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Isolation Play

Posted by JLin

By Pablo Torre

BETWEEN THREE AND a million years ago, after an increasingly intimidating series of meetings with literary agents, I resolved to write a book about the ascension of Jeremy Lin. None of this was my idea. But publishers, like the rest of this planet in February 2012, wanted to hawk something -- anything -- branded with the word Linsanity. And I happened to be an Asian American in New York City with Harvard-induced debt and a few relevantSports Illustrated clips.

It was terrifying. While everyone could already recite the beats of Lin's rise -- Harvard, undrafted, cut twice, D-League, brother's couch, Madison Square Garden -- nobody knew where the most cinematic sports story in memory was going next week, let alone next fall. So when the first American-born NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent dropped 38 to defeat Kobe Bryant at a volcanic Garden, I mapped out the vantage points of his shocked parents and friends in the crowd. When rappers Rick Ross and Stalley Instagrammed Lin Sanity OG, a strain of weed they'd purchased, I sought out a review. ("Once it sits with you for a while," Stalley emailed, "it brings out the creative juices that allow you to work diligently.") When a hoodied Lin tried to sneak into a Harvard-Columbia game, I took notes while wedged between his electronics engineer dad, Gie-Ming, who first taught Jeremy the game, and Spike Lee.

By mid-March, of course, Linsanity's biggest ally, Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, would resign amid discord with Carmelo Anthony. By early April, the point guard himself would undergo knee surgery for a torn left meniscus, mercy-killing my panicked literary aspirations and hinting, finally, at where this story was going next. By now, 36 months later, my notes look like the monuments of a once-proud city, frozen in time. A sort of point guard Pompeii.

But my motive for revisiting these memories isn't nostalgia, it's ignorance. Since the Rockets signed Lin away from the Knicks in July 2012, then traded him to the Lakers two years later, he and I have exchanged a few friendly texts a season. But we hadn't had a substantive conversation in years. As the league whispered What the hell is happening to Jeremy Lin?something hit me: I knew nothing about his interior life. Not anymore.

Not about what it's like to approach unrestricted free agency for the first time since going undrafted. Not about slogging through what he will eventually call "as hard of a year as I've ever had to experience," complete with on-court demotions and viral humiliations.

After I consult some of Lin's old friends and coaches, in fact, a consensus emerges. Yes, they all worry about Jeremy. How could they not? They all saw that video wherein Bryant, having spent one practice daring Lin to shoot, declares, "You motherfuckers are soft like Charmin in this motherfucker!" And no, they don't quite know what the hell is happening to Jeremy Lin either.

WHENEVER VISITORS ENTER Lin's first-floor two-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica, just a 10-minute, palm-fronded walk from the hiss of the Pacific Ocean, their verdict is always the same: This place is very ... you.

Stuffed pandas and toucans cling to stalks of fake bamboo in the foyer. Racks of sneakers, a dozen rows tall, cover one wall in the living room, near an electric piano holding Lion Kingsheet music and the computer where Lin, now 26 years old, plays Defense of the Ancients online. Floor-to-ceiling windows open onto the patio, where he grills nutritionist-approved slabs of grass-fed steak. Outside the kitchen hangs a white canvas board where his family and friends have used different-colored Sharpies to inscribe, among other messages, an inside joke about Chipotle and Bible verses. With a floor plan just shy of 1,200 square feet, rent is a fiscally conservative sliver of an expiring three-year, $25.1 million contract.

Neighbors have no idea that what's left of Linsanity lives here. "Every time I see someone, I just run and hide," Lin says. "This building has pretty good security. And I know it's not New York anymore. But I'm still kinda scarred from what happened."

It's a Monday afternoon in late February, and Lin and I have been catching up at a small brown dining table beneath a clock ornamented with ceramic pieces of sushi. By the time the hour hand ticks from salmon to spicy tuna, I notice that Lin, dressed in a gray hoodie and black athletic shorts, has been going out of his way to avoid saying the word Linsanity, a word he trademarked in 2012 to prevent strangers from profiting from his image. (Of his 10,381 words in our interview, he utters it exactly twice: once as part of the phrase "this, this whole Linsanity ... thing," as if using tongs to hold a diaper, and once when explaining why the term makes him uncomfortable.) In its place, Lin keeps substituting "New York," referring to the shock of true global fame -- the paparazzi who stalked him, the phantom knocks on his door at the downtown W Hotel -- that urged him to hide from a city that venerated his success.

No mobs swarm Lin in Santa Monica, so he gets out more, donning sunglasses to bike along the beach or the Third Street Promenade. Almost every day he sees Josh, his older brother, the couch-owning dentist who moved into this neighborhood a month before the Rockets traded Jeremy to the Lakers; Josh's wife, Patricia, who doubles as Jeremy's business manager; and his trainer, Josh Fan, who moves wherever Jeremy does.



When it comes to talking about work, though, those walls instinctively shoot back up. He cannot help but tune out his dad and mom, who call from Palo Alto with concerns about his well-being. He refuses to engage friends' complaints about Lakers coach Byron Scott giving his starting job to little-known Ronnie Price in December, then to littler-known Jordan Clarkson in January. The backup's backup isolates himself from the loved ones featured on that canvas board, from the people who cannot help but watch the games, read the articles, scroll down to the comments and emerge, in Lin's words, "just super pissed off."

"It got to a point where I had to tell all of them, 'Look, I appreciate you guys being on my side,'" he says. "'But all this stuff about how upset you guys are, or how bad you think this is, I don't want to hear any of it. I can't carry that negativity to work.'"

