A year ago, nobody knew Jeremy Lin from the Harvard kid in the next cubicle. But now, with a new NBA season about to start, it's proving time: can this soft-spoken boy wonder lead a franchise of his own? GQ joined Lin for his first trip back to New York since he was cast out of the Knicks' kingdom this summer and found out what he's got in store for...Linsanity: The Sequel
For the first time since the team he expected to finish his career with decided it didn't want him around anymore, Jeremy Lin is back in New York City. After a long day of training, he meets his brother and sister-in-law (proud proprietors of "The Couch") for dinner in the West Village. And then barely thirty-six hours after arriving, it's time for Lin to bid farewell to the city all over again—hopping in a car with me so we can make the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Bristol, Connecticut, where he'll shoot a "This is SportsCenter" commercial (reserved only for the most pop-culturally transcendent athletes) in the morning.
Lin is already exhausted by the time we get on the West Side Highway, and he'll actually pass out on me before we successfully navigate the nightmarish traffic and drop him on ESPN's doorstep. But for now, he's just bummed to be leaving so soon. He misses New York, its people, its fans. "You can't ask for a city or a fan base to embrace somebody more than they embraced me," he says. "I know it's kind of silly to talk about it with only two years under my belt in the league, but going in before free agency, I was like, 'I want to play in front of these fans for the rest of my career.' I really did. I really wanted to play in front of the Madison Square Garden fans for the rest of my career, because they're just unbelievable."
On February 3, 2012, the New York Knicks lost to the Boston Celtics, 91–89. At one point, coach Mike D'Antoni put in his third-string, end-of-the-bench point guard, Jeremy Lin, to play six and a half minutes; he put up three shots and missed all three. It was the Knicks' eleventh loss in their last thirteen games. Exactly twelve days later, Lin was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It was a stunning and immediate ascension to total global domination. (You knew Lin had arrived when he had to deny rumors he was dating a Kardashian.)
What must it have been like in the middle of all that? What must it have been like to go from being an afterthought, a nobody, to an international icon...in a week? "What the heck? That was my main thought: What the heck?" Lin says. "People are standing outside my brother's classroom [Lin's elder brother, Josh, is a dental student at NYU] and showing up outside my grandmother's house in Queens." The personal went global instantly, as well. That story about Lin sleeping on his brother's couch in the East Village? Not only was it true—the fact became so iconic that Lin planned to appear at the All-Star Weekend lying on a proxy couch that his teammate Iman Shumpert would hurdle during the Slam Dunk contest. Lin's sister-in-law (she's married to Josh) was startled to see it make the news cycle. "That's my couch! I picked out that couch!" she said, laughing. "Jeremy went from my husband's brother who stayed with us when he was in town to us having our furniture on ESPN."
At dinner the night before we met, Lin says, he had two separate waiters tell him how sad they were he was no longer a Knick, how they weren't sure they could follow the team anymore. (This latter sentiment, in particular, always takes him aback; the Knicks have been a New York pillar for decades, but he was only on the court for about a month.) I hope he enjoys those memories of New York, because he doesn't have much else to remember his time by. He turned in his jerseys to the Knicks; Lin says the only Linsanity memorabilia he has are some T-shirts people gave him along the way.
I ask him when he thinks he'll be back in New York again. His eyes are fixed out the window as the city flashes past him. "When we play here, I guess."
The thing that was most striking about Linsanity—the instantly iconic term that Lin admits still makes him uncomfortable (though that didn't stop him from trademarking it)—was that Lin immediately became the best player on the floor. A kid who had reached double figures only twice in his brief NBA career, and never with the Knicks, dropped thirty-eight on Kobe and the Lakers, twenty-eight on the defending-champion Mavericks, and twenty-seven on the road against the Raptors, including a last-second three-pointer to win the game the way we've all imagined in our driveways. It was as though he emerged, out of nowhere, as a fully formed superstar. This didn't make any sense, least of all to Lin. "I mean, to literally go from 'If I score two, three, or four points today, it's a good day' to setting the record for the most points scored in your first five starts of any NBA player," he says, still amazed. "I'd be a huge liar if I told myself, 'I knew I could do that.' You know what I mean? That's not realistic. Let's just be honest. I had no idea I could play like that. It was as amazing to me as it was to everybody else."
