The City Game

We made it to the NBA. When Jeremy Lin sized up Pau Gasol a few feet beyond the 3-point line during a key moment in the 4th quarter of friday’s New York Knicks – Los Angeles Lakers game, I knew he had him. Gasol, the Lakers’ star center, was backing up as Lin dribbled threateningly towards him. He rose for a long jumper over Gasol’s long, futile reach. Water.

Basketball in New York City. In 1970, sportswriter Pete Axthelm mythologized the sport’s significance to Gotham in The City Game, weaving together anecdotes of the 1969-70 Knicks team that won the championship with back stories of playground legends like Earl ‘The Goat’ Manigault and ‘The Helicopter.’ “If the Knicks brought a special pride to all New York, they were only multiplying the feeling that the playground kids have always understood,” he wrote.

It’s true that only the success of the Knicks can galvanize and focus New York City basketball interests into pure mania, but since I’ve lived in New York, the Knicks have been a tired joke. For the last decade, the team’s leadership has stacked one star player on top of another in hopes of manufacturing that fleeting magic known in sports as chemistry, or at least buying enough talent to render chemistry irrelevant. But each addition only brought greater disappointment. Madison Square Garden was a place where promising careers went to flounder into incoherence.

Lin was inserted into the Knicks’ lead guard role in pure desperation after a listless start to the season made last year’s gains seem like a mirage. After leading them to five wins in a row with virtuostic performances, he has bridged the 1% row of Madison Square Garden with Korean church pick-up basketball in Long Island City; outdoor runs in the shadow of the 7-train on a 30 degree, windy day in Flushing; rec league games in Upper Eastside gyms; and little kid basketball in legendary Rucker Park in Harlem.

Did you see that move on Luke Ridenour on Saturday? Lin took it hard right then screeched into a crossover. Whoops, sorry! Left Ridenour somewhere out in the forests of Oregon circa 2002, then rained a 15 footer on his head. It was like when Randolph Childress crossed up Jeff McGinnis in the ACC tournament in 1995. Childress motioned for McGinnis to get up off the floor before he drilled a 3. But getting back to Lin.

Asian Americans from California recognize the type: Taiwanese and religious, studious and quiet; there’s something dorky and utterly suburban about him. He crashed on his brother’s couch in the Lower East Side between monster games like a clueless under-rested student. We haven’t yet figured out what Jeremy Lin means, and why this moment feels so historic to us. But even if he is our Jeremy and even if we want to apply the lessons of race to his rise, the most important thing for me is that he’s been tagged by New York’s unforgiving, jaded basketball fans with the most elusive and important of titles: a baller.

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3 Comments on “The City Game”

  1. Thanks for the post, Herb. I’ve heard some pretty skeptical things said about the rise of Lin, most notably the gains that the NBA brand could make in the Asian market. How screwed up is that? Is it so incredibly unfathomable to have a star Asian American basketball player?

    Katherine

  2. Herb Tam says:

    Thanks Katherine, I suspect Lin’s story will soon be old news and probably not much will have changed, but I’m savoring the euphoria of the moment. I like how people are trying to decipher what this moment actually is all about.

  3. Brendan says:

    Great article Herb, thanks for sharing. Jeremy Lin is a great story. A week ago, he is playing in Erie, sleeping on his bro’s couch, and now, he is going toe-to-toe with Kobe Bryant, sinking three point shoots for the big win.

    Lin has taken an underachieving Knick team (for the most part, an unwatchable Knick team), and led them to five straight wins. He knows how to drive the lane. He can also shoot from outside. He has great sense of vision, and he makes the players around him better. His sense of wonder and joy on the court is infectious.

    Yes, it is still too early to tell if he will have a lasting impact on the team. And it’s anybody’s guess if Melo and Lin can play together. But, in the meantime, it’s fun to watch the Knicks play, and I can’t remember the last time I said that.


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