Thursday, December 20, 2012

#Linsanity: 10 Months Later

I blabbered on and on about the intricacies about the NBA's League Pass, the league's now ubiquitous service in which hoop heads across the planet can watch any league sanctioned game, anytime, anywhere. I consistently refer to League Pass as a sort of "social deal breaker"; after all, why would I go out on a week day when I could see what all the fuss about Dion Waiters is about in another scintillating installment of Cavaliers/Milwaukee, the rivalry the entire country is simply abuzz about?

I mostly offer up my annual $180 dollars for the pleasure and sometimes excruciating pain of watching my Los Angeles Lakers. That in itself isn't so much of a stretch--after all, who wouldn't want to see their favorite team play against the Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs of the world? But the Lakers have nearly 30 of their games broadcast on basic cable broadcasts throughout the country, via the largess of ESPN, NBATV and TNT. More than a third of the Lakers season, and the most important season-swinging games at that, will be thrown up on cable systems across the country for the added price of nothing. So in essence, I end up paying an extra $180 to watch a 30 point Golden State Warriors skewering and an inevitable mid-February Indiana Pacers game that would suck the enthusiasm out of even the most ardent fan.

This is what you call an addiction; a sickness. I love the NBA, and the Lakers in particular, enough to sacrifice my time, money and ultimately standings in my local social strata, to watch Kobe, Dwight, Pau and Nash eviscerate the hapless Wizards on a blustery January Sunday. It's pathetic.

My aunty sat across the table, listening to my description of the NBA's amazing service that has simultaneously sated my fandom and increased tenfold my eventual descent into true nerdom. As I reeled off the program's many capabilities, perhaps condescendingly so, my aunt interrupted me in a sweet, comforting tone that can only come from the mouth of, well, your aunt. She told me that she in fact was a subscriber to NBA League Pass.

I looked at her quizzically. My aunt and uncle were lifelong Angelenos with a partial Lakers season ticket package. As much as a couple of middle-aged, empty nest parents of three could possibly muster, they were Lakers fans to the fullest. But living well within the reaches of Time Warner Cable Sportsnet and their nightly Lakers broadcasts, there was clearly no reason for them to drop cash onto League Pass. Well, unless my aunt had suddenly developed a deep and quite frankly disturbing addiction to Fantasy Basketball.

Before I asked why, my uncle cut in and said "...she wants to watch Jeremy Lin play."
It's been over ten months since Jeremy Lin--he of #LINSANITY, lest we forget--broke into the major leagues. He was part camp, part hype, part narrative, but ultimately, all too real. Lin's astronomical ascent from the doldrums of the 15th man to the cover of Sports Illustrated--twice in a row!--came without nearly any precedent. Left and right, people drew parallels to other sudden explosions in performance, from Brady Anderson to Micheal Ray Richardson to Flip Murray, and also to other breakthrough minority athletes, from Jackie Robinson to Roberto Clemente to Yao Ming. However, none of them quite fit the billing. Lin was Lin, his rise to national prominence as amazing, fractured and unique as his profile indicated.

As such, New York, as well as the rest of the country, fell for him head over heels, as if the Taiwanese-American superstar was the first pubescent girl and adolescent America had ever set his eyes on. His back story, combined with his extraordinarily sudden success, combined with the supersoaker full of gasoline that is the New York media machine made him as compelling as perhaps any sports story that's ever graced the page. There were doubters from far and wide, but for that brief time, Lin came back out night after night and spat in the face of convention and like Tim Tebow, simply kept his detractors at bay. In many ways, the two of them will be inexorably connected--regardless of if neither of them ever has another a significant sports moment past last winter, both Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow will have pulled off something amazing: made even the biggest skeptics into fans of the game again. We all had no choice. We were powerless to thrill of watching sports. It was...disarming.

Lin wasn't just buzz or hyperbole. He was real. His play, his charm, his earnestness, all of it, altogether, was as real as sports can get. A reluctant superstar who admitted his shortcomings in the public eye, as he did recently in an issue of GQ, saying "I'd be a huge liar if I told myself, 'I knew I could do that.' You know what I mean? That's not realistic. Let's just be honest. I had no idea I could play like that. It was as amazing to me as it was to everybody else."