It was as thrilling a sports story as we'd seen in decades—the type of thing your grandmother calls to ask if you've heard about. Everyone knew Jeremy Lin, instantly. At its epicenter, MSG coalesced around Lin and rocked in a way it never has before. (Spike Lee, who would know as well as anyone, told me Linsanity was the loudest he'd ever heard the Garden.) Part of it was because he was such a sudden success; part of it was because he was playing in New York; part of it was because he was so unknown, such a breath of fresh air in a sports landscape often choked by hype and bluster; and part of it, of course, the largest factor, everybody (including Lin) admits, was that he was Asian-American. He became the symbol of the changing face of the world, now taking over a sport in which people like him were considered a joke.
He inspired fans in Asia even though he'd only been there a few times. When he took a trip to Taiwan and China this summer, he was so mobbed that he rarely left his hotel room. ("The first time I went to Taiwan, there were cameras, paparazzi, TV stations outside my hotel twenty-four hours a day nonstop." A video from the trip of Lin sneaking out in the middle of the night wearing a Hello Kitty costume went viral.) He's become an outsize figure in a country where he does not live or speak the language. "It's a unique thing that I have this platform and I can grow the game there," he says, "but honestly, I find it a bit scary."
Of course, being an out-of-nowhere Asian-American point guard had its downsides, and once Lin broke huge, a lot of the creeps came out of the woodwork. Incidents ranged from the ugly—that supposed accident when an ESPN editor used "Chink In The Armor" to headline a story about a Lin-Knicks loss—to the legitimately nasty, like when Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock, after Lin's historic win over the Lakers, tweeted, "Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight." (That one is actually offensive on about four or five different levels.) At one point, I saw a sign at the Garden that said LIN YOU LONG TIME. Lin, who met with the apologetic ESPN editor, says he never really was upset by any of this. He'd seen it all before.
"In my younger days, it would make me really angry. I would just get really pissed," he says. "I think the comments in college were pure racism. Stuff that was said by opposing players, opposing fans, opposing coaches. So none of this was even close to that."
But one thing Lin agrees his race did cost him might be best described as, in the words of George W. Bush, the soft bigotry of low expectations. The key part of Lin's story, the reason the world was so inspired by him, was that he was never really given a chance. He was undrafted out of college and spent a year-plus in the Development League or at the very end of an NBA bench. "I'm going to be honest, playing in D-League games is tough," he says. "We got way more fans at Harvard games. It feels like a demotion, and it feels like if you have one bad game then the thought gets in your brain: I might get cut."
Lin felt this acutely. He tells me, to my shock, that when he graduated from Harvard in 2010 and wasn't selected in the NBA Draft, he decided that if it turned out that he needed to play overseas (as is commonplace for those who don't make the NBA), he was going to give himself one more year, and then he would quit and get a real job. "I absolutely would not have liked playing in Spain or somewhere like that, so I was just gonna do it a year," he says. "Then I was gonna be done." As a Harvard graduate, I ask him, what would you have done instead? He laughs. "I have no idea, man." Lin really was that close to hanging up his sneakers at 23.
You might think his race has something to do with those perceived limitations after turning pro; Lin certainly does: "If I can be honest, yes. It's not even close to the only reason, but it was definitely part of the reason." And it didn't end with Linsanity. "There's a lot of perceptions and stereotypes of Asian-Americans that are out there today, and the fact that I'm Asian-American makes it harder to believe, even crazier, more unexpected," he says. "I'm going to have to play well for a longer period of time for certain people to believe it, because I'm Asian. And that's just the reality of it." It's not all that dissimilar from what Yao Ming went through. "When Yao came out his rookie year as the first pick of the Draft, you have Charles Barkley saying, 'If he scores seventeen points in a game, I'm going to kiss a donkey's butt,' " Lin says. "If you do it for long enough, I think you would get the respect."
