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Jeremy Lin: The NBA’s Great Tragedy

How an inspiring figure for Asian-Americans around the world went from “Linsanity” to “Rock Bottom”

Spencer Young
Apr 8, 2020 · 17 min read

STANDING IN FRONT a large audience in Taiwan, Jeremy Lin began to break down. While in tears, despite the cheers from his many fans in the audience, Lin admitted “Man it’s hard. Life is hard.”

“In English, there’s a saying, and it says, ‘Once you’ve hit rock bottom, the only way is up,’”he continued. “But, rock bottom just seems to keep getting more and more rock bottom for me. So free agency has been tough, because I feel like in some ways the NBA’s kind of given up on me.”

Lin, who won a championship after joining the Toronto Raptors midseason, admitted that the championship brought little if any satisfaction to him.

In his speech, titled, “The Waiting Game,” Lin explained, “After the season I had to get ready for this Asia trip and it was the last thing I wanted to do. Because I knew for six weeks I would have to just put on a smile. I would have to talk about a championship that I don’t feel like I really earned. I would have to talk about a future I don’t know if I want to have. And honestly, it’s just embarrassing. It’s tough.”

He further elaborated on his thoughts, saying, “If I have a son, I don’t want him to make the NBA. You don’t have to deal with fame, you don’t have to deal with living your life and having all of your failures on display to the entire world.”

His comments sparked a debate in the sports world. Why was it that Lin, with career earnings of over $50 million and a degree in economics from Harvard, complaining about the life he leads?

The answer lies in the tragedy of his basketball career.

GROWING UP IN Palo Alto, California, Jeremy Lin was always doubted. Born to two Taiwanese emigrants, his foreign ethnicity and somewhat short stature at 5' 6" already created an unfair disadvantage in his pursuit of his basketball dreams.

However, Lin, who learned to play basketball at his local YMCA, excelled throughout his high school career, briefly bringing Palo Alto High School success against other extremely competitive Californian high schools. And Lin consistently improved his game, becoming one of the top players in the state of California.

In his senior season, Lin led his team to a 32–1 record, averaged 15.1 points, 7.1 assists, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.0 steals per game, and was named first-team All-State and Northern California Division II Player of the Year. To end his high school career, Lin and Palo Alto upset nationally-ranked Mater Dei, who had eight Division-1 commits on their roster, in a tremendous upset victory. Lin’s storied high career ended beautifully, as Lin, an underdog throughout his basketball career, coming out on top.

During an interview conducted immediately after his championship victory, Lin remarked, “It is a dream come true.” For his efforts, he was named first-team All-State and Northern California Division II Player of the Year.

But, already, Lin’s story took a turn for the worse.

Despite his incredible achievements, Lin, who sent his resume and game footage to his many Pac-12 and Ivy League schools, didn’t receive a single Division-1 offer for basketball. This despite him having defeated a team with eight D-1 players to win the state championship. The University of California, Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford, and many other schools all passed on him.

Years later, another California native, Lonzo Ball, would average similar numbers while also defeating Mater Dei in the Californian state playoffs to win a state championship — but Ball received a scholarship from UCLA and became the #2 pick in the draft, with his place among the best in the nation never in question.

With very little options, Lin took a non-scholarship offer from the less athletically prestigious Harvard. Once again, the onus was on him to prove that he belonged.

After being described as “the weakest guy on the team” by an assistant coach during his freshman season, Lin steadily improved, being named to the All-Ivy League Second Team in his sophomore campaign. As a junior, after averaging 17.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.4 steals, Lin was unanimously selected the All-Ivy League First Team. Finally, as a senior, he averaged 16.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.4 steals, and 1.1 blocks, once again being named to the All-Ivy League First Team.

More impressively, however, was Lin’s strong play against many well-known, extremely strong athletic programs. In his time at Harvard, the Eagles defeated the #1 ranked North Carolina, the 17th-ranked Boston College, and the 12th-ranked UConn Huskies.

Said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, a member of the basketball Hall of Fame, “I’ve seen a lot of teams come through here, and he [Lin] could play for any of them. He’s got great, great composure on the court. He knows how to play.” Additionally, Kerry Keating, who was an assistant at UCLA during this time, admitted that Lin would have risen to being a starter at UCLA had they offered him a scholarship.

