The first time Jeremy Lin hit the open market, he commanded $69. It was a chilly Thursday night in March 2010, and the student-run Harvard Cancer Society was conducting its annual date auction at Tommy Doyle's, a Sam Adams--soaked pub in Cambridge, Mass. The roughly 75 patrons eyed Lin's photograph, flashed on a projector screen alongside his answers to a series of soul-searching questions. (Q: What is the most romantic thing you have ever done? A: I paid for a girl's meal at Qdoba. We had a two-for-one coupon.) Despite his parsimony, Lin seemed like the favorite. "I definitely thought he would get the highest bid," recalls Emily Hughes, the former U.S. Olympic figure skater, then a Harvard junior. "He was doing well on the basketball team." But it was Hughes who paced the field with $202, while a female auctioneer felt compelled to spend $69 on Lin because no one else was bidding. She never bothered to go out on the date.
This is an article from the July 30, 2012 issue
This month Lin returned to the open market, and on July 12 he was summoned to a suite at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. During a four-hour meeting with representatives of the Rockets, he signed an offer sheet for $25.1 million over three years. He used a Golden Nugget pen that was pocketed by Houston assistant G.M. Sam Hinkie. A week later, after the Knicks declined to match the offer, Lin flew to Houston and walked into the office of Rockets owner Leslie Alexander. Hinkie handed him the Golden Nugget pen and Lin signed the contract that, he hopes, will end a craze and gave birth to a career. "I can finally get back to hooping," he said.
From Harvard to Houston, everything has changed for Jeremy Lin, except that even now no one agrees on his value. In the six weeks of Linsanity—may the puns cease too—the Knicks saw him score 38 points to fell the Lakers, beat the buzzer against the Raptors and deliver 14 assists to topple the Mavericks. He helped settle a cable television dispute, boost Madison Square Garden stock by 32% and sell more jerseys in a two-month span than anybody else in the NBA. His name was slapped on everything from a flavor of barbecue chicken (Lin-Katsu, by a Hawaii-based restaurant chain) to a strain of marijuana (Lin Sanity OG, mentioned by rapper Rick Ross). One of his press conferences, at Manhattan's Chelsea Piers, overshadowed a fund-raiser thrown next door by First Lady Michelle Obama. Dr. Ruth wrote an article entitled What Jeremy Lin, Basketball Teach Us About Sex. A 27-year-old Harvard grad named Esther Yoona Cho conducted a survey of 220 Asian-Americans that found "increased hope and optimism" for the future. Nevertheless, scouts remained skeptical. One who admired Lin said that with work he could become the next Eric Maynor, a backup for Oklahoma City.
When the Rockets made their initial offer, for a guaranteed $19.5 million, Knicks coach Mike Woodson said the team would "absolutely" match it. But when Houston upped the ante, the NBA's most notorious spenders suddenly grew frugal. The Knicks, who have made many questionable decisions in search of positive p.r., now took the opposite approach. They replaced the most popular player in their recent history with 28-year-old Raymond Felton and with 39-year-old Jason Kidd, who is coming off the worst season of his career and was arrested July 15 for drunk driving. MSG stock dropped more than $100 million in five days. "I was a little confused," says Cho.
Fans understand that players leave their favorite teams for financial reasons, but not undrafted and twice-waived folk heroes who only emerged five months ago. Lin is a product and a casualty of New York City, where things happen in a blur, building up trailed closely by tearing down. "I still have to remind myself this is all actually happening," Lin said. When he arrived in Houston on July 18, he checked into the Four Seasons downtown, and two blocks away he spotted an Embassy Suites. It was an oddly reassuring sight, a connection to his former life. He was returning to sanity.
