here. I’m looking down at my NBA jersey. In many ways, I felt like a rookie tonight.”
With that, the group of media — even now, including a healthy dose of international reporters, once so swelled that the Knicks needed to hold Lin pressers in a separate room, since the locker room wouldn’t hold all of us — dispersed, as Lin dressed to go back into the city that had once elevated him into an icon. One of the reporters explained to me that he was here because “Jeremy is very popular in China.” I told him I’d covered him during Linsanity, and remembered how big he was in New York, too.
“Oh, wow,” the reporter replied. “That was before I even started following basketball.”