There is a notion lingering around the NBA, rarely spoken aloud, that Lin still hasn't proven it, still doesn't belong in the stratosphere of superstars, that he is some sort of fad. You can detect it when, say, former teammate Carmelo Anthony calls Lin's contract offer from Houston "ridiculous," or when J. R. Smith reportedly assures a room full of kids that he's going to kick Jeremy Lin's ass. But you can tell, most obviously, because he's not a Knick anymore.
We're well outside New York now, distant enough that I finally feel comfortable asking Lin what I most want to know: What in the hell happened? Heading into the off-season, Lin was a restricted free agent, which meant the Knicks could match any offer any other team made for his services. The Knicks, a perpetually floundering, dysfunctional franchise, are known for two things: losing and paying a ton of money for the privilege. Every opportunity the Knicks have had to waste cash, they have done so: Eddy Curry, Jerome James, the whole Isiah Thomas era, etc. So there was no reason to think Lin wouldn't be a Knick this season, even if it cost them more than they might've liked to spend. It was nuts to even theoretically plot out the circumstances in which they'd dump their new star. There weren't any. The Knicks had arguably the most marketable name in the league, not to mention fragile status as an older team desperately in need of guards and a player in his early twenties. But who are we kidding: They had Jeremy Lin, the most popular player in the NBA. A source told ESPN that the Knicks would match any offer for Lin "up to $1 billion." He would be a Knick forever.
Lin certainly thought so. Days after the NBA Finals ended, Lin had dinner in Los Angeles with teammates Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony (pre–"ridiculous contract" remarks) and Knicks coach Mike Woodson. The point of the meeting was to ease concerns that Lin and Anthony, in particular, hadn't meshed together before Lin missed the end of the season with a knee injury. Woodson wanted to make sure all his players were on the same page. Lin's free-agency period was beginning in less than a week, but no one was too worried. "I walked away like, 'This is sweet.' I was thinking, 'I'm excited.' Before that dinner, I had reservations. Afterward I was like, 'Yeah, this is going to be good.' "
Knicks management, in fact, encouraged Lin and his reps to go out and get other offers, with the obvious assumption being that they would be matching, no worries. At first, Lin didn't get any offers. "They figured the Knicks were just going to match anyway, so there's no point," he said. "We couldn't get anybody. At one point in time I thought, 'Are we going to have zero contract offers?' "
But then, in early July, Lin headed to Houston, having been contacted by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, widely considered the stat-head NBA equivalent of Moneyball maven Billy Beane. Morey had cut Lin before the start of last season but then watched Linsanity take flight and relished a chance to correct his mistake. ("He was deeply, deeply, overly apologetic about cutting me," Lin says, laughing.) So Morey offered Lin a three-year, $25 million contract that contained a "poison pill" in the third season, one that would balloon his salary to more than $14 million. The idea was, in part, to make the Knicks blanch at paying Lin that much, along with the astronomical league-imposed luxury tax on free-spending teams that would've come along with it.
But the Knicks have never balked at paying out big salaries, and no one, from Lin to Morey, thought the Knicks would do anything but match. "The Rockets thought I was going to be a Knick," Lin says. "They told me when I signed there, 'We think it's an 80 to 95 percent chance of that happening.' That was consistent with what everyone was saying to me." There was so much certainty that Lin would remain a Knick that his sister-in-law, who had been hired as Lin's business manager, left the country for a wedding. "We all knew he would be a Knick," she says. "I thought, What could happen?"
