Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Jeremy Lin Experience

Dear Coach D'Antoni,

Let's take a trip in the mental time machine to Friday, February 3rd, 2012. By the end of the night, your Knicks had suffered their 11th loss in the last 13 games. The NYC tabloids were saying you could be fired by the end of the weekend. Your team had absolutely zero chemistry. You had no competent point guard. Allow me to quote an article written around this time by New York magazine's excellent Will Leitch: "The Knicks are unquestionably a disaster right now...There is a short window for D'Antoni to survive, riding mostly on 33-year-old Baron Davis returning from his injuries to play the point the way a D'Antoni team requires...But considering the truncated season and the lack of practice time available, that seems highly unlikely. Whether it comes after this season or as early as this week, the end for D'Antoni appears nigh." Nobody disagreed with this assessment.

Remember that February 3rd, Mike? Recall, too, the Jeremy Lin of that night, who scored two points for you in six minutes of PT, and whose contract wouldn't be guaranteed if the Knicks cut him within a week, a distinct possibility. What if someone would've told you then, after that loss, that the very next night Jeremy Lin would score 25 and add 7 assists in a win over the Nets? What if someone told your February 3rd self that you'd soon be inserting Lin into the starting lineup, and that in his first three starts he'd score more points than any player since the NBA/ABA merger in 1976, and that you'd win each of these games? And what if on February 3rd this person told you that on the following Friday your Knicks would beat the Lakers for the first time in five seasons, without Carmelo or Amar'e, and that in the victory Jeremy Lin would score 38, the most points against L.A. in the Garden by any Knick in the last 25 years? What if somebody told you on that awful February 3rd that in a week's time you'd be referring to your team's chemistry semi-sincerely as a "love fest," and that with Lin in the lineup, your other guys--Chandler, Jeffries, Novak, Shumpert, Fields--would start playing much better, too? And what if this clairvoyant also told you that 24 hours after the L.A. game, coming off the exhilaration and exhaustion of his performance against the Lakers, Jeremy Lin would put up 20/8/6 against the T-Wolves while having an off night and that he'd make the go-ahead free throw at the end, sealing your sixth straight victory and concluding the most unlikely week of basketball for any player in NBA history? Seriously, Mike. What would you say? What the heck would you think? And if you knew for an absolute fact that all this would truly come to pass, how delighted would you be?

It's a beautiful thing, these rare time-machine moments in sports (and life) where we could show a certain snapshot from the future to our unhappy younger self and this younger self would be extremely pleased but also extremely bewildered. When you coached in Italy, what would you have thought if you had seen your picture on the back page of one of those future New York tabloids as the head coach of the Knicks? When the Nuggets fired you in the early 90's after only one unsuccessful lockout-shortened season as head coach, what would you have thought if someone showed you your future NBA Coach of the Year trophy? When Lin was playing in the D-League for the Reno Bighorns or the Erie Bayhawks, or even better, when he was sending tapes to college coaches and failing to get a scholarship, what would he have thought if someone showed him the AP story about the Lakers game ("Jeremy Lin had the most astounding performance of his remarkable week, scoring a career-high 38 points and outdueling Kobe Bryant as the New York Knicks held off the Los Angeles Lakers 92-85 on Friday night…”)? Or think of the Giants and Cardinals, the elated confusion they would've felt if they'd seen their respective championship headlines during their regular season low points. There's a life lesson here, though I know I don't need to draw it out for you, Mike. And I'm not sure I even could.

I heard one announcer say that Jeremy Lin's story "defies logic." No. The kid had 30 against UConn in college and outplayed John Wall in the NBA Summer League. Literally no one expected him to do anything like that in the NBA, but it doesn't defy logic. Defying logic would be if Jeremy Lin levitated inside the Garden. But here's the thing: just because we can reach a logical explanation for something doesn't make it any less incredible, or even less miraculous. We forget this sometimes, Mike. Discussing musical notes and the recording process doesn't lessen Astral Weeks, Van Morrison's most miraculous album. Talking about erosion doesn't lessen the Grand Canyon. Talking about the science of childbirth doesn't lessen the incredible fact that a new human person just came out of there who previously didn't exist. I'm not saying Jeremy Lin's week equals Astral Weeks or the weeks of gestation, but I am saying this: As a coach, you may already be revising the Jeremy Lin story in your head, making it seem less astounding. Humans have a bad habit of revising their internal equilibrium almost immediately after something incredible occurs to them, so that it becomes normal, taken-for-granted, even boring. Don't do it, Mike. Remember February 3rd and how you would've reacted then to a glimpse of the near future.

