New Yorkers aren’t easily shocked. But often, they are surprised. Like when an unknown, baby-faced, burly minor leaguer joined the Yankees and immediately took a storied franchise by storm.
Shane Spencer was his name, and in September of 1998 he walloped 10 homers, including three grand slams — Derek Jeter to this day is still looking for his first — in only 67 at-bats. That’s about a homer every other game. It was stunning, downright Ruthian, and definitely a fantasy dipped in folklore. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated. He earned a spot on the Yankees postseason roster. The locals nicknamed him “The Natural” after the fictional Roy Hobbs, high praise indeed. And then, almost as quickly as he became a sensation, Spencer settled into a utility role, never recapturing such lightning again.
Which brings us to the basketball version of Sept. ’98, and the only question now is, where does Jeremy Lin go from here? Is he the real deal? Or is he the Knicks’ Shane Spencer?
He is exotic, the first Chinese-American in a black man’s game. He is awkwardly schooled, hailing from that hoops hotbed of Harvard. He’s a true underdog who didn’t register strongly on any general manager’s radar in the Draft, was cut and played in the NBA Development League. Up until a few weeks ago, he was an afterthought on the very team he’s now saving from disaster.
And now, look at this. He’d own New York if not for lousy timing.
Damn you, Eli Manning.
Most of all, Lin is eminently worth rooting for, rare for a New York athlete. America loves these type of stories, where stardom greets someone who was deemed rather ordinary, especially when that person is just as surprised by the magical run as everyone else. He becomes endearing, especially with the backdrop of New York, and particularly as a member of the bumbling Knicks, the butt of jokes for a decade and running.
And so, you’re not sure who’s luckier here: Lin, for finally being discovered in smashing fashion, or the Knicks, who stumbled upon a potential gem?
The Knicks were being devoured whole by the bloodthirsty tabloids before Linsanity hit. Mike D’Antoni‘s job was being discussed with regularity on the radio. Carmelo Anthony was almost in tears as he slumped in front of his locker, following a sucker-punch of a defeat to the Nuggets. Their backcourt was thin on talent. They were 8-15 when, because of injuries and also because they really had nothing to lose, Lin was thrust into the action against the Nets last week. Up until that Nets’ game, he’d played only 48 minutes, scored 30 points, and didn’t get any run in 13 of 23 NBA games.
But now? The Knicks are 3-0 with Lin and the topic of conversation, in a different sort of way. Perhaps their hole in the backcourt has just been plugged. They spent a gazillion on their front line and here’s a godsend who’s making a little over 700 grand, the league minimum, and who crashes on his brother’s sofa to save money in high-rent Manhattan.
Did they know what they had? Didn’t he at least stand out in practice? In a sense, the Knicks look both good and bad in this case. And definitely lucky.
For the sake of conversation, let’s imagine the champagne glass being half-full here. Let’s argue that Lin is here to stay, an All-Star in the making. It wouldn’t be such a stretch. He was a star on every level. He had a bumpy transition to the NBA, but hey, what young player doesn’t? His athletic ability is undeniable. Guy owns a rapid first-step to the rim, can elevate once he’s there, and doesn’t back down. He’s smooth on the pick and roll, and the Knicks gleefully discovered he can dunk . He gave it to Deron Williams. He served up John Wall. Those are two mighty impressive pelts.
And while his outside shooting is a work in progress, you sense he’ll figure it out; he is Ivy educated. Finally, now that he has a sweet taste of fame and success, Lin probably hungers for more. He realizes what’s at stake: a big contract down the road, icon status among those who share his heritage and athletic glory in New York. Why would anyone want to blow that chance?
Yet there is another direction he can travel. He can turn into Shane Spencer. Defenses can figure him out, cut down his lanes, force him to shoot, which again he doesn’t do exceedingly well yet. Just like pitchers quickly learned how to confuse Spencer, NBA players wise up in a hurry. Lin is still being studied, and soon everyone will have a more accurate read on him. And oh, did we mention ‘Melo? In case you forgot, much of Linsanity has happened without ‘Melo, who does enjoy possession of the ball. A lot. We’ll see how that works out.
Tonight it’s Knicks vs. Lakers at the Garden but being billed in New York as Lin vs. Kobe.
Speaking of whom, when asked about Lin, here’s what Kobe Bryant said:
“What? No idea. I don’t even know what he’s done. I have no idea what you guys are talking about.”
Obviously the New York Post and Daily News will take that as a diss and play it up big. Kobe hasn’t heard of Linsanity? That’s an insult to all of New York. A city that isn’t easily impressed is all over the latest Cinderella in the making, and Jeremy Lin will be trumpeted as the biggest sensation on the Knicks. At least until he isn’t any longer. Whenever that happens.