They found out Sunday, July 15. Lin, who says he hadn't talked with anyone from Knicks management since his free-agent period began, was online and clicked a headline: KNICKS LAND FELTON IN SIGN-AND-TRADE. In a stunning move, the Knicks acquired Raymond Felton—a portly point guard who had left the team in the Carmelo deal a year before—and sent the sports world a clear message. "Oh, my gosh," Lin remembers thinking. "That means I'm out."
By the time I meet with Lin in September, the Knicks still haven't made a public statement about the deal. (This is par for the course: Knicks owner James Dolan hasn't given an interview about the Knicks in more than five years.) There are plenty of theories, ranging from Anthony feeling Lin's game didn't work with his and pulling a power play to Dolan having a sudden, inexplicable urge to save money (or somehow resenting Lin for receiving that particular offer) to, well, the Knicks just being a broken organization. In one ridiculous salvo, ESPN's Stephen A. Smith wrote a piece that claimed, "Jeremy Lin has been all about the money since the day he burst onto Broadway." (Matching Houston's number, it's worth noting, would have made Lin only the fourth-highest-paid Knick, on average.) You can make a strong argument that Lin is better off without the Knicks' dysfunction, that the franchise never deserved him anyway. As a Knicks fan, it's not one I particularly enjoy making, but I think it's true.
Lin says he doesn't know more than a couple of people on the Rockets and that he doesn't "know much about Houston, I'm not going to lie." He confesses this with obvious sadness. His plan had been to be a Knick forever. Now that it's over, would he do anything differently? "I might have been a lot more reserved about everything in free agency," he says—the implication being that he wouldn't have sought out the offers. "But the thing about it is, there was no other way to handle the situation. I didn't get an offer from the Knicks, so I had to go test my market."
And so Lin is on the road again, looking for yet another new place to live and play. Only this time he's doing it as one of the most famous people on the planet.
Lin missed the last two months of this past season with a knee injury. Before the Knicks' first round Game 5 against the Heat, he said that his knee was at "85 percent." This was interpreted as 85 percent full-strength—not 85 percent of the way back to a place where he could compete—and he took criticism from reporters and fans for somehow not "gutting through" his injury. He says now he regrets ever putting a number on how ready he was and that the Knicks were encouraging him to stay out and protect his future anyway.
Much of his off-season was spent working out—and, frankly, getting huge. Because Lin is a modest-size guard and skinnier than most NBA players, there is a tendency to assume that he'll look like a regular guy in person. (There's surely a racial component to this, too.) He does not. Lin is a pretty solid, muscular dude—six feet three, 200 pounds. You would want him on your side in a fight. He doesn't carry himself that way at all, though. Almost every athlete I've ever spoken to walks, talks, and acts as if he is impervious to pain, failure, or any sort of human frailty. It comes with the territory: From an extremely young age, professional athletes have been the best in the room at doing something that everyone else in the room wants to do well. They have been told they can do no wrong, so by the time they're adults, they believe it. To succeed at the highest levels of competition, you almost have to think this way; you must believe you are Superman.
I say almost every athlete, because Lin isn't like this at all. You know all those criticisms people have about Lin? He has them himself.
"People are always saying, 'He's only started twenty-five games, there's so many uncertainties.' And I agree. I totally agree," he says. "I don't know how my next season's going to turn out. The things that I struggled with before last year, I'm going to struggle with next year—there's that learning process. Just because you have x amount of good games doesn't mean that you have drastically improved as a player. It just means that what you could do is finally being shown. But I have to get better."
The game that Lin still sees in his nightmares is the nationally televised February 23 showdown in Miami. It was the height of Linsanity, and the whole world was watching to see how Lin would fare against big bad LeBron and the Miami Heat. It didn't go well for Lin. He went one for eleven from the field with eight turnovers and was hounded by LeBron, Wade, and Bosh the whole contest. Lin, a guy who had been in the Development League just one month earlier, was the sole target of the entire defense of one of the most amazing collections of talent—the season's eventual champs—the NBA has ever seen. "It's flattering—and terrifying," he says. "It's flattering because it's like, Okay, they actually care. They actually know who I am and I'm on their scouting report, which never would have happened before. And then it's terrifying because they're really good...and it's so different for me to all of a sudden become the focal point of a team's defense. That's just uncharted territory for me. I felt like they were all like hawks circling me and staring. It was a learning experience."
