We probably should have been more suspicious of Jeremy Lin's knee injury than we were. For the past week or so, we didn't blink when coach Mike Woodson said "if" Lin comes back, when the Knicks kept Lin away from the press for a few days, when Lin was being scratched from the lineup earlier and earlier each day. We guess we just didn't want to believe it. But it's true: Jeremy Lin isn't coming back.
Some frayed knee cartilage is what ultimately ended Linsanity, and we won't see him again this season unless the Knicks somehow win a first-round playoff series, assuming, of course, they actually make the playoffs. (Which is far from assured.) We could lament the injury frustrations, the now-gaping-again point-guard-hole, the fact that we're gonna spend the last month of the season watching Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, and Baron Davis running isolations every time down the court, but there will be plenty of time for that. Right now, we just want to reflect on what we have lost.
We've been covering sports for New York Magazine for almost four years now, and Linsanity, without question, was our favorite story to cover. For those loopy, ascendant two weeks — and it was essentially a fortnight, starting on February 4 against New Jersey and peaking with that February 19 win over Dallas on national television — we had everything you could possibly want from an athletic endeavor. We had the "new": A scrappy kid coming out of nowhere. We had the "underdog": Ignored, undrafted, and left for dead in the D-League, Lin was proof that talent can be found (and missed) anywhere. We had the "inspiration": An Asian-American kid succeeding on his own terms in the grandest possible way. We had the "giddy novelty": He went to Harvard ... and did you see that pregame handshake?
The best part, to our mind, was that Lin was tough. We don't just mean the crunch-time mettle, though he of course had that in abundance; post-surgery, you could put him out on crutches and we'd still probably want him taking the last shot. We mean that he was physically punished every game — particularly once he became the focal point of every opponent's defensive strategy — with consistent bashes across the head and neck. Lin seemed to get at least one bloody nose a game ... and yet he never stopped driving the lane, and he never stopped getting back up. Lin was absolutely fearless. Maybe to make it to this level in so unlikely a fashion ... maybe you have to be.
Lin made the Knicks come to life, but what he did to the Garden was even more thrilling. Knicks fans have been so desperate for something to cheer for in the post-Isiah era that they've been willing to talk themselves into anything, from Chris Duhon to Anthony Randolph to, more recently, the pretend-land game that Carmelo Anthony was a lifelong New Yorker who just selflessly wanted to return home. They have waited because, when it is humming, when it is connecting with the city in a viral, subconscious way, no sport in this city is as great as basketball when the Knicks are winning, when the Knicks matter. Much of this fan hope has been unwarranted and unrequited; after all, the Knicks still haven't won a playoff game since April 29, 2001. There's a reason much of the rest of the NBA hates Knicks fans. Knicks fans are so famished for success, for something to cheer about, that they can sometimes take up a disproportionate chunk of the league's psychic energy.
But Lin, Lin was different. Lin wasn't some sort of Jim Dolan hype-creation, a Faustian bargain, the best we could do so we might as well cheer. Lin was entirely ours, a sudden creation, a firestorm that somehow lived outside the normal Knicks dysfunction. We were discovering Lin, and he was feeding off Knicks fans — and the Garden frenzy — as much as they were feeding off him. Nobody fired up the Garden like this kid. Even after Mike D'Antoni left and some of the shine was inevitably rusted by MSG madness, and of course Carmelo, Lin didn't go away. He secured himself as the team's top point guard and one of its most important players, fitting in and improving the team even when Carmelo demanded the ball in the post and Smith was chucking three-pointers while falling out of bounds and Dolan was making announcements to the press and then slumping out of the room, like always. And he was smiling all the way, a beacon of normalcy, sanity, and joy amidst the typical Knicks chaos.
Lin was special. And it made us all feel special. It made us all feel lucky to get to watch it.
Lin may return this year, and he'll probably return next year — the Knicks would be fools not to match any offer for him, for marketing reasons alone — and we'll have more great Lin moments. But we will never forget those glorious two weeks, when the best story in sports was happening right here, when we had our own superstar emerge, in front of our eyes, in the best possible way. This isn't how it was supposed to end. But then again, it's not over.