1. He has the Garden roaring like it hasn’t in a decade. Carmelo Anthony’s first game as a Knick last year was the most memorable MSG-Knicks evening in a decade, and that night was nothing compared to the rollicking lunacy of Friday night’s Linsanity against the Lakers. Alan Hahn tweeted mid-game, “The roar that comes up in this building when this kid does something is unlike anything I can recall.” The Knicks, so hated and even ignored a fortnight ago, have become the hottest ticket in town.
2. He doesn’t seem to need incredible talent around him. Lin’s run as a starter — remember, Linsanity is still just barely a week old — has lacked both Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. His primary options as a point guard have been Jared Jeffries, Tyson Chandler, Steve Novak, and Landry Fields. With these options, he has made the Knicks offense look better than it has all season.
3. He saved Mike D’Antoni’s job. All right, so maybe this wasn’t the most well-timed column. But there was no reason last week to think there was going to be some sort of point guard savior coming to town, the cavalry arriving to rescue D’Antoni. Suddenly, D’Antoni doesn’t just look like he’s gonna keep his job; he looks like the guy with that offense that allowed Linsanity to exist in the first place. He was in danger of being fired; if this keeps up, he’ll get an extension. Jeremy Lin has made this happen in a matter of nine days.
4. Oh, yeah, the Knicks are back in the playoff chase again. On the morning of Saturday, February 4, the Knicks had lost 11 of their last 13 and stood at 8-15, behind the Nets, the Bucks, and the Cavaliers. Their Hollinger Playoff Odds were at 17 percent. They were also facing a difficult schedule without their two superstars. After the five Lin-led victories since then, the Knicks are 13-15, holding the eighth spot in the playoffs and at 57.7 percent playoff odds.
5. He has them winning games they have no business winning. Saturday night’s 100–98 win over the Timberwolves might have been the most inspiring victory of the season. The Timberwolves clearly outplayed the Knicks, and it was without question Lin’s worst game as a Knick, mostly because he looked so exhausted he could barely stand. The Wolves led the entire game, but the Knicks kept hanging around, and next thing you knew, Steve Novak was draining a huge three-pointer, Iman Shumpert was stealing and popping a jumper to give the Knicks the lead, the defense was getting stops … and the Knicks had an improbable, totally undeserved win. The Knicks never win games like that. There’s an unavoidable giddiness and lift around the Knicks right now, and it’s allowing them to win games in which they play poorly against a superior opponent.
6. He’s allowing other Knicks to find their true selves. Steve Novak has been an end-of-the-bench guy all year; with Lin, he’s Reggie Miller all of a sudden. Landry Fields has struggled to fit into a Carmelo-led Knicks offense; with Lin, he’s the pogo-hoppy cutter we all fell in love with last season. Jared Jeffries has been a fan punching bag for years now; with Lin, he’s not only still a defensive maestro, he’s driving to the basketball and even hitting open jumpers. Iman Shumpert had been an ill-fitting, wild, undisciplined fake point guard; with Lin, he’s a slap-defense terror with explosive athleticism and even a little clutchy-ness to his game. Tyson Chandler … well, he’s been as great as he has been all year, but he’s smiling a lot more now. If Lin can get Toney Douglas unbroken, he’ll officially be a magician.
7. He has proven, so far, to be able to adjust. The main “criticisms” of Lin’s game — and by “criticisms,” we mean “things that have kept him from keeping a job in the NBA until nine days ago, when he became one of the most famous athletes on Earth” — have been:
1. He can’t shoot.
2. He can’t dribble to his left.
3. You can push him around if need be.
The Lakers game felt like a specific rebuke to all these. Lin drained jump shots early, banged off the bigs late, and even went left a few times. This left him tired and beaten for the Wolves’ game, which is probably why he’s been sleeping for about 36 hours straight. But remember: Lin is only 23 years old. He’s not a finished product. He’s still improving his game. The machine is self-aware.
8. He slept on Landry Fields’s couch. When we interviewed Amar’e Stoudemire when he first came to the Knicks, we spent part of the day looking for condos to live in, including a massive one at Trump Tower in White Plains. Needless to say, Amar’e hasn’t slept on anyone’s couch since he was a child. Meanwhile, Lin began his Knicks career on this thing.