A smart, well-spoken young man who's eagerness to learn and become better had the American Dream written all over him. He was an outsider that desired to be on the inside of a unique fraternity, but even as apparent as his physical differences and pedigree were, he never made a case of crying for equality. In fact, he still remains fully cognizant of the racial dividing lines, mentioning without a hint of bitterness "I'm going to have to play well for a longer period of time for certain people to believe it, because I'm Asian. And that's just the reality of it." Lin, in many ways, represented the best of us.

Hours after witnessing Lin drop 38 points on Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in Madison Square Garden, I sauntered back to my apartment, struck with equal parts shock, awe, and delirious happiness. I spent the next few hours cobbling together my thoughts, trying to make sense of not only what I had just witnessed, but how it had affected me. I wasn't sure.

Around 2:30am, I had published a piece. It detailed that while the national story was the Asian-American Harvard graduate's incredible journey to single-handedly defeating the Lakers on national television in the middle of New York City, for us, the Asian-Americans watching the game, the storyline was completely different.

Growing up Asian-American in a largely middle-class setting, anything was possible. Head of NASA, world-renowned scientist, emergency room doctor, working actor, you name it, you could do it. Armed with loving families, an emphasis on education and a strong work ethic, being a young Asian-American didn't just lend to a possibility of success; in many ways, it was demanded.

But the thought of being a professional basketball player? Preposterous. Even the best of us--those that would dominate in high school, go on to Division III schools or even play overseas, never was there ever an actual, spoken dream to break through to the NBA. Part of it was sheer physics. After all, how could the average-sized Asian man measure up to the genetic advantages of being black? They just weren't there. It's not just basketball--look at the NHL and NFL. We're non-existent.

What Lin did was expand possibility. He didn't bust down the door for floods of young Asian-Americans to finally take the court, like Jackie Robinson did with black Americans in the negro leagues nearly sixty years ago. But what Jeremy Lin did was create a mentality that it was possible. Not even probable--just possible. The thought of possibility had never existed before. Ever.

For the first time in a very, very long time, there was an Asian American doing something that I didn't think was possible. Not because we live in a world where the general Asian man is restricted or oppressed--the opposite, rather. We live in a world where the overwhelming answer to the average Asian-American is "yes". In many ways, we are accepted so much, so often and so unspoken. For me, it was the first time in my life that I'd witnessed such a public breakthrough for the Asian-American community.

But as soon as Linsanity came, it went. The young point guard went down in early March with a knee injury that eventually required surgery, quickly spelling the end of his season. He missed New York's entire playoff run, as insignificant as it was. Moving on into the summer, Lin was a restricted free agent, but his departure from Gotham was nearly unfathomable. The Knicks had acquired, a worst, a very good starting point guard for the price of a simple waiver wire pick-up. The Knicks had proudly and publicly proclaimed that they'd match any offer to Lin up to a "billion dollars". There were few who lacked confidence in Lin's return the next November.

Then, mirroring his rapid rise, Lin was gone from New York. The Houston Rockets had signed Lin to a contract that would have cost the Knicks roughly $30 million dollars in his third year including the luxury tax, as GM Daryl Morey has brilliantly concocted a heavily backloaded deal that made the offer sheet fiscally unmatchable. After much debate and consternation, the Knicks, perhaps also fueled by a perceived slight that Lin would put New York as such a tactical disadvantage, let him walk to Texas for nothing.

The Harvard grad had left the nation's biggest media market, but with him trailed stories that he was nothing more than a fad whose success had caught the league by surprise. The doubters had returned, but this time, there was no longer the on-court magic that kept them entranced and at-bay. In Houston, the expectations hadn't been heaped upon him like the basketball-hungry Northeast, but he nevertheless became the face of Rockets basketball. Coach Kevin McHale never waivered on his commitment to Lin as the team's starting point guard. If there was a chance for the ex-Crimson guard to recapture any semblance of glory he experienced in the spring, the Rockets were allowing him every opportunity. 

In late November, I went to STAPLES Center to watch the Houston Rockets take on the Los Angeles Lakers. What would Linsanity be like ten months later?
Pregame introductions for the visiting team can sway from annoying formality to the high point before tip-off. When the Celtics come to town, every fervent Lakers fan that sniffs even a whiff of history or is within arms length of an adult beverage will reign hearty jeers at Paul Pierce as soon as Lawrence Tanter's golden pipes start to chime "From Kansas..." Even 17 years after he last suited up for the LA, the introduction of Cavaliers coach Byron Scott still envokes a roar from a respectful crowd with echoes of Showtime basketball ringing from the rafters. Derek Fisher could step into STAPLES Center today, tomorrow, yesterday and forever, and he'd still have a grateful audience stand up in appreciation.

