Think of the best three-week run of your life.
Maybe a massive work project that ended with a big sale and bigger bonus. Or perhaps a nice, long vacation on a cruise ship somewhere, throwing back drink after drink as you gaze out at the shimmering azure sea.
I bet yours is good—maybe even pretty darned great.
But I bet Jeremy Lin’s tops it.
In one glorious, improbable, unforgettable three-week period in February 2012 known as Linsanity, Lin went from sleeping on his brother’s couch to making the cover of TIME. From praying for playing time to being endlessly discussed on ESPN. From desperately trying not to get cut from yet another NBA team to half a million Twitter followers.
As February 2012 dawned, about the only chance of hearing Lin's name in public was if the hostess at Denny's told him his table was ready. As February 2012 drew to a close, that same name was being chanted by sellout crowds at Madison Square Garden, had become a ubiquitous pun and was even lampooned in a Saturday Night Live sketch.
Heady stuff for most folks.
But Jeremy Lin is not most folks.
Every NBA fan knows the story: unrecruited high-schooler starts at Harvard, graduates with economics degree, goes undrafted, bounces around in the D-League, gets cut by two NBA squads including his hometown Golden State Warriors, does not give up, holds his breath waiting to be cut again by the New York Knicks.
Then, all of a sudden, a desperate coach starts him at point guard.
Suddenly and stunningly, Lin becomes a scoring machine, a game-winning shot artist and a megawatt star in the city where the spotlight shines the brightest.
In his first four games as starter, Lin scored 109 points—the most in a player’s first four starts since the NBA/ABA merger. In his first six starts, he averaged at least 20 points, seven rebounds and one steal—and become one of only 15 players to accomplish such a streak since the 1985-85 season.
But Linsanity went way beyond stats. During Lin’s streak, StubHub site traffic and ticket sales increased tenfold. The stock value of Madison Square Garden increased almost 10 percent—a difference of well over $170 million. (Lin, by the way, made $800,000 that season.)
Madison Square Garden’s MSG network saw a ratings bump of 138 percent, and at least two Linsanity contests become the network’s highest rated since they began tracking household ratings—almost 25 years earlier.
Between April of 2011 and April of 2012, only Derrick Rose’s jersey sold more—despite the fact that Lin was unknown until February of 2012, giving Rose's sales a nine-month head start.
As the world went Linsane, few of us realized what our rabid fandom was creating. The expectations on Lin, who had at the height of the frenzy started fewer games than he had fingers, were now Herculean. Lin was being mentioned in the same breath with players so transcendent they need but one name: Kobe. LeBron. Rose. And yes, even Jordan.
We expected this rookie, this career benchwarmer and knockabout who had just found his game, to perform at these superstars' levels.
He had captured the world. And in return, we wanted the world from him.
Eventually, the boss wants to talk about the next sale, not the last one. The cruise ship docks. All good things, as they say, come to an end.
So do great things.
As suddenly as it had begun, Linsanity was over.
What happened? A perfect storm of events that worked against Lin’s skill set.
Carmelo Anthony returned from injury, expecting the team to abandon the pick-and-roll and the open-man-takes-the-shot philosophy—an offense that was perfectly tailored for Lin, as it had been for Steve Nash before him.
Amid the resulting dissension, the Knicks lost six straight, and eight of ten games. Lin’s production declined, as did his shooting percentage.
And then, after reportedly failing to convince management to trade Anthony, coach Mike D’Antoni resigned.
New coach Mike Woodson’s offense was not like D’Antoni’s. It was not uptempo. It did not rely heavily on the pick-and-roll. Woodson frowned on point guard freelancing. He also favored veterans over rookies, and wanted his offense to run through his established stars.
And worst of all for Lin, the new coach was winning.
Officially, Linsanity ended on April 3, the day Lin had season-ending knee surgery.
In reality, it ended when D'Antoni walked out the door, perhaps even when Anthony walked back onto the floor.
Maybe the boss gives you another hot project. Or, your next vacation approaching, you once more book an ocean voyage.
You get another chance at another incredible run.
