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When Marc Stein asked me to write this week’s newsletter, my first thought was “how fun!” My second thought was “there is absolutely nothing going on in the N.B.A. right now.” But if there is a discernible theme to this recent break in the action — after all, it’s been two entire weeks since one of last season’s All-Stars changed teams — it’s that players have been letting fans in on their emotions.
There was Anthony Davis, a new Laker, revealing on Sarah Spain’s terrific “That’s What She Said” podcast that he’s afraid of the dark — an affliction he blamed on too many scary movies as a kid.
There was Russell Westbrook, who feuded with some reporters in Oklahoma City, introducing himself to reporters in Houston by saying the thing fans should know about him is “that I’m a nice guy.”
And there was LeBron James, so excited to celebrate a big play in his son’s high school game that he lost a shoe running onto the court. Because it was LeBron, his enthusiasm managed to cause fierce debates among the internet’s great gatekeepers of decorum, but if you watch the video, it will be hard to see anything but a joyful father.
But by far the biggest emotional reveal of recent days came from Jeremy Lin, a newly minted N.B.A. champion, who gave a speech in Taiwan in which he discussed his difficult time finding a new team, his conflicting emotions about his role with the Toronto Raptors last season, and the potential end of his career.
“In English there’s a saying and it says once you hit rock bottom, the only way is up,” he said. “But rock bottom just seems to keep getting more and more rock bottom for me. So, free agency has been tough. Because I feel like in some ways the N.B.A.’s kind of given up on me.”
Some corners of the internet mocked Lin for thinking his is a sad story despite being a Harvard-educated N.B.A. champion with more than $65 million in career earnings. But the speech, which probably resonated deeply for many players who felt pushed out before they considered themselves done, brought up two fairly significant questions. Is Lin really done? And if he’s done, what is the takeaway of his unusual career?
The answer to the first question should be no. Lin is about to turn 31, and various injuries have added up to take away a great deal of his burst and his lateral quickness. But even in a reduced state, he’s still a capable backup point guard who was putting in solid veteran minutes for Atlanta last season before being waived, at his request, so he could sign with Toronto.
The Raptors did not find much use for him in the regular season or the playoffs — a topic he discussed in his speech in Taiwan, saying he’d dreaded the speaking tour because “I would have to talk about a championship that I don’t feel like I really earned.” But in a landscape in which a 42-year-old Vince Carter is expected to find a job and Big3 stars like Joe Johnson and Amar’e Stoudemire are options for N.B.A. teams, it’s hard to believe that Lin, who is far younger than any of those three, would not find a job if he was willing to accept a small role.
But if he did walk away, summing up his career in a way that future generations will understand will be nearly impossible. He was an undrafted player, released unceremoniously by multiple teams, who ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated in consecutive weeks. His time as a star may have been brief, but it burned with an intensity few of us have ever seen.
To those of us covering basketball for The New York Times, Linsanity involved seeing Jay Schreiber, the now-retired deputy editor of the section, at his absolute peak of frenetic energy. There was no story, positive or negative, that Jay did not want written if it involved Lin.
A search of The Times archive shows that between the day Lin signed with the Knicks (Dec. 27, 2011) and the day he left for Houston (July 17, 2012), the company’s various departments produced 399 articles that mentioned him in some way shape or form over the course of 202 days — an average of just under two a day.
My personal role involved trying to find angles beyond the day-to-day stuff with the Knicks. Some of the articles have been lost to the inconsistent archives of the Off the Dribble blog, but I interviewed the FedEx driver that had predicted Lin’s success when the guard was coming out of college. I compared Lin to another player (Isaiah Thomas) who was getting an unexpected shot, and I took a look at another former Warrior (Brandan Wright) who was finding success elsewhere.
I wrote about Lin’s handshake with Landry Fields, and I expressed concern about the long-term viability of a slight guard whose transformation into a star had come not by shooting but by getting to the basket — a dangerous proposition when you are giving up 40 or more pounds to those guarding you.
After leaving the Knicks, Lin, who has often struggled with durability, succeeded in a few stops but never found the same level of basketball stardom. His career isn’t one you’d expect to be described in a Hall of Fame speech, but it was one that dramatically exceeded any reasonable expectations. And that’s before you talk about his role off the court.
Much has been written about the cultural impact of Lin being the league’s first Asian-American star. In the warm afterglow of the Raptors’ championship, Alex Wong provided one of the finest examples by digging in on representation and why Lin was able to resonate for so many people.
If Lin’s recent speech is any indication, his off-court role may only grow. To articulate the emotions of a professional athlete in decline with so much vulnerability, and to ultimately turn it into a positive message, was no less impressive than the crossover he used to blast by Deron Williams and put himself on the N.B.A. map back in 2012. The only thing that would slow him down on this path is the very real possibility that his N.B.A. career isn’t quite over.
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