Jeremy Lin’s sudden success with the New York Knicks has cast a shadow of suspicion over every previous NBA coach and team that didn’t give him a shot, but Keith Smart, his former coach with the Golden State Warriors and the current coach of the Sacramento Kings, is fully in Lin’s corner.
This is no surprise for those who know the backstories of setback that make their current surges of success that much more improbable and inspiring.
Lin has suddenly revived the spirits and playoff hopes of a New York Knick squad that was barely treading water in a sea of Eastern Conference mediocrity. Similarly, the Sacramento Kings were listless and out of sync early this year, but since Smart took over for Paul Westphal, he has had the young, previously dysfunctional Kings playing with enough cohesion and energy to rack up four wins in five games, including a hard-fought upset of the NBA-leading Oklahoma Thunder.
Smart and Lin are convinced that they are both characters in a much broader, even cosmic narrative, whose story is still unfolding. Their narratives intersected last year with the Golden State Warriors, but their season together was nothing to write home about.
It would be an overstatement to say that Lin played for Smart last year with the Warriors. Actually, Smart made Lin a backup to a backup, unwittingly paving the way for yet another Jeremy Lin-Tim Tebow comparison: Thanks to Smart, Lin and the Broncos QB were both third-stringers.
Still, just because Smart only called Lin's number for garbage time does not mean he thought his game was trash. In fact, he insists that he saw all kinds of glitter in Lin’s point guard makeup.
He had an aggressive skill on both offense and defense -- offensively getting into the paint and getting to the basket; defensively he would get himself into place for a steal or a rebound, and he didn't back down from guys.
Smart knows that won’t-back-down-hustle-till-you-drop mentality well because he spent a journeyman career cultivating that character himself.
Smart had big-shot success with the Indiana Hoosiers, where in the 1987 title game against Syracuse, he cemented his place in ESPN retrospectives and top-10 lists for most clutch shots in NCAA history. His picture-perfect corner jumper lifted Indiana over Syracuse for a 74-73 lead in the waning seconds of that championship game.
That was the final score and nearly Smart's last shot at basketball prominence.
The fame of the shot was somewhat misleading since Smart was never a strong outside shooter. His sometimes erratic shooting is not the only historic struggle that Smart shares with Lin, who has his own challenges with long jumpers.
For both Lin and Smart, success in college was followed by professional setbacks.
Lin’s early NBA aspirations were forestalled by multiple stints in the D-League. Smart’s presence as an NBA player was so short that if you blinked, you would have suddenly needed a map to find Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Smart played in a league in which the 6’3” Lin could have been a power forward.
The World Basketball League had a 6’5” height restriction (I kid you not), and playing for the Halifax Windjammers, Smart was one of the biggest names in the self-styled “basketball capital of Canada.”
Smart was a huge fan favorite with his tireless hustle and winsome demeanor on the the court.
As a Haligonian and an Indiana Hoosiers fan, I was enthralled when I met Smart.
My friend Jonathan Chang, who at the time was a scrappy and hard-nosed high school point guard, landed Smart for an Athletes for Christ basketball camp that he had organized. Chang, a Canadian of Chinese descent and the son of a Baptist minister, had heard that Smart was a devoted Christian who was eager to share both athletic advice for the court and spiritual advice for life.
Smart recounted at that camp about all the highs and lows that come with athletic achievements and failures. He proclaimed that in the pages of Christian scripture, he had come to a personal relationship with Jesus, a faith that had become a rock of security during all the vagaries of life.
Smart would need to hold on to that hope both as a player and later as a coach—indeed, his road to the head coaching position with Sacramento included a lot of short-term, interim positions without long-term commitments.
When Lin was recently asked how he endured all of his setbacks on the way to sudden (though still early) success with the New York Knicks, he sounded a lot like Smart back at that basketball camp in Halifax:
Obviously it was really tough for me at the time but I just tried to hold on to a lot of the promise that God gave me through the bible to trust and to have joy in our sufferings and to trust in his perfect plan so that’s what I’ve tried my best to do and I’m thankful for how things have turned out.
Smart and Lin couldn’t have imagined last year that in 2012 they would be protagonists in coinciding success stories. It is not clear at this early stage of winning streaks whether those stories will be novels or novellas.
Who knows whether either Smart or Lin will be able to keep it up over the long haul of even a lockout-shortened season?
It is clear, though, that former coach and player have both taken comfort in the idea that their basketball narratives are being written by a grander unseen hand, one that apparently likes to pen a good underdog story with gritty, fun-loving play.
The plot will thicken on February 15 when the Knicks host the Kings.