Once again, though he showed NBA potential during his time at Harvard, Lin was passed on in the NBA Draft by scouts who claimed he was a limited athlete with a basketball I.Q. Not only was this claim far from the truth, as Lin was an attacking, playmaking guard, it was the most stereotypical scouting report that could be given to an Asian-American player — who are typically associated with being less athletically competent compared to their peers.

Lin, as he awaited his NBA chance, was only beginning to experience the bias and prejudice that still inflict the sports world today.

AFTER BEING GIVEN a chance to play in the NBA Summer League by Mavericks General Manager Don Nelson, Lin had a chance to prove his abilities. And just as quickly as teams batted an eye towards Lin at the NBA Draft, they sought his services after the Summer League.

On the Mavericks Summer League roster, Lin was expected to play behind the extremely athletic and talented first-round selection Rodrigue Beaubois — yet, as the Summer League concluded, Lin was by far the more complete and superior player to Beaubois.

But the moment that stood out most to NBA executives was when Lin went head-to-head with the #1 overall pick John Wall. Despite Wall being the far superior athlete, Lin proved he could defend Wall sufficiently, while torching him offensively with his playmaking savvy and fearless driving ability.

In 18.6 minutes per game, Lin averaged 9.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.8 assists on an efficient 54.5% shooting percentage. Afterward, many teams, including the Mavericks, Lakers, and the Golden State Warriors sought to sign Lin to a contract.

After signing with Golden State, the fanfare began for Lin, who was the first American of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA. Golden State had a press conference for Lin, which is typically reserved for marquee acquisitions, and as the season progressed, Lin developed a loyal following among Warriors fans in his native California.

Lin thrived in what was then known as the NBA D-League, but he struggled in the NBA. Still, members of the Warriors saw Lin as a potentially valuable asset down the line. When Lin was called up to the regular team, he received minutes in both the Warriors and Raptors’ Asian Heritage Nights, a nice gesture from a league that would later reject Lin outright.

In 2011, despite never being allowed to work out formally for new Warriors coach Mark Jackson, Lin was waived. He was signed by Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets — though he was never given a chance to succeed, as the Rockets had three point guards in the rotation before Lin’s arrival. As Lin said at the time, over and over again, he was “competing for a backup spot” (as opposed to being a backup and competing for starter’s minutes).

Lin signed with the New York Knicks — but, despite showing promise during his D-League stints, he was actively restricted from seeing the floor for the Knicks. Correspondingly, the story of the 2011–2012 Knicks is among the most incriminating stories of Lin’s NBA career.

After an injury to guard Baron Davis, Mike D’Antoni needed to change his guard rotation. Another injury, this time to promising rookie Iman Shumpert, meant that D’Antoni was left with three healthy potential point guards on his roster: Mike Bibby, Toney Douglas, and Jeremy Lin — and though Douglas is a natural shooting guard, he got afforded more chances as the team’s point guard than Lin.

However, the team never gave Lin a chance to play while Davis was injured, postponing his debut with the team. Reportedly, at this time, the Knicks considered waiving Lin.

It took three, yes three-point guards failing in Mike D’Antoni’s system during a game for Lin to get his chance.

In a February game against the Boston Celtics, seemingly with no options left, D’Antoni made the final call. Jeremy Lin would get his chance in the Knicks’ rotation. What happened next remains among the most improbable and most inspiring stories in sports history.

NOBODY KNEW WHAT to expect when Jeremy Lin checked in with 3:35 left in the first quarter in a game featuring the Knicks and the New Jersey Nets. But, starting with his first basket on an aggressive drive to the basket to begin the second quarter, Lin took over the game.

Repeatedly, he ran screen and rolls, probing around the defense to find openings in the New Jersey defense. This aggressiveness led to many lob passes being thrown by Lin, who connected with teammates Tyson Chandler and Jared Jeffries for many baskets. Defensively, Lin was decisive, earning his first steal of the game just minutes after checking in; later, he stripped the ball from All-Star guard Deron Williams.

Heading into halftime, legendary commentator Mike Breen remarked that the game was “The Jeremy Lin Show.”

During their halftime intermission, Carmelo Anthony reportedly asked D’Antoni to give more minutes to Lin in the second half. And, after checking into the game midway through the third quarter, it was Lin who once again provided a spark, scoring seven points on an array of forays to the basket. Despite Breen noting that Lin looked “absolutely spent,” Lin received no rest for the rest of the game, playing out the remainder of the fourth quarter.