9. He’s not a nerd, but he’s willing to play one for our amusement. Yes, Lin went to Harvard, and yes, he has had more education than the average athlete. (Though basketball players, generally, receive more formal education than, say, baseball players or especially tennis players.) But let there be no doubt that Jeremy Lin is a jock. He has been the best player in the gym pretty much every day since he was 5 years old, and, for all his smarts, certainly spent more time shooting jumpers than hanging around the library, even at Harvard. He calls people “bro,” and he hangs out exclusively with other basketball players. The guy’s a jock. But he’s one who’s smart and comfortable in his own skin, which is why he and Landry Fields play up the “pocket protector” and “SAT scores” shtick. It’s funny and endearing. He’s in on the joke.
10. He’s a Christian, but he’s not obnoxious about it. Lin has been devout his entire life, and tweeted on December 31 that, “Awesome church service to start 2012! My new years resolution: love God more deeply and intimately by dec 31 than I did on jan 1.” But this is never an overpowering, polarizing aspect of his appeal. Christians support him because he doesn’t hide his faith, but secularists don’t mind because he’s not all “in their face” about it. He is all smoothed edges.
11. The guy doesn’t quite get the “Knicks” thing yet. His primary reaction to becoming a Knick in December was, “Time to find my winter coats from college lol.” He’s a West Coast guy not tied up with the misery of the Knicks, the Jim Dolan drama, the Isiah Thomas implosion. This was not like Carmelo “coming home.” He is entirely fresh and new to all this. He seems legitimately surprised by Knicks fans’ passion for their team and for his game. He came from nowhere to make this happen, so there was no pressure to “save” the Knicks, because, hell, what has Jeremy Lin ever cared about the Knicks? It sort of had to go like this.
12. It wasn’t very long ago that he had zero income. The life of an NBA D-League player is not a lucrative one; according to Insidehoops.com, D-League players make “around $12000, $18000 or $24000 per season.” When the NBA lockout ended, his reaction had nothing to do with labor wars or CBA changes; it was, simply, “I HAVE A JOB AGAIN!!! yesssssssssss.” When the Knicks picked up his contract for the end of the season, it was a legitimate assurance of income. (Though we shouldn’t get carried away on this: Golden State signed him to a two-year, $1.23 million contract in July 2010. He wasn’t scrounging for change or anything.)
13. He went to Harvard. Sportswriters love when professional athletes go to Ivy League schools, sometimes even conflating those players into brainy heroes when all evidence points to the opposite. The Harvard thing is a huge part of Lin’s appeal, not so much because it confirms that he’s smart, but because it confirms that he had imagined life outside the world of sports. This is a huge thing for fans: It humanizes athletes, brings them to our level, establishes them as a potential working stiff like the rest of us. That’s the true source of Lin’s Harvard appeal. We want our professional athletes to remember that they’re not inherently special, even though they make millions of dollars, are beloved and pampered in every way, and have sex with any woman they please. That he might have actually had to study in college, in a strange way, makes us feel that Lin is one of us.
14. He’s not going anywhere. As Howard Beck of the Times pointed out over the weekend, the Knicks have Lin’s “Gilbert Arenas” rights … which means, as long as they still want him, and they can match any other offer, Lin will be a Knick as long as Stoudemire and Anthony are. (And maybe longer?)
15. The oooooh factor. This is the primary thing. The Knicks have not had a player who brought the Garden and the fan base into a collective oooooooohhhhhhhh …. AHHHHHHHHHH!” scream since, what, maybe Bernard King? Clyde? The Knicks have had some terrific players over the last 25 years, from Patrick Ewing to Allan Houston to Latrell Sprewell to Amar’e Stoudemire to Carmelo Anthony. But there has never been, to our mind, someone who does what Lin does. There is a palpable sense of anticipation, of exhilaration, of what’s-he-gonna-do-oh-man-here-he-comes-oh-wow-oh-wow-OH-WOW to Lin’s game. He has been a crowd favorite everywhere he has been because he is, instantly, magnetically, where your eyes leap toward every time he’s on the court. For all his isolation skills, Carmelo has never been like that; he is creative and calculating, but his body language is almost lumbering. He is not electrifying. Lin is electrifying. Lin makes you explode from your seat. Lin makes you feel like anything is possible. This has come from nowhere. This is a great gift.
We deliberately left off “he’s an Asian-American” from this list, not because it’s not part of his appeal (it obviously is), but because there are so many people who seem to think that’s the only factor in his appeal. We think this list makes it plain and clear that that’s far from the truth. Jeremy Lin is the most exciting thing to happen to the New York Knicks in two decades. It didn’t take only five games to discover that; it took fewer.
As fans, we’re all blessed to have had this story, this player, dropped in our lap like this. They don’t come along often. We should all appreciate the amazement of what we have here. And count the minutes until we get to watch it again.