Jeremy Lin on Kobe Bryant, God, and His Fast Break to Fame
When The Garden is full and the right moment hits, it sounds like a riverbed canyon during spring thaw. The roar is deafening, and it rebounds from wall to wall, off the rafters, and into your face with tangible force.
The first time you felt that sonic boom was a few minutes into last night’s program, when No. 17, Jeremy Lin — the man of the hour, the evening and just maybe the season — trotted into the strobing lights of the world’s most famous arena for the first time this evening. As every screen in the house lit up with his picture, the packed crowd let loose with an ear-splitting cacophony: Shrieks and hoots and applause and shouts of “MVP” and behind it all, the roar, that thunderous roar that some call the Knicks’ secret weapon, at least when the Knicks aren’t being utterly terrible. You know, like they were B.L. — Before Linsanity.
Which, as hard as it is to believe, has been with us less than a week.
So maybe it’s not totally hard to imagine a superstar like the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant shrugging his shoulders and rolling his eyes when asked by reporters about the Jeremy Lin Phenomenon after L.A.’s titanic duel with the Boston Celtics the night before.
“I know who he is, but I don’t really know what’s going on too much with him,” he said. “I don’t even know what he’s done. Like, I have no idea what you guys are talking about….What the [expletive] is going on? Who is this kid?”
Bryant admittedly has plenty of domestic distractions to keep him from reading the headlines that the whole rest of the world’s been glued to. And people have pointed out that Bryant is of the Jordan school, which says that opposing players are the enemy and need to be treated with public contempt and disdain. Still, the remark, coming on the heels of a stunning, uplifting week for those of us who knew exactly who “this kid” was, stuck in the craw.
And all over the Garden, there were signs that the number of people who knew “this kid” had multiplied exponentially over three incredible games. It wasn’t just Asian Americans anymore, or the hardcore Knicks addicts who’d stuck with the team when it was terrible. It certainly wasn’t just Harvard alums.
The first sign was the roar at Lin’s entrance, bigger than for any other player on the team. The crowd, they knew who this kid was.
The second sign was the t-shirts and jerseys, hastily printed and on sale at the Garden souvenir stands. Right next to the ones you’d expect, STOUDEMIRE, ANTHONY, even CHANDLER, there were ones with just three little letters. And as you walked the halls of MSG, there were more backs sporting those three little letters than anything. Backs of all ages and races. The fans knew who this kid was.
At the shootaround, a familiar goateed figure in head to toe blue and orange: Director Spike Lee, the biggest, most bold-faced devotee of the Knicks, the guy who anchored the team’s celebrity sideline (especially on nights when the hated Lakers came to town). Asked what he thought of Jeremy Lin, he immediately whipped out his Blackberry. “Know what I think of Jeremy? I got a list, this is my list of nicknames,” he said. “These all start with Jeremy and end with Lin.”
Lee proceeded to spend the next ten minutes rattling off new handles for Lin, slam poetry style, that he’d invented or received from his vast Twitter following, waving away cameras and other fans: “Jeremy, moves so sick, they need insu-Lin.” “Jeremy, hang my jersey from the cei-Lin’.” “Jeremy, the Lakers, you better be double-Lin.” Lee, he knew who this kid was.
And Knicks legend Bernard King, dressed in a spectacular suit — the only guy able to briefly distract Lee from his litany of Lin-spiration — told Lee to keep going, keep rolling, because he was a huge fan: “Lin is the real deal. He’s the true point guard the Knicks haven’t had in years. He’s the guy the Knicks have needed all along.” He knew who this kid was too.
In the locker room, Lin’s teammates — journeyman Steve Novak and fellow young gun Iman Shumpert — had nothing but praise and love for the guy who’d turned their season around. “He’s incredible,” said Novak. “He’s the sweetest guy in the world, totally humble. He’s young and hasn’t been here long, but he already knows our game, knows the team, inside out. We love him.” Why does Novak love him? “Well, because he gets me shots….I’m kidding!” But he wasn’t entirely kidding. With Lin at PG, Novak has dropped fountains of three-pointers on his opponents and transformed from an obscurity into one of the deadliest parts of the Knicks game.
And soft-spoken Shumpert, seen as a big but disappointing part of the Knicks future before Lin came in and changed everything, he put it best when he talked about the guy he referred to as the heart of the team: “Jeremy doesn’t need all this attention from everybody,” he said. “He’ll give you the clothes off his back. And that’s what makes him a rock star.”
So maybe in an arena of 25,000 people, only one guy didn’t know, or claimed to not know, who this kid was. And that guy was the NBA’s biggest and most flamboyant talent, perennial All-Star and MVP candidate Kobe Bryant.