The results? 25 points, five rebounds, and seven assists, all new career-highs for Lin, and a 99–92 New York victory. With Anthony and his co-star, Amar’e Stoudamire, missing for an extended time, Lin was the new star for the Knicks, and D’Antoni intended to ride Lin’s success “like freakin’ Secretariat,” referencing an infamous racehorse.

And, while riding Lin’s success, the Knicks improbably embarked on a seven-game winning streak.

Among this unprecedented breakout for Lin, which infamously became known as “Linsanity,” included 23 points and 10 assists against John Wall, a former #1 overall pick, 20 points, 8 assists, and a game-winning free throw against Minnesota, and the Eastern Conference Player of the Week being awarded to Lin, who averaged 27.3 points, 8.3 assists and 2.0 steals.

Despite Lin’s name dominating both basketball media and the sports world, Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant claimed he “didn’t even know what he [Lin] had done.” But, a career-high 38 points, 7 assists, and a triumphant 92–85 victory over Bryant’s Lakers quickly brought the hype around “Linsanity” to an all-time high, while proving the validity of Lin’s abilities. After the game, Bryant called Lin a “phenomenal” player who played “extremely well.”

In the coming days, Lin tore apart the defense of the reigning NBA champions, the Dallas Mavericks. Though the Mavericks assigned Shawn Marion, who is revered for his defensive abilities, to defend Lin, the Knicks’ ascending guard finished with 28 points, 14 assists, and five steals.

Five days earlier, the most iconic moment of Linsanity occurred. With the score knotted at 87-all against the Toronto Raptors, Lin, who had 27 points and 11 assists, dribbled down the clock. With the smaller Jose Calderon guarding him, Lin calmly pulled an off-the-dribble three — and he nailed it, bringing Toronto’s Air Canada Center to its feet and winning the game, going away.

After his heroic performance, including averaging 22.5 points and 8.7 assists per game before the All-Star break, Lin was named to the Rising Stars roster during All-Star Weekend — with his unprecedented success remaining as a first in NBA history.

Years later, in a section of The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis, Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey admitted his bias clouded his vision when it came to Lin.

“He [Lin] lit up our model,” Morey said. “Our model said take him with, like, the 15th pick in the draft.” However, the consensus among scouts was in stark contrast to Morey’s analytical, objective data, as Lin was supposedly a smart but un-athletic player, a label based on the stereotypes of Asian-American athletes in the sports industry.

In the following years, Morey and his analytics team measured the speed of the first two steps of NBA players. This ability to quickly speed up or change directions is a defining quality of a strong athlete — and, from Morey’s findings, Lin had the fastest first two steps in the NBA.

“He’s incredibly athletic,” Morey later said. “But the reality is that every f***ing person, including me, thought he was un-athletic. And I can’t think of any reason for it other than he was Asian.”

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Lin’s time in NYC remains among the most inspiring stories in modern sports. (Image courtesy Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

IT DIDN’T TAKE long for the NBA to seemingly turn on Jeremy Lin overnight.

In New York, the Knicks replaced coach Mike D’Antoni with Mike Woodson in March, just weeks after Lin’s breakout to sudden stardom. It was D’Antoni who unlocked Lin by opening the floor for him to attack the rim and run pick-and-rolls. so the implication was clear: though Lin loved playing in New York, the Knicks didn’t love him back.

Correspondingly, Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony, who vouched for Lin publicly, moped about the media attention being placed on Lin, as opposed to him. Without Anthony’s support for Lin or D’Antoni, the Knicks immediately fired D’Antoni and replaced him with somebody who would methodically run the offense through Anthony. This change effectively ended Lin’s breakout run and any chance of his resigning in New York, as, under Woodson, he struggled mightily.

When Morey, trying to make good on his past mistakes, offered Lin a 3-year, $25 million contract, Anthony called the deal “ridiculous,” publicly displaying the internal spite towards Lin that grew over the final months of the Knicks’ season.

In Houston, Lin was part of a supposed “new era” of the team, which would feature an uptempo offense spearheaded by their new point guard. Yet, when the Oklahoma City Thunder made guard James Harden available, Morey pounced, acquiring the former #3 overall selection.

New Rockets coach Kevin McHale decided to place the ball in Harden’s hands, moving Lin off the ball. It is here where Lin’s NBA story went from inspirational to tragic. In Harden, the Rockets found a better version of Lin, one who was stronger, more efficient, and more durable — meaning Lin was relegated to playing off of Harden, a role he struggled in due to his mediocre shooting ability.

