NEW YORK – Nearly three years ago to the date, Jeremy Lin began his rise as a worldwide icon during “Linsanity.” Lin had Madison Square Garden buzzing like Times Square on New Year’s Eve on a nightly basis.
Three years later, Lin returned to the Garden on Sunday as a bench player on a struggling Lakers team headed for the lottery while keeping his “options open” heading into unrestricted free agency this summer.
“Every time I come back I always have great memories,” Lin said. “I always remember those times and I’m always thankful. Coming back and playing in New York with the fans at the Garden, that’s very special to me and I’ll always cherish that. It means a lot more to me than it might be to anyone else coming back or anybody else who might just come through.”
Lin went undrafted out of Harvard before bouncing around with the Golden State Warriors and Reno Bighorns and Erie Bayhawks of the D-League before his infamous stretch. He even had to sleep on Landry Fields’ couch along the journey.
“I think it was great for everybody just because Jeremy represented more of the everyday guy out there having success on the basketball court as opposed to guys that they feel like somehow are naturally gifted to do those things,” Knicks coach Derek Fisher said during his pregame press conference. “Jeremy represented something that spoke to everybody and so I think it was a fun period.”
After struggling mightily to start the season, the Knicks (8-15) were in search of a spark at the time. Lin promptly led the team to a 9-2 record – including seven straight victories – while averaging 23.9 points, 9.2 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game.
During that stretch, Lin scored a career-high 38 points against the Lakers and hit a game-winner against the Raptors. In his first five starts, Lin scored the most points (136) since the NBA merger and became the first player to record at least 20 points and seven assists in each of his first five starts, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
With success came fame for Lin. Publications such as Time Magazine, SLAM Magazine and Sports Illustrated (twice) featured him as their cover athlete.
“It was just so fun on the court,” Lin said. “I thought that was, when you talk about pure basketball, moving the ball, playing the right way — we didn’t have the most talent or anything, but guys were just trusting each other and we were just playing for each other — I thought that was just such a beautiful thing.”
Lin referenced former teammates Landry Fields, Steve Novak and Jared Jeffries as players that defied expectations from others and made it a lot of fun playing alongside them. Did you notice Carmelo Anthony wasn’t mentioned?
Lin excelled in New York when Anthony was injured and he had free reign of the offense similar to the way Steve Nash did with the Suns under coach Mike D’Antoni. Though they had some success playing together, despite individual declines statistically, the pair never seemed to gel fluidly and there appeared to be tension between the two.
When Lin was a restricted free agent, Anthony called Houston’s contract offer to the point guard a “ridiculous contract.”
Recently, Anthony also said the play of Langston Galloway reminded him of “Linsanity.”
That’s a slap in the face to Lin, who filled seats at the Garden, boosted team merchandise sales dramatically and put the Knicks back into the national spotlight.
Galloway has provided a spark for the Knicks since being called up from Westchester, but the team remains a woeful 10-38 overall.
Anthony has remained the face of the franchise with the Knicks in the midst of a tumultuous season.
Lin averaged 13.4 points and 6.1 assists per game as the full-time starter in Houston before splitting time starting and coming off the bench in his second season there.
This season, Lin has been demoted to a backup after beginning the season as the starting point guard while enduring criticism publicly from Lakers coach Byron Scott in the process.
On Sunday, Lin came off the bench behind rookie Jordan Clarkson and journeyman Wayne Ellington. A little over a week ago, Lin was also benched against the Spurs for the first time in three years.
“I’ll give him as many chances as he’s been getting,” Scott said. “About the same amount of minutes that he’s been getting.”
The lack of a consistent role and playing time has had an adverse affect on Lin’s confidence and production.
“I’ve been asked to wear a lot of different hats and so that can be difficult,” Lin said. “I think there are a lot of obstacles that I have to try to continue to face and overcome everyday as I try to play.”
With half of the season left before unrestricted free agency, playing time and production will be crucial to help Lin land a new deal and a possible starting job elsewhere. However, it’s unlikely that will happen with the Lakers since he’s not a part of the long-term plans. The team is committed to giving Clarkson more playing time to quicken his development in place of Lin.
“Contract year, that’s not what bothers me,” Lin said. “I play the game to play the game. I put in just as much my first year of my contract as I do the last year of my contract. I care just as much in the first as the last and that’s the disappointing part.”
While a return to New York is highly unlikely, Lin didn’t rule out a change of scenery come this summer.
“I’ll just cross that bridge when the time comes,” Lin said. “I’m keeping my options open and see what’s out there. I’m just going to evaluate everything when the time comes because right now you could say stuff, but it doesn’t really matter until I’m presented (with something) at the time because I don’t know what the landscape is going to look like.”
While it’s “Lin-sane” to think we’ll see another stretch of dominance like he had in New York, Lin will surely command attention from teams on the open market this summer. He’s proven he can be a point guard in this league. That’s not bad for a guy that went undrafted and was sleeping on a couch a few years ago.