So it appeared for Lin when he was obtained by the Houston Rockets. Lin would be running a pick-and-roll-heavy offense similar to D’Antoni’s. He would be the biggest name on a superstar-free team.
Lin still had only 25 starts under his belt, and though most players with his modest experience would be granted a chance to learn and refine their game, Lin would have no such luxury. Linsanity had changed all that.
But in the Rockets, Lin would be returning to a team who had cut him, and was eager to make amends for the mistake. Their fanbase had wildly supported former Rocket great Yao Ming, and was thrilled that the Asian-American Lin would follow in Yao’s sizable footsteps and don the red and white.
It seemed the stars had aligned for the world to go Linsane once again.
The next pitch bombs, the sale collapses and the relentless suck-up in the next cubicle gets your promotion.
The cruise ship tips over off the Tuscan coast.
It may be difficult to fathom, but Jeremy Lin got his second chance ripped out from under him too. On the eve of the new season, Houston traded for shooting guard extraordinaire James Harden, whose game is somewhat reminiscent, in a cruel twist of fate, of Carmelo Anthony’s.
Houston gives Harden the keys to the offense. Lin is once again out of his flow, in an offense ill-suited for him.
Watching Jeremy Lin this season, I sometimes wonder if I’m watching an NBA redux of Muhammad Ali’s final fight against Trevor Berbick.
That night, it was clear that Ali was no longer the same fighter. But every so often, he would shuffle his legs around, and do a wan version of that distinctive Ali dance. And each time he danced, the crowd would instantly hold its breath and sit forward on its seats, hoping that Ali had been holding back, playing possum, that he still had magic inside those gloves and he was about to turn it on one last time.
But they were only brief glimpses, memory-fueled mirages, in a unanimous and heart-wrenching loss.
Lin as a Houston Rocket has been consistently unselfish and constantly hustling. He's worked on what he's been asked to work on. He's never complained.
But he's gone truly Linsane only once, in a game without Harden, where he was free to be himself. He scored 38 points and notched seven assists in 42 minutes.
A few other nights, Lin has tantalized: 21 points and seven assists, with ten rebounds, against the Atlanta Hawks. Double-digit assists against three other teams. Most recently, back-to-back games with Lin in attack mode: 22 and eight against the Knicks in his return to the MSG, immediately followed by 18 (on 8-12 shooting) and six against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Each time, like I did for Ali that night, we all hold our breath and hope that the magic is back, that the good times will continue to roll, that Lin is the superstar we all want him to be.
The moments are too few, too far between. Yet we continue to wait.
What might spark a return of Linsanity? We all speculate and ruminate: Lin needs to be more aggressive—for goodness’ sake, he had a Latrell Sprewell poster on his dorm room wall—and attack the basket, no matter what kind of offense he is in. The Rockets' coaching staff needs to restructure the offense to flow through him.
Or what seems to be the prevailing opinion of the moment: Lin needs a fresh start.
I, like many, believe the latter.
Yet I know the momentous challenge that would accompany a fresh start in Jeremy Lin's case.
Whatever team he lands with, this young man—who still has less than a season's worth of starts under his belt—will be immediately expected to lead. And thrill. And star.
Such is the price of Linsanity.
No matter what change we think will incite the second coming of Lin's remarkable run, we as fans are powerless to effect that change.
So we wait. And we hope.
Just like we hope for that girl to call one more time. For that next big sale. For that perfect vacation where we can once again find peace.
Sometimes it happens.
Sometimes it doesn't.
In sports, like in life, those runs are rare. So whether or not we can recapture those special times, it behooves us to appreciate the fact that we got to experience them at all.
Linsanity was one of those times, an indelible sports moment, a life-affirming chronicle of an underdog’s rise to the top, like Kurt Warner going from grocery store bagger to the NFL’s best quarterback in a season, or Buster Douglas going from his mother’s deathbed to upsetting the most unbeatable fighter of his time.
Warner rose, fell, then rose again. Douglas had only the one shining moment.
Which will Lin be? Will he rise again?
I hope so. I even think so.
But I am far from sure.