Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks: The Natural
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Jeremy Lin cut through the heart of the Lakers' defense and, upon absorbing hard contact from Derek Fisher, spun around 360 degrees, nearly losing his balance before managing to steady himself enough to bank the ball off the glass and into the net.
The move brought the Madison Square Garden crowd to its feet, thundering its approval. It was not the most athletic move that one would see on ESPN Sports Center that night. But there is something about the New York Knicks' version of Roy Hobbs that has sports fans, and particularly Asian-American disciples, in a state of delirium.
It is a combination of cerebral acuity, which blends with his quickness and court vision, that is beginning to convince his followers that he is not just a one-week wonder.
Maybe, just maybe, he is one of those rare basketball players who can elevate a team by simply knowing how to play the game at such a superior level that having average to below average height, speed, and jumping ability are not impediments to becoming a star.
The last time I saw such enthusiasm in the Taiwanese-American sports community, it was the summer of 1985, and I was helping my wife (then my girlfriend) to distribute box lunches from her father's Chinese restaurant to the visiting Taiwanese all-star little league team at a small stadium on the outskirts of Albany, New York.
While the stands were almost completely populated by Caucasian fans, a few dozen local members of the Taiwanese-American community overwhelmed them in intensity and volume, by banging on drums and gongs. The fans celebrated even seemingly routine catches by the Taiwanese team with raucous cheers and high fives.
Although the Taiwanese little league teams have historically fared well internationally, there has always been a self-perception of global nonrecognition of their sporting ability, so even modest feats of Taiwanese athletic prowess can engender intense pride.
Part of it also is the small size of their country, which tends to be dwarfed not only by China's land mass and population, but also by its dominance in culture and in the media. But Taiwan is a very successful and entrepreneurial nation, a trade and innovation powerhouse in its own right, especially given its size.
The recognition of its achievements has lagged its accomplishments, which include an economy that boasts some of the most successful companies in the world, particularly in the engineering and technology areas, as well as an impressive movie industry, which produced director Ang Lee, amongst other luminaries.
A country that has labored in the past under Dutch and Japanese rule and under the broad shadow of mainland China has yearned for a global hero, one who can inspire them to bang on drums and gongs. No offense to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but a basketball star of Taiwanese and Chinese ancestry would be very nice, thank you.
Having a Taiwanese immigrant father who idolized the NBA greats and transferred his love of basketball to his sons, Jeremy Lin worked at his game on the playgrounds of Palo Alto, California. Ignored by the Ivy of the West, Stanford, in his own backyard, he was given a chance by Harvard, and became its starting point guard.
Despite a solid career in the Ivy League, the full panel of NBA General Managers failed to call his name come draft day in 2010, perhaps due to the fact that his game does not translate to drills, one-on-ones, or two-on-twos, or perhaps due to a prejudice that if one is Asian-American and one's name is not Yao Ming and 7 foot 6 inches tall, you simply are not NBA material.
Being a Harvard graduate also does not help in the world of pro basketball. Lin might have gone on to apply his bachelor's degree in economics to the business world had it not been for a strong NBA summer league showing against the top pick in the NBA draft that year, John Wall.
He parlayed an invite to the Golden State Warriors' camp to win a spot as a reserve guard, but barely played last year, relegated to garbage time shout outs to local Asian-American fans. Released this year by the Warriors and then by Houston, the New York Knicks picked him up, principally due to a shortage of healthy available bodies at point guard, with injuries to Iman Shumpert and Baron Davis and the regression of Toney Douglas.
While a mere babe at 23 years of age compared to Roy Hobbs, his emergence off the bench to drop 25 points on the New Jersey Nets and their all-star guard, Deron Williams, was a scene from the Natural. His epic battle with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers at the Garden, including 38 points, many of the spectacular variety, was a game for the ages.
His rainbow three-point dagger over a leaping Pau Gasol was the scene where Hobbs crushes the winning home run into the lights atop the right field bleachers, which explode into fireworks.
It is not the statistics, but how Lin plays the game. There is a sense that he does not know what he is going to do next any more than a Knicks fan does because it is dictated how the defense reacts or does not react to his continual probing of its exterior.
He reminds me of a bat in a cave, continually starting, stopping, flitting this way or that, and probing, constantly probing, the exterior of the defense. If his defender plays up on him, he may use a crossover dribble and his quickness to dribble around him and attack the basket.
If a second defender slides over to help, Lin will use his court vision to get the ball to the open teammate for an open shot or lay in. Back off him and if he likes his angle, he will stop and pop a jumper, or lean in for a floater, depending on his proximity to the basket.
He is the hardest-working player to look effortless, and his unselfishness is becoming the gospel to this Knicks' team. If he gets Carmelo Anthony on board with the team concept when Anthony returns from his groin injury, Lin may find himself in Oslo later in the year accepting a Nobel Prize.
It is not uniquely New Yorker to compare an emerging player with heroes of the past, although New Yorkers do it like eating cereal in the morning. It does not work here. Lin is incomparable. For a baby-faced novice out of nowhere, he possesses the cool of Walt Frazier, but Frazier would not flash Lin's delightfully goofy "cannot believe this is happening to me" grin, or celebrate great plays with mid-air chest bumps with his teammates.
He shows some of the creative change of pace, spinning concoctions of Earl the Pearl Monroe, but Monroe's herky-jerky car with a bad transmission moves were flashier than Lin's. Lin demonstrates the ability to shoot a driving teardrop runner a la Bernard Sky King, but lacks King's explosive lift over the defender.
What Lin seems to have bottled is the what George H.W. Bush used to call "the vision thing." He sees the court, reads the defense, takes his time, and makes good decisions on the fly. Like a sportswriter once said about the former St. John's and Warriors' star Chris Mullin, it takes him a while to get there, but once he gets there, he does good things.
Lin has rolled through the New Jersey Nets, Utah Jazz, Washington Wizards, Los Angeles Lakers, and Minnesota Timberwolves; his Hobbsian legend growing with each 20 or more point effort and dazzling array of assists and highlight reel plays.
Whether it continues, no one, including Lin, knows. But what I do know is that I have never seen a Knick in my five decades of following the team come off the last seat on the bench and have this type of impact on the team, the city, and the universe of Asian-American sports fans yearning for a hero.
I would write more but I need to go take my daughters, both born in China, to soccer practice. After all, the U.S. National Soccer team may need a sweeper to replace Rachel Buehler and a goalkeeper to replace Hope Solo in another decade. You never know.
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