I missed on Jeremy Lin, too. And like the front offices and coaching staffs of the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, I'm kicking myself for not realizing what was right under my nose. The truth is, I had a better look, or at least a longer look, at him than any NBA talent evaluator, and I still never dreamed that Lin, the New York Knicks' suddenly brilliant point guard, would go from garbage time to prime time faster than a crossover dribble.
Lin starred at Palo Alto (Calif.) High School, better known as Paly to the locals, which is just a few miles from where I live. Occasionally I would swing by the Vikings' charming old gym, with balcony seating above the court, to catch a game. The first time I noticed Lin was during his junior year, in 2005, and he was a baby-faced version of what he is now -- clever with the dribble, deceptively quick, frustrating to guard. I remember lots of opposing guards contorting their faces in a mixture of surprise and disgust after he flashed past them to the hoop, as if they couldn't decide if they were more shocked or angry that this skinny Asian kid had used them like an orange traffic cone. You know the look -- it's the same one that Deron Williams and John Wall had when Lin toasted them during the Knicks' three-game winning streak over the last week.
I followed Lin after high school the way you keep track of the neighborhood kid who goes off to the big city, checking in on him from time to time to see how he's doing. Even though he had led Paly to a state championship as a senior, upsetting powerful Mater Dei of Orange County in the title game, I wasn't surprised when I heard that major Division I schools had little interest. As my Sports Illustrated colleague Pablo Torre wrote in his 2010 story about Harvard basketball, Lin wasn't just ignored by most schools; in some cases, he was unintentionally insulted: "Out of the Pac-10, Lin recalls, UCLA 'wasn't interested,' Stanford was 'fake interested,' and during a visit to Cal a staffer 'called me 'Ron.' "
Even though Lin went on to star at Harvard, even though he impressed me every time I watched him in high school and college, even though he had a memorable summer league duel against Wall, more than holding his own as an undrafted rookie against the No. 1 pick of the draft, I wasn't at all surprised when no one thought he had much of a chance to succeed in the NBA. I knew on some level that part of the reason Lin was so quickly dismissed was that NBA people had a hard time believing that an Asian-American could play point guard in the NBA, which is why I'm kicking myself -- I didn't question the conventional wisdom even though it didn't go along with what I saw with my own eyes.
It's also why Lin has become such a phenomenon, trending on Twitter, being searched for on Google, becoming the name that launched a thousand puns (Linsanity. Linning Streak. Jeremy is BallLin'.) So many people are rooting for him because he's a reminder not to just accept "expert" opinions, that evaluating players is an art, not a science, that just because there's never been a Taiwanese-American point guard in the NBA doesn't mean we should close ourselves off to the possibility of one.
Linsanity has gripped the nation just as fans are getting over a bout of Tebowmania, as Lin, a devout Christian who says his favorite book is the Bible, is considered by some to be the NBA's version of Tim Tebow. But that comparison does Lin a disservice. If the Knicks won despite Lin dribbling the ball off his foot every third time down the court, or throwing the occasional alley-oop over the backboard, he would be Tebow-like. Tebow succeeded as the Denver Broncos' quarterback despite not playing the position very well, while Lin has thrived because he has played his position beautifully.
At least he has, so far. As any number of buzz kills have been pointing out ever since Lin's emergence, there is the possibility that this joy ride could crash into a wall at any moment, maybe as soon as Friday night when the Los Angeles Lakers visit Madison Square Garden. Lin hasn't faced a defender with the guile and veteran tricks of Derek Fisher, and although Kobe Bryant seemed to barely know who Lin was on Thursday night, he will by tip-off on Friday. It's not hard to envision him deciding to try to lock down Lin and personally burst his bubble.
But until someone does that, the legend of Lin (is there anyone who doesn't know that he slept on his brother's and teammate Landry Fields' couches because he didn't have a place of his own? That he was cut by the Warriors and Rockets to clear cap space?) will grow, especially among Knicks fans desperate for the franchise's luck to change. Not much has gone right for the Knicks in more than a decade, and over the last few seasons they have been like a Rubik's Cube -- every move they make to solve one problem seems to create a new one. They acquired the star they wanted in Carmelo Anthony, but had to trade away half the roster to get him. They acquired the interior defender they needed in Tyson Chandler, but had to create a hole at point guard by using the amnesty provision on Chauncey Billups to clear salary cap room for him.
But now Lin has filled that void at the point, and it's hard to blame Knicks fans if, like coach Mike D'Antoni, they want to ride these good times "like frickin' Secretariat." They have good reason to be optimistic, because the attributes that have made Lin effective to this point -- intelligence, court vision, the ability to change speeds and take the proper angles on his dribble -- aren't qualities that will suddenly disappear.
The threats to Lin's success may come more from within than from opponents. The Knicks' surge has been accomplished mostly without their two star scorers, Anthony, who strained a groin muscle on Monday, and Amar'e Stoudemire, who has missed the last two games and is expected to miss two more after the death of his brother Hazell in an auto accident. It remains to be seen whether Anthony, in particular, is willing and able to adapt to the offensive emphasis on spacing the floor and moving the ball that plays so much to Lin's strengths.
If Anthony does bog down the offense with his slow-developing one-on-one moves, he will feel the wrath of the Knicks' faithful, who have finally glimpsed the possibilities of D'Antoni's offensive system. For New Yorkers of a certain age, the free-flowing, share-the-ball attack is like a 21st-century version of the sainted Knicks teams of the '70s with Walt Frazier and Willis Reed, whose mantra was to "find the open man." When Lin is running the show and his teammates are cutting and screening and spotting up, you get the feeling that somewhere the late coach Red Holzman is smiling.
As is everyone else in the Garden, for the first time in what feels like forever. You might think that the smiles are only temporary, that the odds are that Lin won't last. But if you're still thinking about the odds when it comes to Jeremy Lin, then you just don't get it.