One quarter into the game, unveiling an amazing ability to penetrate, discombobulate and elevate against the Lakers suddenly Swiss cheese-like defense, Jeremy Lin stood at 10 points, three assists, against future Hall of Fame lock Bryant’s six points, zero assists. Bryant frequently watched stunned as Lin made his teammate Derek Fisher look frankly ridiculous with jellyleg cartoon crossovers and one insane spin move to the basket that became the evening’s signature offensive play. Twitter suddenly boomed with people tweeting: “WHO SAID ASIANS CAN’T DRIVE?” and linking to pics of Lin whipping past a frozen Fish.
By midgame, the screen had lit up with Lin’s smiling portrait and the flashing words LINSANITY a half-dozen times, and Lin’s line was head and shoulders above anyone else on the court: 18 points, five assists, two rebounds. Numbers any player would be proud of at the end of a game. But this was at the half. Lin was clearly on track for a monster performance.
Kobe, meanwhile, who makes almost as much in salary per game as Lin had made all season, had hit just one of his first 11 shots, and put up an anemic (for him) ten points, zero assists, and four rebounds.
It wouldn’t stop for the rest of the game. When Lin was off the court, the Knicks lost momentum. When he came back in, good things happened. In the fourth quarter, with the Lakers making a last-ditch charge and coming within a handful of points, Lin walked off the sidelines onto the floor (ROAR) and threw stilettos into L.A.’s suddenly racing heart, dropping a pair of back to back buckets on Fisher’s noggin — technically beautiful layups, nothing fancy — and then letting himself get hammered to the floor on defense, drawing a charge and offensive foul that turned the ball over and pretty much put the hopes of Lakers fans to rest.
With the game out of reach, Kai Ma, former editor of the L.A. based Koream Journal and now managing editor for New York’s Asian American Writers Workshop, summed up the feelings of Asian American Angelenos watching the game with a tweet: “I’m so sad, BUT I’M SO HAPPY” — happy to see Lin lock down stardom with an unbelievable, Lin-conceivable game-high, career-high 38 points, seven assists and four rebounds.
At the post-game presser, every question Coach Mike D’Antoni got was about Jeremy Lin. D’Antoni looked ecstatic to take them. After all, Lin saved the season, the team, and D’Antoni’s job (at least for now). And then he left and it was announced that Lin would be brought in to the press room shortly. During the break, a veteran sports-beat guy audibly said to his seat neighbor: “I said Lin was a fluke. I should be fired. We should all be fired.”
And then Lin walked in, humble, eyes downcast, without the swash or swagger that one might expect from the NBA’s newest, biggest hero. “I just give all the praise to God,” he said, when asked about the game. God, and his teammates: Lin dished honor to the rest of the roster as smoothly and unselfishly as he distributed the ball on the court.
But the question had to be asked, and so I did. “Jeremy,” I said, when the mike passed to me. “Do you think Kobe knows who you are now?”
A slow smile spread across Lin’s face as the room erupted in laughter. “You’ll have to ask Kobe that,” he said. “But he actually helped me up off the floor” — after Lin was nailed in a cross-court collision — “so I think he knows who I am now.”
Oh, Kobe certainly knows who “this kid” is now. And so does everyone else. Those Jeremy Lin jerseys? Sold out. “We’ll have more by tomorrow!” said a concession stand worker brightly. You’d better, or there’ll be riots.
In the streets outside the Garden, people were shouting “JEREMY LIN!” at the top of their lungs, and chanting, over and over, “MVP.” It’s hard not to feel like this isn’t a watershed moment. Hard not to feel like this is historic. Hard not to think that we’re at the cusp of an actual tectonic shift in the culture, when an Asian American “kid” could be the unquestioned king of one of the most storied franchises in sports, the guy that every guy in the room wishes he could meet and every kid in the room wants to group up to be.
Author and U. Michigan professor Scott Kurashige summed up the sense that we were in a new world now, living in the Year of Our Jeremy, with a Facebook post for his daughter that might have been only a little tongue in cheek: “Dear Tula,” he wrote. “When you were three years old and your father had a fellowship year at Harvard, I took you to see President Lin play when he was a mostly unknown college basketball player, many years before he went on to win seven NBA championships, two terms in the Senate, and the Nobel Prize for ending global warming and ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Love, Dad.”
Maybe that’s a lot to put on a 23-year-old kid just four starts into superstardom.
But maybe it’s not. As Lin put it, you’ll have to ask Kobe that.
“Tao Jones” is Jeff Yang’s weekly column for Speakeasy on Asian culture. Tune in Friday for the next installment. Follow him on Twitter at @originalspin.
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