Lin showed up at the Embassy Suites last December, after the Warriors waived him and the Rockets picked up his nonguaranteed contract. He slept in one bed, his parents in the other. When the wireless signal faded, he wandered over to the Four Seasons. "I asked them if I could use the Internet," Lin says, "and they were kind enough to let me." One of six point guards in training camp, half of whom were under contract, Lin barely touched the ball in practice. "I'm sitting there, obviously upset, thinking, Why am I here?" he says. The Rockets wanted to keep him, but free-agent center Samuel Dalembert joined the team four days before the season. On Christmas Eve, general manager Daryl Morey called Lin from a Buffalo Wild Wings in Florida, taking a break from lunch with his family to make a final cut.
"I told him, 'Hey, terrible time, terrible timing,'" Morey says. "'I'm sorry, we liked you, and I think you'll do great.' A lot of times teams just want to be nice on the way out, but in this case it was true."
Morey could tell Lin was upset, but he did not realize the extent of the player's angst. "I was leaning toward not playing for the year," Lin says. "I was going to call it quits, go home and then figure out what's next for me." He spent a night venting to Cheng Ho, a former Harvard running back and one of his best friends. "He was hopeless," Ho says. "That was the alltime low by far. He talked about giving up basketball."
Morey, a purveyor of advanced statistics with an MBA from MIT, judges players on what they do rather than on how they look. Lin is just the kind of afterthought he was hired to find. So Morey watched "with a mixture of curiosity and regret" as Lin landed in New York and birthed a phenomenon. (Morey's initial reaction: "Damn it.") All 30 teams passed on Lin in some form, but the Rockets had him last, so they felt his absence most. On the night Lin lit up the Lakers, Rockets coach Kevin McHale hadn't been able to find the game on his hotel TV, so he took his assistants to a sports bar. They were rooting for Lin, but the better he played, the worse they looked. After Lin shot down the Raptors, Alexander called Morey, wondering how this rare gem slipped through their fingers.
The Rockets were under siege—and, in a different way, so was Lin. "I had a lot of weird things happen to me, a lot of creepy stuff," he says. "Some people are so aggressive: 'Give me this picture, give me this signature.' Sometimes they'll follow me back to my car, knock on my window and pull on my door. That really scares me. I have no idea what they're going to do. They're banging on the car. I was just like, Oh, my gosh, what is going on? I kind of freaked out."
In March, Lin tried to sneak into a Harvard-Columbia game in New York, wearing a hoodie over his bowed head. But Spike Lee, also at the game, yelled at him, "Jeremy, you gotta stand up! You gotta stand up, baby! Stand up!" Lin then sheepishly rose to offer a quick wave, and before long fans were passing him business cards. He rarely left his room at the downtown W Hotel again, unless it was for practice or a game. "I was pretty much eating in my room every night," Lin says. "I could probably recite the menu to you. My go-tos: steak sandwich, salmon, and tuna tartare."
How insulated was he? Not until April, when his season was over because of a meniscus tear in his left knee, did Lin see Times Square. "I didn't even know where it was," he says. "I actually thought Koreatown was Times Square." When he worked up the courage to go, with a cousin in town from Taiwan, he went at night, wearing glasses and a baseball cap pulled low. "I was seeing my picture and my apparel everywhere," Lin recalls. "I had never walked into a store and seen my T-shirts or jerseys on sale. I was like, Whoa. Wow." Lin fit with New York only in terms of business and basketball. Asked to pinpoint his most challenging moment, he says, "The whole time. I think the toughest part was the lack of privacy. I'm a very private person. When people approach me on the street, I still get nervous."
Even so, he wanted to play for the Knicks—he felt no fright before the crowd at the Garden, which he loved—and assumed he would. A restricted free agent, Lin needed just one offer for them to match, so on July 4 he took a recruiting trip to Houston. On the video board outside the Toyota Center was a message that read, WELCOME BACK JEREMY. A photo of him in a Rockets uniform hung in the locker room. The last time Morey talked to him had been Christmas Eve. They had both been through a lot. "I'm sorry," Morey began.