Soon, the critics rolled in, criticizing Lin’s average play and wondering what happened to the version of Lin that looked like a future star just months earlier. But, in reality, that version of Lin, the awe-inspiring, logic-defying version of Lin never went away. When Harden was off the court, Lin’s numbers looked very similar to his production in New York — he just wasn’t afforded many opportunities to run the team without Harden.

By the next season, Lin was relegated to the bench in favor of Patrick Beverley, who was a better fit next to Harden because of his shooting ability. The tragedy is that Lin, when Harden missed games to injury, posted some of the best numbers of his career. This includes a 38 point performance, and a 34 point, 11 assist, and then Rockets record-tying 9 three-pointer masterpiece.

After averaging 13.4 points and 6.1 assists in his initial season and 12.5 points and 4.1 assists in his final season in Houston, Morey ended the experiment. Jeremy Lin was done in Houston.

When Lin was traded to L.A., his career took a turn for the worst. Lakers coach Byron Scott simplified the offense to simply feeding the ball to Kobe Bryant, which was reminiscent of Mike Woodson forcing the offense to solely be run through Carmelo Anthony. Given that history repeats itself, Lin, who posted the highest three-point percentage of his career in L.A., struggled to co-exist with another ball-dominant star, yet again.

In interviews, Lin showed frustration, claiming he was a proven commodity as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, yet, over and over, teams would play him off the ball. These frustrations would never settle, as Lin quickly lost favor in L.A.

Midway through the season, Scott replaced Lin with late second-round selection Jordan Clarkson and Ronnie Price, who never averaged over 5 points per game in his brief NBA career. According to Scott, the reasoning behind the changes was an improved defense; in reality, it was spiteful towards Lin, who defended no worse than any other player on the roster. Actually, it was the aging and slowing Kobe Bryant who was the Lakers biggest detractor defensively, though Scott never criticized Bryant publicly.

In the offseason, Lin signed a modest two-year, $4.3 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets to serve as Kemba Walker’s backup. Though this meant he would have a limited amount of minutes, Lin was excited because the pick-and-roll system that Walker excelled in was exactly what he was missing over the past three seasons.

Coming off the bench, Lin averaged 11.7 points, 3 assists, and 3.2 rebounds. But, per 36 minutes — a better indicator of how he would perform in starter’s minutes — Lin averaged 16.1 points, 4.1 assists, and 4.4 rebounds. This season was somewhat resurgent and revitalizing for Lin, who eventually finished seventh in Sixth Man of the Year voting.

But, midway through the season, a more pressing issue came to the forefront of NBA headlines: was Jeremy Lin being treated unfairly by NBA officials?

A video posted to YouTube titled “Jeremy Lin: Too Flagrant Not to Call” showed a compilation of plays where Lin was being aggressively hit by other players, with nary a foul call nor a review on the play being called by the officials. The video also contrasts what was deemed as “flagrant” or “excessive” by other officials, and it seems as though the league missed multiple foul calls for Lin on a nightly basis.

Clips of Kobe Bryant raking Lin across the face and slamming him to the ground, only to be called for a common foul, or Wesley Johnson and multiple Clippers slapping Lin in the face, causing his nose to bleed profusely, or Jason Terry blatantly shoving and tripping Lin —right in front of the official — went viral overnight.

“This is a nightly occurrence for Jeremy Lin,” said the Hornets’ commentator. Ronnie Nunn, the former Director of Officials for the NBA, tweeted, “No question…J-Lin’s been a recipient of overt illegal contacts; called & not called.”

The NBA, who received a formal letter from the owner of the viral YouTube video, didn’t take action on the matter, mostly because the evidence was circumstantial and the almost innate difficulty of trying to quantify how referees officiated Lin, which is based in judgment by nature.

Still, many in the Asian-American community wondered, was it coincidence that Lin was the recipient of these hard hits and strong shoves? Was it coincidence that the player who stands out ethnically from the rest of the NBA was being treated worse by the league than players of less skill, less ability, and less marketability?

DESPITE ALL OF his past troubles, Lin was afforded the opportunity to lead his own team in a familiar place: Brooklyn, New York. The Nets offered Lin a contract of 3-years and $36 million, with Lin reuniting with Kenny Atkinson, a former assistant under Mike D’Antoni during the “Linsanity” days.

