Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
Jeremy Lin returned to New York as a Rocket on Monday. He conquered the Knicks, but it'll never be the same again.
NEW YORK -- It's important to remember exactly how we got here because we may never experience anything like it again. That's not to say that there will never be another phenom, because the notion is as old as sports itself. The only constant in sports is the expectation of the unexpected and there will always be something new.
But we live in an age in which everything is available to us whenever we want it. We can watch every game, read every report and follow everyone worth following for real-time updates. It has made us all smarter, more informed and far more cynical about everything. We are slowly losing the capacity to be truly surprised by anything, all of which made Jeremy Lin's ascent all the more remarkable.
He was simply another basketball player hanging around the fringes who got a chance. Remember that the Knicks burned through the likes of Baron Davis and Mike Bibby before turning in desperation to Lin. Remember that in his last game before the madness he played all of six minutes against the Celtics, missing all three shots and getting destroyed by Avery Bradley.
And then ...
Feb. 4, New Jersey: 25 points, 7 assists
Feb. 6, Utah: 28 points, 8 assists
Feb. 8, Washington: 23 points, 10 assists
Feb. 10, Lakers: 38 points, 7 assists
Lin averaged 24 points and nine assists over the course of 11 games and the Knicks won nine of them. Their games became events and network television schedules were shuffled furiously. Peace in our time was achieved between Madison Square Garden and Time Warner.
Profiles emerged quickly. Some with more lasting currency, others were simply throw-away space-fillers. It was all fuel for the never-ending media narrative that sought to not only capture the phenom, but to consume it and own it for themselves.
It wasn't just that Jeremy Lin was Asian-American, or from Harvard, or an undrafted long shot or that he was playing for the Knicks instead of the Bucks. It was all those things dropped into the middle of an ugly lockout-shortened season where the games piled up one on top of another with little rhyme or reason. For a brief period he gave it definition and allowed millions of people to project whatever they liked on his performances.
Lin was not a phenom by dint of his personality. He was not like Mark Fidrych, who stood on the mound and talked baseballs into doing his bidding. From afar he was exceedingly normal, if not convincingly bland.
He was a political symbol who refused to engage in politics. He was the savior for a coach who could not be saved. He was the best thing that happened to a franchise in a decade and in the end the franchise didn't want him anymore.
But most of all it was fun. He made the Garden shake and buzz with palpable electricity and with apologies to every other arena in the country, there is simply nothing like the current that pulses through MSG when it is truly alive.
The other night NBA TV was replaying the game against the Mavericks when Lin went for 28 and 14. Steve Novak was busting threes and the crowd grew louder with each successful attempt. Then Lin shot one over Jason Kidd and the place erupted. There was Lin at midcourt with a huge smile on his face screaming something into the din and it was all so really real.
Soon it would be over. The Heat made him look terrible and there was the inconvenient matter of all those turnovers. There would be a handful of great moments mixed in with far more ordinary outings and then his knee gave out and Mike D'Antoni quit.
The Rockets made Lin an offer the Knicks couldn't refuse and they refused it anyway. They were pillaged for that, but with the benefit of hindsight it has all worked out reasonably well. Ray Felton has been everything they hoped he would be and the Knicks have been the biggest surprise in the league.
"You talk about Jeremy, we wanted Jeremy back," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said. "I made that public back in the summer when we were going through the recruiting process, but then things changed from a business standpoint. Jeremy decided to take the Houston deal and he has every right to do that. I think as an organization we've moved on. We were able to go out and field guys like Kidd and Pablo (Prigoni) and Raymond and we're excited about those three guys. They've come in here and they've put us in this position in terms of our record and sitting at the top of our division. It's no knock against Jeremy. He did what he had to do making his decision and we done what he had to and we wish him nothing but the best until he plays the Knicks. That's it."
All of that is true and also a little convenient. The Knicks could have matched, after all, and there will always be that lingering question: does all of this happen if Lin stays? No one can tell for sure. To put it another way, could Jeremy Lin have ever been just a piece in a bigger New York machine?
"I mean, we've talked about that part of the story for a while," Lin said an hour and a half hour before he went back on the Garden court and recaptured some of that old magic in a 22-point, eight-assist performance. "Everything happens for a reason. It all happened the way it was supposed to and going into the summer I thought I'd be coming back to New York, but everything happens for a reason and there's no hard feelings either way. I'm in a different place in my life."
The phenom is gone and in its place is a 24-year-old still coming to grips with who he is as a player and what he does on a basketball court. He does not seem to mesh with James Harden, the Rockets' star guard, who, like Lin, is a master of pick and rolls and a high usage performer. So far there has only been room for one, but the season is still young and so are the Rockets. It worked just fine on Monday when Harden scored 28 to go along with Lin's 22 points, but that was just one game and the Rockets have been marked by their inconsistency as much as anything else.
"The reality of Jeremy is he's a very good player," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "He just turned 24. First time starting out, all new teammates, all young guys. There's a lot of learning that needs to go on. I actually think Jeremy is very comfortable with it. Just getting to know him, I think the whole Linsanity thing was probably a little much for him."
It would have been too much for almost anyone. Maybe not LeBron or Kobe, but there's a reason they are the way they are. They were both hardwired for the mania, practically groomed and primed for it from a young age. That's ultimately the endearing thing about what Lin did with the Knicks last season. That one day you could be riding the bench wondering when your chance would come and the next you'd have your name in lights on top of the marquee of the World's Most Famous Arena.
"It will always have a special place no matter how long I play because that was the beginning for me and anytime you have a stretch like that you'll remember it forever," Lin said. "The easy part of me is just to make sure I don't try to live up to that. As long as I do that I'm not really worried too much about anything else. I don't think anyone from the Rockets organization is expecting me to recreate anything and I'm not either."
After the game, someone asked if his performance reminded him of last season.
"Not really," Lin said. "I'm in a very different place now. My mindset is very different as well. I've moved on. They've moved on. We have good memories but at the same time we're all in a different place now."
All photos by Debby Wong, USA Today Sports.