Lin celebrated the Rockets' initial offer by treating 15 friends and relatives to steak and lobster the next night at Scott's Seafood, a restaurant back home in Palo Alto, Calif. The following night was dinner with coaches at Sundance, a local steakhouse. As Lin feasted, Houston only grew hungrier. After they traded starting point guard Kyle Lowry to Toronto and lost backup Goran Dragic to Phoenix as a free agent, the Rockets were stuck with 10 forwards, no true center and nobody to run the offense. Alexander told Morey, "We should be more aggressive."
The Rockets raised the offer to Lin to $25.1 million, including a $14.9 million "poison pill" in the third and final year, which would send the Knicks deeper into the luxury tax, where they have taken up permanent residence. "Poison pill?" former Knicks guard Landry Fields mused to the MSG Network. "That's a Tic Tac for James Dolan." But New York's billionaire owner found it hard to swallow, having also declined to match an offer sheet from Toronto for Fields. "This was the best structure to give us the best shot," Morey says now. "They seemed to get upset at us."
Knicks executives were in Las Vegas for summer league, and when a Rockets emissary delivered the offer sheet to their hotel, a receptionist said, "They're not accepting packages." New York, which would have 72 hours to act once it received the offer sheet, was stalling. Forward Carmelo Anthony called the contract "ridiculous." Guard J.R. Smith said it could provoke resentment in the locker room. Regardless, Morey never believed Dolan wouldn't match. "I thought they were doing a Sam Young shot-fake the whole time," Morey says. "I was like, 'I'm not going to bite.'"
But come 11 p.m. Tuesday, Lin was a Rocket, and one of the first congratulatory text messages came from a student at Shanghai's Jiaotong University named Yao Ming. Lin met Yao two years ago, at Yao's charity game in Taiwan. "The culture of the team is very down-to-earth," Yao wrote in an e-mail. "Everyone can be more united in this environment." The Knicks still have not commented on Lin's departure and told staffers not to invoke his name publicly.
After Lin checked into the Four Seasons, he bypassed the room-service menu and went to dinner at Katsuya with Chandler Parsons, one of two returning starters for the young Rockets. Fans politely approached during the meal, along with a couple of real-estate agents, but Parsons provided a buffer. "What am I, chopped liver?" he said. The 23-year-old forward gave Lin a tour of Houston neighborhoods. "It's not New York," Parsons says. "It's not L.A. There's not going to be paparazzi. He can chill and not worry about things that get him in trouble."
Lin will mesh smoothly with McHale's up-tempo offense, which emphasizes the pick-and-roll. He will also fit into his new hometown, the most ethnically diverse city in the U.S.. (Houston's Asian-American population grew by 76% in the 1990s and by 45% in the 2000s.) The Rockets promptly announced that their season-ticket base had already grown nearly 10%, even though they are in a massive rebuild.
Houston is still bidding on All-Star centers, specifically Orlando's Dwight Howard and the Lakers' Andrew Bynum, using Lin as a lure. In the Yao days virtually every Rockets regular inked endorsement deals with Chinese sponsors, and Alexander founded an investment firm that focused on Far East markets. The owner downplays the business opportunities Lin affords—"Those other things are there," Alexander says, "but it's always a basketball decision"—while acknowledging that the NBA is more popular than ever in China. TV ratings there last season were up 21%, although the Rockets are no longer everyone's favorite franchise. "There are still Rockets fans," says Andy Yao, a close friend of Yao Ming, "but now there are also Lakers fans and Heat fans and Thunder fans."
The Rockets hope Lin eventually reestablishes their dominance in Asia. But for the time being, the focus is local. Lin still won't drive a car. He is leaning toward an apartment in Parsons's complex. He will keep refining his shot and his left hand. Soon the former economics major will pore over Morey's advanced statistics, two math whizzes exploring the next frontier of a career unfolding in reverse.
In New York, Jeremy Lin had to be a phenomenon. In Houston, finally, he gets to fulfill his actual fantasy. He gets to be a pro.