Jeremy Lin exploded onto the NBA scene last February unlike any player before. In one week he went from anchored on the end of the New York Knicks bench to the most talked about athlete in the world. Now playing for the Houston Rockets can Lin continue to captivate the entire basketball community?
First let's take a brief look at how it all started for Lin. Last winter, the early-season hype had all but faded in the Big Apple. New York, which started the 2011-12 campaign with so much hope and so much desire for exciting basketball, felt like it had been punched in the mouth.
The frustration of watching talents like Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler continuously fail to play in sync with each other had become unbearable to watch. But then it hit, like sunshine breaking through the darkest of storms: Jeremy Lin stepped into Madison Square Garden’s spotlight.
The undrafted player from the Ivy League institution, who had been waived by two teams before the season, rejuvenated the city, attacking the rim with a vengeance and bringing energy back to the Mecca of basketball.
We all loved the story. Not only was Lin the ultimate underdog, the lightly recruited Asian-American kid from California whose only Division I offers came from schools without athletic scholarships, but he had appeal and swagger.
Parlaying the desperate need for a basketball icon in New York City with being the first Chinese-American to play in the NBA, “Linsanity”, the name given to the hysteria caused by Lin’s success, became an international phenomenon.
While a meniscus tear would bring Lin’s 2011-12 season to a sudden end, Lin still entered the summer as one of the free-agent market’s hottest commodities. After the Knicks controversially failed to match the Houston Rockets' three-year, $25.1 million contract offer, there was much uproar in New York as the 2011-12 season’s magical point guard was gone almost as fast as he arrived.
To many experts, however, the decision by Houston to make such an investment in Lin was brash and ignorant due to the lack of Lin’s body of work. Lin might have had one of the best months of February in the history of basketball, but he had only started 25 career games and played in 64.
Yet the Houston Rockets were not just investing in Jeremy Lin the basketball player but also in Jeremy Lin the cultural icon. Chinese sensation Yao Ming was an international superstar for the Houston Rockets during his eight-year career there and helped the Rockets boost their franchise value by over 100 percent from 2001 to 2009.
By tapping into not only the Asian community in Houston but the enormous Chinese market as well, the Rockets were able to increase the value of their franchise 37 percent more than the average NBA team over the course of Ming’s career. The hope of Rockets management was that Lin and the incredible hype he created in New York would produce a similar bump in franchise value for Houston.
As much as Ming’s financial success came from his appeal to the Asian community, however, his immense popularity also came from the fact that he was really, really good. For his career, Ming averaged 19.0 points per game and 9.2 rebounds per game, while consistently being one of the elite centers in the NBA.
For his brief run with the Knicks last season, Lin was an elite point guard in the NBA, but can he stay there?
Momentary success is great, and Lin’s story seems as if it was specifically concocted for an ESPN 30 for 30, but the true test of an athlete’s performance comes in their ability to repeat it. In the end, Lin’s ability to positively effect the value of the Rockets franchise will be contingent on his ability to remain a top player in the league.
Nine games into the season thus far the verdict on Lin’s basketball ability is still out. His line of 10.9 points per game, 6.7 assists per game and 4.7 rebounds per game might be good enough to be a starting point guard in the NBA, but it does not live up to the high standard Lin set for himself last season. While it has only been nine games, a sample size too small to make any concrete judgements, questions have already started to arise.
How long will Linsanity continue if Lin’s performance fails to improve? Will Lin still maintain his status as a cultural icon if he settles into a role as an average NBA point guard?
Undoubtedly Lin’s presence in Houston has led to large increases in sponsorship revenue and merchandise sales, but early evidence suggests that the Houston crowd itself is not completely sold on Lin yet. So far this season the Rockets have only averaged 15,825 fans per game, which ranks 21st in the league and is almost 2000 fewer fans per game than in 2008-09, Yao Ming’s last healthy season.
While the Houston Rockets were a much better team in 2008-09 than they are in 2012-13, Rockets executives must have been expecting better attendance not only due to the acquisition of Jeremy Lin but James Harden as well.
As the season continues and more information becomes available, it will be especially intriguing to see just how long Linsanity continues and to what extent Lin’s popularity is dependent on his on-court performance. Will fans be able to accept Lin as a ordinary NBA point guard, or will they always hold him to the lofty expectations he set for himself with his spectacular performance last season?