A cultural phenomenon that captivated a nation and galvanized a once-proud fan base, Linsanity was pronounced dead on Saturday, March 31, at the age of 55 days.
The cause of death was a torn meniscus in the left knee of Knicks’ starting point guard Jeremy Lin, which will likely end his season. (I know some eternal optimists are saying Lin could be back by Round 1 of the playoffs, but it would be folly to rush him back for a series against the Bulls or Heat that the Knicks are not capable of winning, no matter who their point guard is). Lin, who birthed Linsanity with his meteoric rise from “twice-cut benchwarmer” to “NBA’s most popular player” to “legitimate cultural groundbreaker”, will probably not play in an NBA game of significance before Halloween.
Though Linsanity’s life span was all too brief, it was a nonstop thrill ride, a shooting star in the mold of Jimi Hendrix or James Dean**. Many have traced its origins to the night of Feb. 4, when Lin was unexpectedly brought in off the bench just days before he was to be cut from New York’s roster. On that night, Lin thoroughly outplayed New Jersey Nets’ All-Star point guard Deron Williams, throwing up a 25-5-7 in a 99-92 Knicks win.
**For the purposes of this column, I’ll focus on Jeremy Lin: Basketball Player, not Jeremy Lin: Asian-American Cultural Sensation. You can learn more about the latter by reading any one of about 100,000 stories on “the significance of Jeremy Lin” published in the last two months.
The AP report on the game highlighted Lin’s breakout performance, but with more curiosity than awe.
As teammates hugged him at center court while Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” blasted through the arena, it was clear the New York Knicks had finally found a spark.
And even the Harvard-educated Lin struggled to explain how it ended up being him.
Despite the performance, the Knicks’ front office was still planning to cut Lin and go after a number of no-name point guards such as Mike James. But coach Mike D’Antoni (perhaps at the behest of Carmelo Anthony, if you believe ‘Melo) started Lin in the Knicks’ next game against the Utah Jazz. On that night, Feb. 6, Linsanity was born amid a flurry of did-you-see-that?** plays.
** The best part about the Utah game may have been the transformation of Knicks’ longtime play-by-play announcer Mike Breen. Breen, who is ABC’s top national commentator and covers the NBA Finals every year, had been stuck covering a woebegone Knicks team for the better part of a decade. Starting at about the 3:00 mark on the video, you can hear an excitement in his voice usually reserved for postseason games. Breen’s awe bubbles over at the 5:00 mark along with crowd — as someone who has heard him suffer through the Isaiah Era, Stephon Marbury and every uninspiring game in recent years, it was great to witness.
“The magic of Jeremy Lin continues at Madison Square Garden!” Breen gushed as “M-V-P” chants rained down from the Knicks faithful. And with that, Linsanity was born.
After a brief (four-day) childhood period that included the Knicks’ third straight win (a forgettable game against the dreadful Wizards), Linsanity hit puberty in a big way in a Feb. 10 game against the Lakers. In Lin’s first starting appearance on national television, he absolutely torched L.A. for a stunning 38 points in what remains New York’s biggest win of the season. In a fitting twist, Breen called the game with former Knicks’ coach Hubie Brown for ESPN.
“It’s all happened in less than a week,” Breen said as Lin strode to the line for his 37th and 38th points. You could hear the wonder and elation in his voice, just as you could hear the joy raining down from 18,000 delirious Knicks fans.
At game’s end, Breen officially christened Linsanity’s journey into manhood by mentioning it on national television. “Linsanity continues at the Garden!” he said as the final buzzer sounded.
At this point, Lin could have been struck by lightning the next day and still been an immortal part of Knicks lore, not to mention 2012 NBA jersey sales. But as any successful adult would do, Linsanity added to its skill set with the one thing missing from Lin’s epic run — a buzzer-beater.
The win was the Knicks sixth in a row, all with Lin as the primary point guard, all without ‘Melo and all but two without Amare Stoudemire. A win over Sacramento pushed the winning streak to seven and marked the high point of Linsanity.
Jeremy Lin’s New York Knicks were playing Red Holzman basketball again, finding the open man, honoring the romantic ideals of the early Seventies and making the team’s forever captain wonder if Lin would be the one.
The one to win the Knicks’ first championship since 1973.
“I thought it was going to be Patrick Ewing,” Willis Reed said. “But maybe it’s going to be this kid.”
The undrafted, unwanted economics major out of Harvard.
“Jeremy Lin reminds me so much of Walt Frazier,” Reed said from his Louisiana home.
Stop and let that sink in for a minute. On Feb. 4, Lin was a glorified cheerleader praying not to get cut. On Feb. 17, the greatest player in Knicks history said Lin reminded him of the second-greatest player in Knicks history.
Reed’s comments were the zenith of Linsanity, its prime, its Van Gogh-painting-Starry Night-period. After that, it became sublimated in the Knicks’ latest public feud, this one between ‘Melo and D’Antoni. The feud was largely about ‘Melo’s failure to buy into D’Antoni’s point-guard driven offensive system — in other words, to sublimate himself to Linsanity. But the unquestioned champion of an offensive style based solely on id was never going to take a backseat to a second-year point guard with no pedigree, no matter how famous he had become.
At the same time, defenses began to figure out how best to handle Lin: Aggressively double him on screen and rolls, extend ball pressure to the perimeter, force him left, and cut off his driving lanes. In an excellent column for Grantland, Sebastian Pruiti summed up the strategy heading into the Feb. 23 Knicks-Heat game:
Though they should just force him left, the Heat are likely to trap Lin hard every time he comes off a ball screen.
The Heat did both and hounded Lin all night, leading to the young star’s worst game of the season (eight point, three assists, eight turnovers, 1-for-11 shooting) and a 102-88 Knicks loss.
At this point, Linsanity was wounded, but not mortally. And when interim coach Mike Woodson (replacing D’Antoni after his inevitable resignation) re-affirmed that Lin was the Knicks starting point guard over veteran Baron Davis, it appeared that Linsanity could be headed for another upswing.
Tragically, Linsanity had already received a mortal wound — we just didn’t know it yet. According to medical reports, a chronic tear of the meniscus often goes undiagnosed for months, so there’s a distinct possibility that Lin’s entire season was accomplished with one good knee. Whatever the case, the Knicks and Lin sat on the torn meniscus diagnosis, hoping the swelling and pain would subside enough for him to play out the season and avoid surgery. In many ways, it was like a cancer patient waiting to tell people until after the first round of chemo, just to see how well he responded. But alas, Linsanity’s cancer was terminal.
And so his season came to an end with an unceremonious announcement — as T.S. Eliot might say, “not with a bang but a whimper”. Of course, it wouldn’t be Linsanity without a final absurd and frenetic blaze of glory. And so fans were treated to a Facebook Q&A session (questions came in at a rate of two per second) with Lin answering questions from his hospital bed hopped up on painkillers while recuperating from Monday’s meniscus surgery. It was predictably bizarre. And with that, the first stage in the career of the NBA’s answer to Tim Tebow came to an end. Linsanity is dead. Long live Jeremy Lin.