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Monday, February 20, 2012

And now for something a little more fun...

Jeremy Lin.

Hoo-boy, the kid can ball, can't he.  His aggression with the ball and his basketball IQ make him a quite dangerous point guard.  He plays the game like a streetball kid given a chance, and bless him for that.  I've been following the Knicks since I was 11 or 12 years old, and we've had some good -- great -- ballplayers.  The last time we've had a player that HAD to be defended above the free throw line?  Derek Harper.  Lin can hurt you in many ways, from his ability to get to the paint to his ability to hit a three pointer to beat the shot clock.  There is ice water in his veins.  He has outdueled two future Hall-of-Famers in Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitski.  And it's only his second week as a full-time player.

His journey has made the NBA interesting this season, and thank goodness because after the lockout, the play we had seen  was not worth the money.  Not even close.

This kid is a huge story, and probably will be for the next couple of months because he defies several conventions in sports, at all levels.  He's someone who was overlooked for any critical role, then simply retooled his game, beefed up what was good about himself and played his way, so that when he eventually got a shot, he would make it impossible to be taken off the floor.  NBA scouts are now throwing their hands up in the air, wondering how in all their vaunted experience they missed a dazzling talent like this.  Does race play a part in this?  Yes, of course it does.

He was an idiot for saying it the way he did, but Floyd Mayweather was right.  When we strip away the sour grapes from the tone in which he said it, he's absolutely right.  Because of what we envision basketball to be, this kind of underdog story is SUPPOSED to happen to the poor black kid from the wrong side of the tracks.  Disney has made millions off movies based on this concept (check out Glory Road).  We envision basketball to be an urban game, played by kids from bad neighborhoods whose limited options are ball, rap and/or prison.  And that one poor black kid who makes it, becomes a neighborhood sensation, then a college star, then an All-Star NBA player... well, that guy is Stephon Marbury when you think about it.

But for those of us who have played ball, when the kid who steps on the court who doesn't look like he's the type to play the game, be it because he's short, or fat, or wears glasses or has the wrong color skin, have we not noticed -- or given -- the "look?"  The "Oh god, who let the scrub on the court and please don't let him be on my team" look.  I know people who have gotten that look.  My nephew, because he's a 5'7" Puerto Rican kid, even though he's one of the best athletes I've ever known;  a former co-worker of mine, a 5'5" Asian kid who would absolutely gotten the look if he played where I grew up, and would have torched the people who gave him that look for a triple-double; a slightly pudgy white guy I used to work with who was deadly from 15 feet out.

That look is what scouts gave Jeremy Lin.  Because he's an Asian kid with options.

You don't expect him to be this phenomenal talent.  He went to Harvard.  He grew up NOT in the 'hood.  His is not the typical NBA journey as it is envisioned or glorified.  And bless him for that.  He defies the conventions of the sport, and it is to my hope that he continues to do so.

The thing that makes Mr. Lin most special, though, is the fact that he grasps the concept that so many professional athletes don't.  He gets paid very handsomely to play a game.  And he's having fun.  That fun is contagious, because it makes the people playing with him have fun.  And that makes the people watching THEM have fun.  And in a microscope like New York, the end result of that is people sitting courtside wearing homemade Lin masks.

This is the kind of underdog story we need; the story of the kid who is even less likely to make it than the poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks, who through sheer determination, hard work, and yes, a little faith (even though I'm not a man of faith, I can appreciate whatever it was that made him persevere.) made us all stand up an take notice. Talented and humble, every day he steps on the court, he shatters a new stereotype, and another barrier to success.

Oh, and a side stat: The Knicks are undefeated in games in which Jeremy Lin has a dunk.

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