Atkinson’s philosophy was simple: his players would work hard, play like a team, and run a modern, uptempo, pick-and-roll based attack.

At the center of Atkinson’s vision for rebuilding the Nets was unlocking Lin as a primary ball-handler.

Lin was the focal point of the rebuilding Nets, and it led to Lin having a strong overall campaign, averaging 14.5 points and 5.1 assists. Another issue plagued Lin, however, and it was almost entirely out of his control: the injuries.

One by one, the nagging pains accumulated, until Lin missed over half of the season, playing in only 36 games. During one stretch of the season, Lin tweaked his hamstring on three separate occasions, severely limiting his performance.

Still, per 36 minutes, Lin posted 21.3 points, 7.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.7 steals, numbers that were above-average compared to other starting-caliber point guards.

By the next season, tragedy struck Lin again.

Heading into the 2017–2018 season, the Nets were highly excited, as they paired Lin with former #2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell in the backcourt. Though the Nets went on to feature Russell with Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, before acquiring Kyrie Irving, the original backcourt of the future in Brooklyn was meant to be Lin and Russell.

And on the first game of the season, they showed their potential against the Indiana Pacers. Lin had 18 points and 4 assists, while Russell had 30 points and 5 assists while notching 4 three-pointers.

But, after attempting a driving layup, the type of athletic finish he became famous for in New York, Lin landed awkwardly, eventually collapsing by the basket stanchion. As he grabbed at his knee, the moment where the adrenaline subsided and the pain inflicted him is clear.

In a heartbreaking moment, as he looked towards his teammates while breaking into tears, Lin muttered, “I’m done.” He suffered a ruptured patella tendon, ending his season after just one game.

And, just like that, the Jeremy Lin of old, the player who became a global icon with his legendary performances in Madison Square Garden, was gone forever.

Brooklyn was supposed to be a new beginning for Lin. It never worked out. (Image courtesy USA TODAY)

AFTER BEING TRADED to the Hawks to unload his salary, Lin played out most of the 2018–2019 season with the Atlanta Hawks, playing backup to Trae Young. Though Lin played well on the court, looking physically healthy and serving as a mentor for Young, the Hawks cut him, letting him go to another team.

Lin signed with the Raptors, where he rarely took the floor. His presence on the team meant almost nothing as the Raptors fought their way to the 2019 NBA championship.

And in the offseason, Lin was left with no offers, with the NBA seemingly giving up on him.

This is why Lin cried on stage in Taiwan. He didn’t cry because he sought another large contract, or he wanted to gain more fanfare than he already had, as some suggested.

No, Lin cried because he, as a little kid with big dreams from Palo Alto, watched as players spited his success, referees “swallowed their whistles” for him (a phrase meaning referees refusing to call fouls), and injuries ended any chance of him regaining the chance to fulfill the potential that made him an international superstar in the first place.

It is telling that Lin, who likely inspired more Asians and Asian-Americans in during his NBA career than any other player, save for Yao Ming, hopes that any child of his avoids the sport altogether. In other words, the potential to become a global icon doesn’t outweigh the pain caused by the bigotry and prejudice in the sports world.

Mark Twain, the famous American author, coined the infamous phrase, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” But at age-30, Lin has no more fight left to give. His athleticism is hampered by his hamstring and knee injuries, and his spirit is drained by having to put on a brave face for the millions of people he inspires.

This is Jeremy Lin’s story, and this is how a superstar athlete goes from dominating the sports world to being at “rock bottom.”

All stats via Basketball Reference

All images edited with PhotoShop

Sources:

  • “Jeremy Lin says he’s hit ‘rock bottom’ during free agency” NBA.com
  • “Remembering Where He Came From: Five Minutes with Jeremy Lin” The Harvard Crimson
  • "NBA responds to fan video that argues Jeremy Lin isn’t treated fairly when it comes to flagrant fouls” USA Today Sports
  • “Jeremy Lin: Too Flagrant Not to Call” YouTube
  • “Jeremy Lin” Wikipedia

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Spencer Young

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Student. Fan. Writer. Words in Bleacher Report, others. Check out our official website: https://officialbballuniversity.com

Basketball University

Weekly articles analyzing a variety of basketball-related topics

Spencer Young

Written by

Student. Fan. Writer. Words in Bleacher Report, others. Check out our official website: https://officialbballuniversity.com

Basketball University

Weekly articles analyzing a variety of basketball-related topics

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