Friday, February 10, 2012

Jeremy Lin? Who The Hell...?

Now that the New York Giants have a Super Bowl win in their back pocket and football is on hiatus, sports-minded New Yorkers have to focus on something else. That something else is as unlikely as it gets.

It's Jeremy Lin, an American-born, Chinese point-guard for the New York Knicks with--no kidding--a Harvard degree. Like another recent out-of-nowhere sports hero, Tim Tebow, Lin is a heavy-duty Christian. That's not all. He's not only the fourth Asian-American to ever play in the NBA but also the first Harvard student in the league since 1954.

Just last week, no one had heard of Lin. Suddenly, as the Super Bowl smoke clears, he's the toast of New York. What happened?

Well, Knicks' coach Mike D'Antoni, in desperation, found him on the end of the bench, gave him major playing time and Lin, who's 23 and 6' 3," led the team to three victories. That's quite a feat. Wins don't come easy for this sub-.500 (11-15) Knicks team. Right now they're really in trouble. Two stars are out, Amare Stoudemire, due to a death in the family (his older brother was killed in an auto accident) and Carmelo Anthony, with a pulled groin muscle.

A third-stringer just last Saturday, Lin, whose previous high was 13 points, came off the bench against New Jersey, shocking everyone with 23 points and 7 assists. He was just getting started. Monday, as a starter against Utah, it was 28 points and 8 assists. Wednesday his streak continued, with 23 points and 10 assists against Washington--the Knicks third win in a row with their new point guard.

Just last week New York's newest hero was hanging by a thread, without permanent quarters, sleeping on the couch in the apartment of his brother, an NYU grad student. But by Tuesday he had worked out a contract with the Knicks, for just under $800,000--chicken feed by NBA standards but a lot for Lin.

Early in his career, Lin, a Californian, had some success but few thought he could ever shoot or pass well enough to be a starting NBA point guard. After leading his Palo Alto, Calif. team to a state championship in 2006, he was an outstanding player at Harvard. When the NBA ignored him in the draft last year, as the league routinely does with Ivy League players, that didn't stop him. Lin showed enough in the Dallas Mavericks' summer league to get signed by Golden State and Houston late last year but, due to circumstances that had nothing to do with skill, both dumped him.

That left the door open for New York, where the point guard position has been a mess, to sign him. None of the other candidates had worked out. Promising rookie Iman Shumpert got hurt early and Toney Douglas sunk into a shooting slump. Veteran Baron Davis, supposedly the savior, did what he usually does--get hurt when everyone is counting on him. This time it's a banged-up elbow that's keeping him out  indefinitely.

But wait a minute. Is Lin a long-term answer? He's starred in only three games. Yes, like any canny point guard, he's a decent shooter, knows how to spread the floor and run the pick-and-roll. But he also can be turnover-prone. And what happens when Stoudemire and Anthony come back and the offensive focus changes? What happens when the rest of the league looks at tapes, examines his tendencies and devises plans to limit his effectiveness? What happens when the Knicks play on the road, outside the cozy confines of Madison Square Garden? What happens when he faces the better teams in the league?

Does the Lin phenomenon, dubbed Linsanity, come to an end on Friday, when the Knicks tackle the Lakers, a good Western Conference team, at the Garden? Fortunately for Lin, the Lakers will not only be playing their second game in two nights (they beat Boston in OT on Thursday) but they also have weak point guards.

Don't be surprised if Linsanity lives at least one more game.