A week ago I was really getting settled in to root against you and the Knicks for the rest of the season. I'm a Rockets fan, Mike, and as you know, we have your first round pick in the upcoming draft, as long as it's not in the top five. (A result of the Tracy McGrady trade. Ha!) I figured the pick would be in the late first round, but suddenly it looked like you guys might actually miss the playoffs altogether, even in the weak-ass East, and we might actually get a lottery pick from you, unless Stern rigs it. So I had legit reasons for rooting against the Knicks. And I didn't mind rooting against Carmelo, who I've disliked ever since I saw a documentary on the Redeem Team and watched a segment where they asked all the players who was the funniest guy on the team and every single player said Lebron, except for Carmelo, who said, "Most people would probably say me, but I'd say Lebron." And I didn't mind rooting against you, even though I've always liked you and your teams, because you seemed to be throwing your players under the bus a lot this season (see my letter to Mark Jackson). And I didn't mind rooting against the Knicks organization as a whole, because they're New York and, more importantly, because they traded a bunch of their best young players for a ball-hogging superstar who would've likely joined the team as a free agent a few months later, and the powers-that-be certainly deserve to be cheered against for their lack of patience and logic. And, even worse, the decision seems to have been made primarily by a jackass of an owner who doesn't give interviews and who fronts a band called JD & the Straight Shot. And this owner and his band play a song called "Fix the Knicks," which includes these lyrics: "Doing my best, yes, that's my promise/I check with my friends, call Isiah Thomas." Isiah Thomas! The dude whose basketball decisions set the franchise back a decade and who caused the organization to pay an $11.5 million settlement for the sexual harassment of a team employee! So, yeah, I looked forward to cheering the Knicks to the 6th pick in the draft.

But now I can't do it, Mike. I can't cheer against Linsanity. I really can't. And I love the way everybody else is playing now, too, love to see a D'Antoni team playing like a D'Antoni team. And I can't cheer against Amar'e either, who just lost his brother, and who spent the week grieving with his family while the rest of us delighted in Jeremy Lin. I hope Amar'e and his family are doing okay, or as okay as they can be under the circumstances. I've always liked Amar'e--in Seven Seconds or Less he comes across as a pretty good dude, actually--and now he finally has somebody who can run a pick and roll with him again. Let's hope we soon witness an Amar'e renaissance.

All season I've been irritated whenever I see the stupid Knicks on the national TV schedule, but now I'm searching the schedule for more Knicks games. And the truth of the matter, one that we rarely acknowledge, is that watching sports is much more fun when the big teams are good, even if only to cheer against them. The Cowboys suck and the NFL is slightly worse off for it. Nobody, even Yankee haters, really wants the Yankees to go back to their pre-Jeter irrelevance. And if a big team has an incredible underdog playing a central role, that's different and even better. I'll be rooting for you guys as long as Lin's in the lineup, except against the Rockets. I know you don't care, but I thought it might be interesting to consider that a week ago most of New York had turned against you, and now even random people from other states will be hoping the Knicks continue to succeed. And anyone who delighted in this past week--other Knicks and Knicks fans and people like me--owes you a debt of gratitude for giving Lin a real opportunity. Thanks for playing him, Mike.

To conclude, let's take one more trip in the mental machine, but let's go to the future: a week, a month, a year, a decade from now. Will the term Linsanity seem antique, the way, say, crackberry is starting to seem? Will Jeremy Lin be a legit star, or will he be a solid NBA point guard, or will he have faded into an NBA footnote? Whatever the answers, future Mike D'Antoni and the future versions of the rest of us will already be creating a revisionist history of Jeremy Lin. Either Linsanity will begin to seem more and more normal, the way Kobe's 34 and crazy turnaround J's seemed normal the other night, or Linsanity will have ended, for any number of reasons, and Lin's early performances will be considered an aberration. Either way, we'll unconsciously lessen what happened in the past week because of it. But just this once, let's not do that, Mike. Let's clearly remember how wonderful this was, that an undrafted Asian-American from Harvard scored more points in his first three starts than Bird, Magic, Jordan, Shaq, Lebron, and anybody else in modern NBA history. Let's fight the human instinct to normalize the incredible. To quote another great underdog who came out of nowhere--Dignan from the movie Bottle Rocket: "Everybody wants to know what's next. May I enjoy this moment?"



P.S. I'm calling on you, Mike, to call on America to cease with the Lin puns. The worst one I saw was a sign that said, "Lin-possible is Everything," which makes no sense. The best was the shirt that said, after Ludacris, "All I do is Lin, Lin, Lin."