The game was so memorable that President Obama used it as a metaphor for his strategy against Mitt Romney. "We're the Miami Heat, and he's Jeremy Lin," Obama reportedly told an aide. Obama meant that they were going to try to cut off every avenue Romney has to win, the same way the Heat did to Lin. "I wish it wasn't said," Lin says now. "It's also weird that the president knows who I am." (For the record, Lin hasn't spoken with Obama, but the coolest person he has met since Linsanity? Hillary Clinton. "She knew my name!")
As much as everyone was tracking Linsanity last year, the scrutiny will be more intense this season in Houston. Everyone is eager to see if Lin really is a fluke, if Linsanity was just a silly flash of fame, like Honey Boo Boo or professional hockey. If Lin thinks his life has changed now, just wait till he gets to Houston. "When we had Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady," Rockets GM Morey says, "those were our centerpieces. We were putting players around them that fit them. Right now we're really sort of figuring out who those foundational players will be. But if you had to ask me who's most likely to be that guy, I think Jeremy Lin's number one."
"I just need to focus on improvement on my end," Lin says. "I totally hear and agree with people who are like, 'He still has to learn. He's not established enough. He hasn't done it long enough.' I agree with them. I mean, obviously I don't always agree with everyone who says, 'He's at most a backup point guard,' things like that. I'm trying to find a balance. I'm not like the next Michael Jordan, but I'm also not what everyone saw me as before I started playing in the NBA, either."
This sort of uncertainty is refreshing. But it's also a little odd, because Lin has already shown his ability to raise his game. For all the self-effacement, one of the major criticisms heading into last season was that he didn't have a reliable outside shot. He spent the whole off-season working on it and, well, you saw the results.
When I ask him what he would want to say to anyone who believed in him last year, the people who made Linsanity happen, his response is surprising. "I think they changed my life dramatically," he says. "My life will never be the same—but I don't think I necessarily did that for anybody, you know? The impact on my life was greater than the impact I had on any of their lives. People are moved by my story, but they're only moved by my story because of what I do on the court." The trick, he says, is making sure he's able to be both his true self and the player fans need him to be. "Can I do that? I hope so. I think I can."
There's a school just down the street from the house where Lin's parents live, where he grew up, in Palo Alto, California. It has a modest, friendly little playground—just like the one by where you live. Lin and his friends have been playing pickup hoops there their entire lives. Wherever he was living, whether in Cambridge or Oakland or New York, that little stretch of suburbia was home. Basketball players, particularly those who've bounced from team to team the way Lin has, live a transient life—hotel to hotel, city to city, season to season; their lives are unmoored, lurching fogs. That court, that house, that's the only home base Lin has now.
Last May, after the Knicks lost to the Heat in the first round of the playoffs, Lin returned home to Palo Alto for the first time in months. He'd spent most of 2012 in anonymous hotel rooms on the road, in the W Hotel for home games, and, of course, on the couches of his brother and teammate Landry Fields. After a long season, he just wanted to get back to a place where he could unwind after one of the most overwhelming, surreal three-month stretches a human being could possibly experience. One afternoon he headed over to the old court with some of his old friends.
"At first I was like, 'This is gonna be fine,' " he says. "We played for a while, and it was cool. Then some people noticed us, and by the end of our first game, there's a crowd forming, everyone's taking pictures. We didn't even play a second game. I just walked home, like I always had, and they followed me. They all knew where I lived. I knew everything was going to be different, but I guess I never realized how different. I can't 'go home' and expect it to be, you know, home.
"My parents better not ever sell that house," Lin says. "I'll buy it if I have to."
Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York magazine.