The City GamePosted: February 12, 2012 | |
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.