The Knicks haven’t exactly been a powerhouse in the twenty years since I’ve been an NBA consumer, but it typically feels like they should always be far worse than they ever actually are. This is something of a backhanded compliment, because they’ve been absolutely dreadful with fewer bright-spots than any other team in the league this side of the Warriors, Clippers, Bucks, Raptors & Bobcats (who didn’t exist for the first half of this span). But even in a season like this one, with inflated expectations they were falling woefully short of, facing a coaching change and a potential massive overhaul of the roster, Mike Dantoni has seemingly found the point guard he so desperately needs to make his team(s) functional.
I speak, of course, about Jeremy Lin. It has become popular opinion to compare Lin to Tim Tebow, and at first glance the comparison is apt. Two athletes with limited expectations producing wins with either an unorthodox and/or unexpected flair. But analogizing one with the other is misguided in a myriad of ways that aren’t necessarily being overlooked so much as discounted. Which is a bit flummoxing, since there appears to be a lot of hand-wringing about this story being overblown, even more so than Tebow’s second half run this past NFL season. I’m not sure I understand the confusion here. Both stories are fun, flashy and being done on a grand scale, one in the NFL, in which everything is done on a grand scale; and the other in the most historic basketball arena on the planet.
I rarely buy into the New York City allure that it’s denizens tend to speak so highly of, but the one that I’ll admit that carries a certain buzz most other sporting venues are hard-pressed to match is MSG, and you could feel the energy during that Lakers-Knicks game emanating through the television. I watched the first half of the game at the four corners of the track at my gym on mute, and the buzz was unmistakable. It stopped me dead in my tracks on several occasions.
The last paragraph might say more about me than it does about Jeremy Lin’s impact or the unchecked kinetic forces of human emotion provided by Madison Square Garden, but as avid of an NBA fan as I am, no regular season game has struck the same chords in me like last Friday’s Knicks win over the Lakers. So if you feel like this story is overblown, maybe my reaction will help you understand why it’s so oft-discussed. And it if doesn’t, I can tell you that nothing like this has happened in the NBA before, and probably never will again.
As you can see, it’s simply the perfect storm of hype-inflating variables all coming together to form a media maelstrom of opinions, stories, interviews & interest. Not only is Lin on an Atlantic Division team he’s in Manhattan, not only is he an underdog he’s a former high school standout from Palo Alto who graduated from Harvard, was sleeping on his brother’s couch and happens to be excelling on the only plain of American culture where a Harvard graduate would be even considered an underdog without the notion being met with laughter. Oh, and he’s Asian-American, which makes him unique to this landscape and immediately recognizable. Most importantly, however, he’s playing tremendously for an all-star, much less a second year 4th stringer who was fortunate to make a roster.
This isn’t the saga of Tim Tebow, who played college football at Florida, one of the five to ten biggest programs in the country; was a first round pick and if he never had a season like he had last year, he would have turned out to be a bigger disappointment than he’ll almost inevitably end up being. With the Broncos, Tebow succeeded by protecting the ball, having capable talent on his defense, taking advantage of opposing defenses in the waning minutes who weren’t accustom to defending against a primarily running quarterback, and luck. His statistical production was among the worst in the league and the wins they produced were as much a byproduct of a parity driven league as they were his football acumen.
Conversely, Jeremy Lin’s hype is far more merit-based. He’s been the driving force behind the Knicks recent upswing and his numbers were enough over the past six games to earn him conference player of the week. I’m not sure if such an award exists in the NFL, but I’m almost certain that Tebow failed to even make the ballot if it does. While the Broncos far out-performed with Tebow at quarterback, it felt like Tebow was more a beneficiary of playing in a weak division with a great (and underrated) coach; while Lin has been the catalyst in saving a dying team and hopeless fan base that came into the season with artificially inflated aspirations.
And all this is being accomplished with the Knicks two high-prized acquisitions in Amar’e and Melo sidelined with personal tragedy and injury, respectively. There isn’t an appropriate comparison because the two sports are managed so drastically different, but let’s just do this by scale. If 22 NFL players start from scrimmage and five NBA players, this is like Tebow losing the best 40% of his starting lineup before winning six straight games. I know this is a basketball post, but just look at some of the scores in those games Tebow won and you can deduct that he wasn’t going to make the playoffs if that were the case.
About the only similarity between the two stories is the media coverage of the two is proportionally identical (something like this will always be a bigger story in the NFL, because everything about the NFL is blown out of proportion). Lin has yet to be name-dropped at a Republican debate — and probably won’t be for a number of reasons I won’t get into – but five minutes doesn’t pass on any ESPN outlet without him being mentioned. He’s made plenty of headlines on various cable news outlets and assuming he keeps producing similar numbers, even with losses to teams like New Orleans he will remain in the news.
Personally, I consider this a good thing. It remains to be proven if Lin will be playing like this through March, April and the playoffs but that sort of speculation is tiresome and completely irrelevant. This is simply a side-story that has come to overthrow every other dominant story-thread of this lockout-shortened NBA season.
While the Tebow story wore on my nerves to the point I only watched the Steelers game because I had money on it (note: I’m glad I did, the game itself was incredible and I covered the bet). Lin actually plays well through the entire four quarters and as evidenced most notably against Toronto, also comes through in the clutch. He’s humble almost to an obnoxious degree (take some credit, man) while rejuvenating a franchise in dire need of rejuvenation. And as much as I may hate to admit it, the NBA is simply a better product when the Knicks are competitive, which Lin appears to have made them. As a diehard fan of the NBA, for all the cultural significance of Lin’s emergence aside from basketball, nothing else is necessary for me to tune in this afternoon against the Mavericks.