Jeremy Lin had a shooting coach this summer who apparently has a Midas touch, because Lin has struck gold.
Nike is tripping over itself trying to cash in with some new Lin shoes, and we can only imagine the rest of the deluge of endorsements soaking the still wet-behind-the-ears star.
But this isn’t about money. This is about two guys putting in the laboratory sweat of basketball science that makes a three-point buzzer-beater look like an effortless snap of the wrist.
When Lin held on to the ball in the waning seconds of "Asian Heritage Night" in Toronto, was there a shooting coach balanced on the precipice of his armchair somewhere, rising with expectation as Lin lifted off the floor?
After Lin had stopped and popped and the visiting stadium had exploded with cheer, did that shooting coach’s hands swell with so much pride that he wouldn’t have been able to catch a ball, let alone pass it in shooting tutelage?
Maybe I am romanticizing it all, creating some imaginary bond that fits the thickening feel-good narrative of Linsanity.
If I am, it is because I had a shooting coach who would have done that.
I met him when I was at a university basketball camp in the summer before my freshman year of high school. He was the head coach of that university and I was a budding point guard who was in the right place at the right time.
My high school had a 6’9” center named William Njoku who would eventually not only play for that local university holding the camp, but would go on to be drafted by the Indiana Pacers in the second round of the 1994 NBA draft.
What my high school didn’t have at the time was a pure point guard, so I was planning to hurl my 5’3”, 135-pound frame into that vacant role—I thankfully had a later growth spurt—and help create a Canadian version of Spud Webb and Manute Bol.
That summer at the basketball camp, the university coach who would later become my summer shooting coach was effusive in his praise. Thinking back, I really was playing out of my head, throwing court-length bounce passes, and breaking some fragile prepubescent ankles with my crossovers, but I didn’t deserve the hyperbolic affirmation he was giving me.
After a largely unspectacular first two years of high school ball (Njoku got hurt and we didn’t have the season we were expecting), I was heading into my senior year when I met that coach again.
He had made a career transition and was no longer coaching at the university level. He was spending more time with his wife who was suffering from MS.
He also decided to spend hours with me that summer working out an ugly hitch I had in my jump shot. To be honest, I sometimes found the shooting work tedious.
My classmates were off squeezing all the outdoor activity they could get into a short Nova Scotia summer. Meanwhile, I was in a dusty gym holding a basketball up well within the foul line, aligning my elbow with my right foot, and then shooting shot after one-handed shot.
My shooting coach didn’t care whether it went in.
Was I still kicking my shooting elbow out to the side and compensating with a strange side spin? If it didn’t sink straight through the hoop with proper backspin, there was no backing up to a more manly distance.
I didn’t become a sure-shooter in my senior year, but I sure shot a whole lot better than I ever had. I had a 36-point scoring night in which every jumper felt fluid (okay, except for a three-pointer from the top of the key that I banked in to tie the game at the buzzer).
I never contacted my summer shooting coach after that thrilling overtime victory, nor have I done so in all the years that have passed. I felt embarrassed about losing touch and didn’t know what to say.
I still think of him, though, every time basketball becomes my refuge, which is basically whenever I lace up some battered tennis sneakers, throw on some sunscreen (Florida sun can be brutal on pasty white Canadian skin), and enter that pure, clichéd space where it is you, the hoop, a ball and your own thoughts.
There is a meditative quality to shooting jumpers by yourself—a calming rhythm. My poor shooting these days also makes these sessions a good workout because I have to chase all kinds of errant threes around a fenceless asphalt court.
When my slumping string of shots matches discouragements off the court, I consciously try to simplify both. I go back to those basic fundamentals that my shooting coach spent so much of his selfless time trying to wedge into my muscle memory.
And I grab hold of that simple life lesson that people are worth our kindness and time even if there is no perceptible payoff for us in the end.
If I can’t get that perfect rotation back, or my elbow still insists on jutting to the side, the effort alone makes me feel gratitude for a sport that has introduced me to stories like Jeremy Lin, who stayed steady shooting shots in the face of one setback after another.
And more importantly, it makes me feel gratitude for all the shooting coaches behind the scenes who helped forge a lifelong refuge for a host of unheralded players.
In the words of Earnest Hemingway, “We are apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” That is true for basketball and it is true for life.
Thank you, Allan Waye.