Jeremy Lin isn't a conquering hero returning home, or a veteran player reminding forlorn fans about a dynasty long past, or even a hated villain who's every stutter step brings people back to their worst memories. In his short time in the L, he's registered exactly one performance against the Lakers worth noting. He's never played LA in the playoffs--in fact, he's played six games against them ever. He's a Ivy League student-athlete who's high school is located 700 miles to the north. Lin has no relevance to Southern California...except for the fact that he's Asian-American.

From the moment that Jeremy Lin was announced as the starting point guard for the visiting Houston Rockets, there was an audible roar from the crowd. Surveying the 18,000 person room, I wasn't shocked to see that those cheering for this invading Western Conference rival were in fact, Asian-American. As I suspected, the local community had come to the game in force, just as they had for Yao Ming in the previous decade. Blue Knicks #17 jerseys dotted the grandstands, peeking through a sea of scant purple and gold paraphernalia, and of course, grown men and women looking their Sunday best for a formal occasion--a Lakers game.

The cheers remained significant throughout the first quarter, as Lin hit his first field goal, a chip shot from within the paint. I thought "this will last all night. The Asian guy who dropped 38 points in the Garden has come to LA, and my people are going to chant for him all night. Jeremy Lin is important. He will always be important." Every fiber in me wanted to show that Lin wasn't just Chumbawumba. He was Tupac Shakur. Important, enduring and forever meaning as much to the Asian-American community as he was that one chilly Friday evening in February when he declared himself as real as the sentiment in Hit 'Em Up.

But Lin went 1 for his next 8 shots, looking as uninspiring as I've ever seen him play. He finished the game with just 5 points, one of which was a technical free throw. Lin had 10 assists, though nearly half of them were off of broken plays and last second mid-air bailout passes when he realized that he wasn't going to get the shot off. I thought that there must have been an injury, or perhaps just the lingering effects of March surgery affecting him months later. He meandered his way through 31 quiet minutes, looking like a rec league kid had gone to the wrong gym that night.

Stunningly, I noticed that the cheers became less and less as the night went on. Even when Lin managed to needle a pass, grab a rebound, take the ball at the top of the key or even make another field goal, the chatter behind the exploits of the Great Yellow Hope dimmed and waned as did his performance. Shockingly, the Asian-American support didn't remain forceful regardless of how he played. Just like any other NBA player, of any color, religion or creed, he became an anonymous guard looking overmatched against the Lakers. I went to STAPLES Center thinking that Lin's extraordinary popularity with my people would carry through thick and thin; that jersey would always be bought and League Passes would be selected just on the value of his face alone. I wanted so badly to go into the arena that night, watch Lin play, and then type of up long narrative piece about how no matter what the situation, no matter how difficult the obstacles, that Jeremy Lin would always matter. Similar to a Tyler Perry production, even if the quality was under par, the support would shine through from a grateful minority community excited to see one of its own break through the color barrier in the form of smash-hit success. The perfect story I had mapped out for myself had gone the way of of the Dodo rather than Magellan.

Was what I thought so extraordinary about Lin just as much a gimmick as it was made to be?
"People are always saying, 'He's only started twenty-five games, there's so many uncertainties.' And I agree. I totally agree," he says. "I don't know how my next season's going to turn out. The things that I struggled with before last year, I'm going to struggle with next year—there's that learning process. Just because you have x amount of good games doesn't mean that you have drastically improved as a player. It just means that what you could do is finally being shown. But I have to get better."

In the closing minutes of last Monday's Knicks-Rockets game at Madison Square Garden, this all rang true. It was Lin's first contest in New York since his unceremonious separation from the miraculous birthplace of Linsanity. The Bockers had become the best team in the Eastern Conference, while the Rockets milled about in the midsection of an incredibly competitive Western Conference. Even as much as he might not have wanted it to be, the game's storyline surrounded Jeremy Lin and his return to the Mecca.

