EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — There’s a subtle key to the underdog story.
It’s all about the expectations—or more accurately, the lack thereof.
When the underdog beats the odds, real math goes into that equation: He isn't supposed to win, according to the percentages, so there's no reason for him to feel pressure to perform and win.
As chronicled in the 2013 documentary Linsanity, the preface to Jeremy Lin's stunning domination under then-New York Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni was Lin asking D'Antoni if the player should ship his car out for the rest of the season with the league's contract-guarantee date approaching, and the coach replying: "Uh, no. Probably not."
No expectations, no pressure—and so much freedom just to do what you can do.
Including, in the most unexpected ways, win.
There is a parallel between that small driving force to Linsanity in 2012 and whatever Lin brings to the undermanned Los Angeles Lakers in 2014.
He said Thursday in his introductory appearance as a Laker as clearly as possible in multiple ways:
• "I'm not trying to recreate a Linsanity."
• "I'm not trying to be that phenomenon."
• "I'm not trying to relive that banner season, and I think that's a big weight off my shoulders."
It wasn't modesty or humility. It was honesty—and the weird thing is that it sets the stage for Lin to bring out the magic that overtook the world back then.
"I feel the least amount of pressure on my shoulders now," he said, "than I ever have."
Lin's life lesson from his two-year stint with the Houston Rockets is that the pressure is not helpful and even less fun. Lin arrived in Houston amid fanfare and controversy, getting a $29 million contract offer that the Knicks could've matched but didn't. So there was Lin, meant to reconnect with the Rockets' Yao Ming-inspired following in Asia, with the whole world waiting for more.
Pressure from his past.
More pressure over his future.
It's hardly surprising that it led to some stress fractures.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself to be that player," he said of his arrival in Houston. "Now my goal is I'm not trying to be a player from the past."
It wasn't the first time Lin let the pressure get to him either.
When Lin wasn't coming through with his first NBA shot with the Golden State Warriors, he felt he was wilting under pressure from all the groups—ethnic, intellectual, religious—whose hopes he knew he carried as an NBA pioneer.
Lin's unprecedented path as the first American of Taiwanese or Chinese descent in the league is rooted in the blend of his father's pure love for the game and his mother's drive for excellence. Pressure will act as a roadblock to both of those natural resources, as Lin has learned. Whether you believe he has a low or limitless ceiling as an NBA point guard, Lin comes to the Lakers at career-high levels in those cornerstone categories: love for the game and drive for excellence.
To that end, he was bouncing off the walls and banging down the doors of his family and friends on his Adidas promotional tour of Asia at 2 a.m. Beijing time upon getting news of his trade from the Rockets to the Lakers.
The freedom that is welcoming him feels familiar.
"I'm seeing it as a fresh start," he said.
Those scant minutes D'Antoni offered him in 2012 before what Lin expected would be the third time a club had waived him in the same season might've loomed as make-or-break. But it didn't feel dire at all; Lin was such an underdog that he was able to seize the opportunity with a pressure-free passion.
That's how Lin's 38-point game to beat the Lakers at Madison Square Garden at the peak of the wave stands as his single favorite game of all time. There was as much joy as there was drive, which is pretty much how it feels when you're just doing your thing and on a heck of a roll.
The Lakers will be offering Lin, 25, the chance now to make or break in a broader sense: Is he good or maybe even really good? Or is he overpaid, overhyped and undeserving of even getting many minutes in this league?
That might sound like a recipe for pressure, except it's a lot easier to blast through the challenge when the world is counting you out again.
"I've gone through the highs and the lows of an NBA career, and I've done it in the spotlight," Lin said.
When the world is expecting something amazing, here comes the pressure that affects you and colors everyone's perception of you too.
Whether it's an unheralded movie you never expected to be that good or a basic grilled cheese sandwich that knocks your socks off, it's all about the expectations. There is an underdog story for Lin to reclaim this season—and in a similar way, for over-the-hill, written-off Lakers teammates Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Carlos Boozer to embrace as their rallying cry too.
For Lin, he is working to add the floater to his all-wheel-driving arsenal this summer and seeking to master controlled attack mode a la Chris Paul and Tony Parker. Lin is still trying to solidify his outside shot, left hand and defense.
Yet all that is secondary to the springboard he can already sense under his feet after escaping the pressure of what was expected of him in Houston.
"I don't think people fully understand how much of a mental game sports is," Lin said.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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