There’s an air of excitement surrounding Madison Square Garden that hasn’t existed for years. It has energized the fan base of one of the NBA’s signature teams and once again, brought basketball back into the forefront in the Mecca of professional hoops. Because for the first time in over a decade, the New York Knicks are playing like a serious title contender.
Few times since the Patrick Ewing era came to a close have the Knickerbockers felt like they have mattered in the scheme of contention. There was the dismal Scott Layden era*, followed by the abysmal Isaiah Thomas era**. You can count on one hang the good things that happened to the Knicks between losing to San Antonio in the ’99 finals and the start of this season. And most likely, the first thing a Knick fan will recall is the moment referred to as Linsanity.
*Antonio McDyess anyone?
**Stephon Marbury, Eddy Curry, bad Z-Bo, Steve Francis, Larry Brown, Isiah himself, and (enter every other sorry player to suit up in Blue and Orange) anybody?
We all know the zero-to-hero story of Harvard’s own, Jeremy Lin, but it’s fun to look over anyway. No scholarship offers out of high school. Paid his way at Harvard. Undrafted. Wins a spot with the Warriors through the summer league playing with Dallas. Cut. Signed by Houston. Cut. Signed by New York. Nearly cut. Given a chance to play so as to audition for other teams. Next thing you know, he uses some meaningless playtime against the New Jersey Nets to burn Deron Williams and drop 25. Then 28 vs. Utah. 23 vs. Washington. The world takes notice. Sports Center latches on with Tebow-like strength. On national TV at the World’s Most Famous Arena, he outduels Kobe-freaking-Bryant, drops a career-high 38, and officially becomes not a superstar, but a phenomenon. All before he takes it another step further, erases a poor game vs. the Timberwolves, by connecting on a game winner against Toronto that many Knicks fans can recall with an “I remember where I was when…” memory.
Add two more wins vs. Sacramento and Dallas and two more losses against New Orleans and New Jersey, and in a 15-day span, New York, the media, the MSG stock, t-shirt makers, and everyone in between went Linsane in the Membrane. The Asian-American community adopted him as a role model. His jerseys were everywhere. Modell’s and other sporting goods chains in the tri-state had Lin merchandise on backorder. Nike gave fans a chance to buy not one shoe, not two, but three different shoes! He had the entire cold open of SNL dedicated to his mass media coverage. The NBA specially put him in the Rookie-Sophomore game at All Star Weekend as a late addition, because people wanted more Jeremy. It happened in the blink of an eye and became a time in NBA history I’m willing to put money on never repeating again.
Lin eventually came back down to earth and ended the year with averages of 14.6 points and 6.2 assists. A knee injury and surgery cut his season short. He only started 25 games the whole season, yet he defined the Knicks year and their offseason. The Knicks had the right to match any offer sheet Lin could sign, but Houston structured a deal that would leave New York financially crippled if he signed, paying a player who, again, only started 25 games, $15 million dollars in his third season. The luxury tax prices were deemed too much by New York management, and Linsanity’s era had stopped as a Knick. But, it had yet to come to a close.
The finality of it all came Monday night at the Garden, when Lin returned to MSG to face off vs. the Knicks. As I was in attendance for the game, I spent the previous days anticipating feeling the energy that would be present in the building, wondering how the fans would react. How would Lin perform? Would he re-ignite the Garden magic? Would the moment defeat him? Would any of it matter?
Before his play could do any of the talking, the fans around NYC gave a hint to how the night would go. Walking the streets along 7th Avenue before game time, Lin shirseys*** and jerseys could be seen all over. Walking into MSG was more of the same. A couple Melo jerseys. A handful of Chandlers. Some throwback Starks, Masons, and Oakleys. But they were all outnumbered by #17s.
The introduction was a nice moment. Being in the lower bowl, I’d say it was 90% cheers, 10% boos****. All in all, for it being New York, it was better than I expected. As the game moved along, the first layup from Lin was met with 80% cheers, 20% boos. Shortly after that, the guy would touch the ball and the boos would reign from various sections around the arena with any clapping muffled out. What can you say? It’s New York! You thought they were gonna be pleasant and cordial the whole game? Lin even said after it was over the reaction was better than he expected.
****Lost in all the commotion… this was the one and only Toney Douglas’ return to the Garden as well! I sent out this tweet before the game and meant every word of it.
