Three-thousand miles away from Jeremy Lin and Toronto on Tuesday night, the Lakers were in the Staples Center locker room getting ready to play the Hawks. That's when the players lounge erupted and Lakers beat reporter Dave McMenamin tweeted, "World Peace emerged and ran through the locker room yelling 'Linsanity!!'"
And that's the entire NBA right now. The entire sports world, really. Everyone's running around screaming and it just keeps going, getting weirder and more incredible by the day. Tuesday was the latest twist, and maybe our best evidence yet that this whole phenomenon is no fluke.
Against a mediocre Raptors team, Lin looked lost through most of the first half. He had five turnovers, the pick-and-roll with Amar'e Stoudemire was woefully out of sync, and the Knicks were down 14 at halftime. It was the first true off night for Lin. Then the second half happened. The Knicks closed the gap and eventually Lin led them all the way back. He had 12 points in the fourth quarter, including a three-point play to tie it with little more than a minute left, and then he hit the game winning three with half-a-second on the clock.
"I was on pins and needles," Lin said in an interview this week, talking about his past stops in the NBA. Undrafted out of Harvard, he was cut twice, first in Golden State, and then in Houston. "I was putting all this unnecessary pressure on myself. Now, I feel like I'm free out there." It shows.
If there was going to be a night when the wheels came off the Linsanity bandwagon, it should have been Tuesday. After that first half, with Amar'e throwing off the chemistry while Lin threw away turnovers, it looked like we were headed for a reality check. And we were, but Jeremy Lin is not a fluke waiting to be exposed. Tuesday in Toronto may have begun as an off night, but in the end, it was the kind of off night where Lin had 27 points, 11 assists and took over down the stretch.
That's what NBA stars do on off nights. Kobe, LeBron, Durant, Rose; even if they don't play great, their presence is usually enough to tilt the court in their team's favor, they usually still get their numbers, and if it comes down to the final possession, it won't matter how they've played for the first 47 minutes. In that way, Tuesday in Toronto was our reality check: Jeremy Lin is a bonafide star.
The story's about to get more interesting, too. Carmelo Anthony—a bonafide star himself—has been on the sidelines through all this, but he's due to return soon. What happens when you put the NBA's grassroots superstar next to the establishment? Will Melo be as comfortable getting out of the way for Lin's last shot as the Knicks were last night? Lin's been worshiped for his humility and unselfishness in the face of all this success, but on the court, he dominates the ball as much as any guard in the league. Putting him next to Carmelo—the beleaguered superstar who demands the ball more than anyone this side of Kobe—is like a cruel science experiment that's about to play out in real time, with the entire world scrutinizing every play, every quote, and every shoulder shrug from either player. When Lin struggles, all eyes will be on Melo. When Melo struggles, fans will scream for more Lin. The power struggle is inevitable, even if everyone wants to avoid it. Lin's fairy tale may not end, but it will probably take on some Shakespearian undertones as the plot plays out in New York the next few months.
And that's before the Knicks try to make a title run and the stakes get higher, before Lin has some truly bad games that don't end in game-winners, and before the front office decides how they want to sign Lin this offseason. Tuesday was a reminder that none of this is going away, and it's all real, which means eventually things will get more complicated.
All of which is to say... appreciate where we are.
I was talking to an older friend of mine who's been buried in work for the past month, and after venting about his job for a few minutes, he asked me, "So what's the biggest story in basketball right now?"
"Jeremy Lin, on the Knicks," I said. "Have you heard about him?"
"Yeah..." he said, sort of confused. "What's his deal?"
I'm horrible at talking about sports with people who aren't as openly obsessive as I am, so it was tough to know where to start. I stuttered for a second, then I think I mumbled something about Harvard and him getting cut, coming out of nowhere to start, beating Kobe, etc. But it's more than that. As much as people talk about Lin as a Cinderella story and sappy sportswriters talk about him like Basketball Oliver Twist, what makes this story so good is that Lin actually has been great.
That's the difference between Lin and the fever dream that came with Tim Tebow a few months ago. At the center of all the hype, Lin's not getting by with gimmicks or grittiness. He's the most authentic, out-of-nowhere underdog that sports have seen in years. More than that, he's just plain beating people, taking the whole game over whenever he needs to. Beyond the feel-good facade of #Linsanity, we're watching someone methodically gun down the NBA, one-by-one.
If something in sports is even a little bit extraordinary in 2012, it's only a matter of time before the internet is blowing it out proportion, cable TV picks up on the movement and beats it into oblivion, the print media piggybacks on all of it with a series of excruciating cliches, and overnight, what used to be a cool story is suddenly insufferable. This is nobody's fault, though. The groans come mostly because with whatever we're talking about—Blake Griffin's dunk contest last year, Tim Tebow in Denver this year, whatever video goes VIRAL this week—yeah okay, it's a cool story, but not that amazing.
Next to that cycle, Lin and the Knicks have been engulfed by more overnight, international hype than any sports story in years, but the past few weeks have given us the rare story that delivers on all of it. Linsanity's been every bit as good as advertised, and Tuesday it was even better.
People try to explain it by saying, "It's like a movie in real life." But even that doesn't work. If Hollywood ever turned this into a movie, it'd be terrible. Producers wouldn't be able to resist painting Jeremy Lin as the orphan the NBA forgot, who got by on sheer courage, and taught the whole world that you can do whatever you want if you put your mind to it.
The real thing is so much better than that, we don't even know what to say. There's no moral to a story that makes no sense. A guy shouldn't be able to come out of nowhere and dominate like this, but it's happening, he's really been dominant on that Knicks team, and all we can do is watch, and then check the Knicks schedule to see what comes next.
"I feel like I'm in a dream right now," Lin said this past weekend. Right now, the rest of the world—even the Lakers—is right there with him. The avalanche of attention, the hashtags, the game-winners, the hysteria around the world, the anecdotes from Lin's past, the mea culpas from GMs who doubted him, and this hodgepodge Knicks team that's suddenly captivated the entire NBA and the entire sports world... Right now, it's all part of the best dream the NBA's ever seen.
It'll change. This won't last forever, and that's the probably the best reason to appreciate what's happening right now. Maybe the hype will get too insufferable, maybe the Knicks chemistry will turn sour, maybe Jeremy Lin will stop being invincible. Maybe it all happens by tomorrow. The world has a short memory, and fast as hype grows, the backlash comes even quicker.
But after everything we've seen, after Tuesday, the best compliment you can give to Jeremy Lin is this: the best, craziest dreams bleed into our memory even after we wake up. And no matter where it goes from here, nothing's been better, or crazier, than Jeremy Lin's story for the past two weeks. So, soak it all in. We'll remember these insane nights forever.