Until his non-showing in LA almost a month ago, Lin averaged 10 points on 34% shooting with 7 assists, but only 3 free throw attempts a game. Since then, he'd upped his numbers to 12 ppg, 5 apg on a vastly improved 45% shooting. In that Knicks game, Lin scored 22 points on 15 shots, doling out 8 assists in nearly 40 minutes on the floor. He was the best player on the floor that night, bringing the Rockets to victory, the first by a Knicks opponent in the Garden this season. In just a matter of 14 starts, Lin lived up to his words--he got better. No different than any other NBA player, just as he said, the third year man from Harvard hasn't been satisfied with his mainstream media popularity and groundbreaking accomplishments in yes, just 25 games.

Like his introduction in Los Angeles, Lin was met with a hearty pregame applause from an appreciative crowd for providing them with what had been the only stretch of unadulterated joy they had felt in more than a decade. However, as the game wore on, it became more and more clear that it was the originator of #Linsanity that was going to bring the Bockers their first home loss. The cheers quickly and fiercely turned to boos. With the game out reach, Lin exited the floor like any other star that had sunk the Knicks in New York. To a shower of negative energy. 
Jeremy Lin's unexpected 38 point outburst against the LA has a place in my community's collective memory as vivid as anything that's ever happened in sports. For me, it brings me a giddiness that places it amongst any Lakers title win or Kobe buzzer beater. That game and its significance meant just as much as any of my most cherished sports memories, for any of the various reasons I've reeled off. But as we've moved further away from that magical night and into a place where Jeremy Lin isn't laying down 25 a night and lighting the ESPN home page on fire, I've realized that my white knuckled grip on that performance has distorted what Lin's arrival should mean. 

I went into STAPLES Center thinking that he'd be rooted for all game, but instead he was treated like yes, a star player (though he isn't one yet) and was quickly forgotten when his numbers didn't dictate that type of reverence. I watched the Knicks game hoping in vain that the Garden faithful and Asian-American fans in attendance would continually rise up for Lin. I've maintained that Linsanity wasn't just a fad manufactured by the media machine like Hulkamania or Cowboying Up. Knowing how important Jeremy Lin was to the Asian-American community, I always felt that the fevered passion for such a revolutionary star would follow him no matter where he went.

None of that happened. He was common. 

And maybe that's the point. After all the hype, Lin is extraordinary in his ordinary nature. He's become just another NBA player, one that's expected to prove himself before the throngs of scrutinizing NBA fans and overly critical bloggers. He's said, in so many words, that he needs to simply get better day to day. He isn't satisfied riding the incredible high of 25 games, but rather wants to prove himself worthy of coming within thousands of votes of starting an All-Star game he has no business of being near.

Throughout his turbulent misadventure in leaving New York to his rocky start in Houston, to becoming a steady starter over parts of two seasons now, Jeremy Lin hasn't settled every question attached to his name. But at the very least, his notoriety settles him in as a legitimate NBA player. It's as if onlookers watch him expecting the next Yao Ming and are disappointed to see that he's just an average NBA player.

That's a victory in itself.

Maybe Linsanity was closer to the root of the actual pun than a permanent fixture atop the NBA. But I know just as important as that moment was for the Asian-American community when he surfaced, it's just as important to us that he's simply become as scruntinized as any other player trying to make his way in the league. This wasn't like Jackie Robinson's emergence, in that the black community knew that they had the requisite talent not just to hang with the white players, but dominate them. Robinson won the MVP in his third season at age 30.

We weren't asking for a MVP or an All-Star. All we were hoping for was a NBA player that could stick on a 15-man roster. For a while, I lost sight of the fact that before Lin's emergence, I wasn't even asking for an Asian-American player in the Majors. It wasn't even on my radar screen. But when Lin made his mark with such punctuation, I thought that the extreme passion I felt at that moment would be the very same my people would carry on for years to come. That didn't happen. In so many ways, it can't happen. The hype has died down. The nightly buzz has worn off. Lin, in the end, has become another NBA player. He's a NBA starting point guard. The public has accepted that for the most part, and without the nightly hyperbole, continued to prove his worth on a 15 man squad. I'd say that this acceptance is more than we ever could have asked for. 

For the first time in ages, the Asian-American community witnessed one of us do something that we hadn't thought possible. In this way, Jeremy Lin will always matter. But Linsanity has come and gone, replaced with an average NBA player that's weaved anonymously into the fabric of the league.

And maybe that's what's best.

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