The game lost any of the energy I hoped for really after the first quarter. A close game after one soon became a blowout; the Knicks lost the 2nd and 3rd quarters by a combined score of 54-29. The Associated Press’ story on the game claimed that Lin “added another masterpiece to the ones he put together last season during the height of his memorable run”, but excuse me if I don’t consider a 22 point, 8 assist game a “masterpiece”. Lin has been self-critical of his play to start this year and his 11.3 PPG and 6.0 APG averages, and a return to his biggest stage certainly helped give his game a spark, but there was little “mastery” to his performance Monday night. He drove the basket incredibly well, which he always does, going 8-8 in the paint, but was just 1-7 shooting beyond it. His brightest moment came when he scored or assisted on five of the Rockets six possessions during a 15-0 run in the third that iced the game, but James Harden’s Double/Double (28 points, 10 boards) pushed Houston over the top from what I saw at MSG. Well… that’s not even as true. What changed the game was a poor shooting night from the Knicks, as they died by the three instead of succeeding by it, shooting 29% from behind the arc on 9-31 attempts. Throw in no Carmelo Anthony (out with injury), the one guy who can pick up the slack on a poor team shooting night, and the Knicks had very little chance to stay undefeated at home*****. Yet, why not give the media one more chance to gawk over Jeremy Lin before we put it all behind us.
*****The positive Knicks fans left with was Chris Copeland’s career high 29 points to lead all scorers, all of which came in the 2nd half. Cope made the most of his start for Melo and showed some scoring prowess, but still looked raw out on the court, which is expected when a guy averaging 8 minutes a game plays a career-high 28. Still, some extra production at the big men spots won’t ever hurt and the fan favorite likely earned a few more minutes with his play.
I waited the day after the game to write my experiences and beliefs down to see how the sporting world would react to the game last night. Would Sports Center be all over Lin once again? What about the WFAN callers? The back pages of the papers? Well… I didn’t really get to see the whole reaction because of the abomination of a football team called by many names I can’t repeat on this website******, and by some the New York Jets, took all the coverage available. But there was Lin talk present. Yet, it wasn’t overdone, overhyped, overplayed, or even over-anything. Instead, the media treated the story with the way Jeremy looked at the game: as a way to get some closure.
******This is a family blog.
Lin won’t return to Madison Square once again unless in the unlikely incident that we get a rematch of the 1994 NBA Finals. And when looking at the way things turned out for the point guard and his former franchise this year, things are better off that way. NYC’s majority flipped their lid when the Knicks didn’t pay the very pretty penny to keep #17 from becoming #7 in H-Town, sounded off on enemy #1, their very owner James Dolan, and the blogosphere went so far to debate whether die hard fans should jump boat to off all things, become… Nets fans.
The Knicks replacements for Lin didn’t help the team’s case by having clear issues of their age (35 year old rookie Pablo Prigioni, 39 year old Jason Kidd), behavior (Kidd being arrested for a DWI three days after signing), and physic (Raymond Felton, who the year before was… well, how do I put it?). Yet Felton is playing his best ball since his first stint in NY while leading the bulk of the offense (while slimming down), Kidd currently is amongst the league leaders in three point percentage, and Prigioni is showcasing a high basketball IQ that made him successful in international basketball for years. Oh, and the trio have helped the Knicks commit the fewest turnovers in the league… which is nice*******.
*******Bill Murray Caddyshack voice.
Lin got paid over $25 million for the next three years, something he could’ve never dreamed of last year. The Knicks have the best record in the East. Lin has escaped the insanity that came with Linsanity, getting a fresh start in Houston. New York has put together a roster that has proven by beating tough competition that they can indeed contend for a desired NBA Championship. Rarely in sports do we see exchanges and moves where both parties win, especially in free agency. This is one of those rare cases.
As I left MSG reflecting on what this game meant in the scheme of things, my eyes glanced at the fans exiting. The Rockets fans joking jovially with their Knickerbocker counterparts, the celebrities like Tracy Morgan taking photos and Kate Upton avoiding them from camera phones being shoved in her face, there’s one image that stands out the most. Before disembarking to the rain covered streets on a cold December night, I see two Knicks fans that appeared to be friends take one last picture out by a merch stand. The two are grinning ear to ear, despite the loss, embraced arms over shoulders. Both men are wearing blue #17 LIN shirts and are in as good of spirits as one can imagine. And who can blame them. It’s a good time to be a Knicks fan, a good time to be Jeremy Lin, and an even better time to put a close on the Linsanity chapter of New York Knicks basketball.