This edict originally came down during his second season in Houston, when coach Kevin McHale started pairing superstar James Harden (who needs the ball to thrive) with point guard Patrick Beverley (who doesn't) over Lin (who does). It held up as Rockets general manager Daryl Morey -- who waived Lin on Christmas in 2011 before signing him away from the Knicks the next summer -- courted Carmelo Anthony, of all people, by Photoshopping him into Lin's No. 7 jersey. And it applies in LA now more than ever, as the movie of Jeremy Lin's life turns into a surrealist mashup of Whiplash and Birdman: the story of an obsessive young player who is haunted, unremittingly, by his ambitions and by his role as a superhero in a former life.

"I've always wanted to be a starting point guard, I've always wanted to win championships, I've always wanted to be an All-Star," Lin says. "I've always wanted to be great. And for three straight years, I've put in a lot of work, but I haven't seen the results on the court." He sighs. "I mean, that's a long time, right? The average NBA career is five years. It's not like I'm an accountant and I can be an accountant 'til I'm 67 years old."

Sometimes the gloom of this trajectory strikes Lin on the team plane, when he's tired and trapped. Sometimes it strikes him at home, so he'll go to the beach by himself and take deep breaths. Often he'll come home after games and watch film on his iPad, climb into bed by midnight, pray aloud, read, then fail to fall asleep until 4. "And then I wake up at 6, head spinning with a million different thoughts," he says. "About plays from the previous night. About when I've had success in the past. How I can try to replicate that. How I can work on certain moves. How I can analyze the game differently."

Lin enters this maze alone. But one such night earlier this season, around 1 in the morning, his iPhone blinked awake with a directive from a teammate who was sleepless in his own way.

I hope you're absolutely pissed off at the way the season's going, Bryant wrote.

These Lakers would ultimately establish themselves as the fourth-worst team in the league and the worst team since the franchise moved to LA. Lin has scored five or fewer points in more than a dozen games. Multiple times, he says, he has posed with professed fans for pictures at a takeout counter only to find that a friend, waiting by the door, had overheard those same fans laughing about how much Jeremy Lin sucks.

But those incidents hardly compare to what he calls the hardest part of his hardest year. That would be Jan. 23, in San Antonio, when Scott decided not to play his uninjured third-stringer. At all. "The low point," Lin says, "for sure."

I ask why. "It just felt like I went full circle," he says. "The last time I got a straight-up DNP was that first month I got signed three years ago. I wasn't playing. And then all of a sudden I'm a starter, and then a bunch of things happen" -- yes, this is him yada-yada-yada-ing over Linsanity -- "and three years down the road, it's like I'm back. At square one." He takes a deep breath. "Where I was before."

HE HAD BEEN asleep in his bed at the Ritz Carlton in Beijing, a stop on what has become his annual summer tour of Asia, when he learned that Houston had flipped his contract, along with a first- and a second-round pick in the 2015 draft, for obscure Ukrainian big man Sergei Lishchuk. In what amounted to a salary dump, Lin was off to join Bryant, the brand-savvy future Hall of Famer whose jersey had long been the most popular one in China -- and the same man who'd famously sniffed to a scrum of reporters, hours before that internationally anticipated Knicks-Lakers game, "I have no idea what you guys are talking about. Who is this kid?"

As the clock ticked toward 3 a.m. in Lin's hotel room, his mom, Shirley, handed him the phone for his inaugural conversation as a Laker. "Oh my gosh," Mike D'Antoni told Jeremy, in his unmistakable West Virginia twang. "I can't believe we missed each other."

The offensive virtuoso who had vowed to ride Lin "like freakin' Secretariat" in New York had kept in touch with his former pupil since fleeing the Knicks. Their bond began when Lin sidled over to him during one practice, early on, and asked, "Should I bring my car over from the West Coast?" ("That," D'Antoni thought, "may not be such a good idea.") It intensified as the coach soon discovered that he could show the point guard moves that Steve Nash, his ur-pupil, used in Phoenix, and Lin could pull them off in the very next game.

Now he was calling Lin only eight weeks after resigning as coach of the Lakers amid discord with, yes, Kobe Bryant. "You hate to miss an opportunity to coach somebody that receptive, that good," D'Antoni says. "He's one of those special point guards."

It's March, and the coach and I are sitting inside a Westin lobby during a free moment at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, which has more than occasionally paid tribute to D'Antoni's work. Under D'Antoni, Nash -- whom the coach would follow to LA -- won two MVP awards. And yet when I bring up Lin, there is a singular nostalgia for that fleetingly collegiate Knicks team, when Anthony was still sidelined by injury and Linsanity was in full swing. "Those three weeks were the best," D'Antoni interrupts, laughing, when I bring up Lin's serene Valentine's Day winner against the Raptors. "Every day was Valentine's Day."

But the reasons love bloomed in New York foretold a doomed romance in Los Angeles. "The majority of the responsibility is on me," Lin will say when asked about problems of fit. "I'm not running from that." Nonetheless, the contrast between D'Antoni and his successor, Scott, is so extreme as to evoke the Bizarro World. Whereas D'Antoni was known for an up-tempo, unstructured, high-pick-and-roll-centric offense, Scott favors an old-school, methodical, Princeton-based attack. Whereas D'Antoni opened the lane by empowering his power forward to let fly from beyond the arc, Scott announced in the preseason that he wanted the Lakers to shoot just 10 to 15 3s a game. And whereas D'Antoni empowered point guards to be CEOs, there was little doubt that Scott would defer to the 36-year-old Bryant.

"I think Jeremy can fit anywhere as a player," D'Antoni says. "He's that good. But he's not Linsanity if you put him just anywhere. If you close the floor on him" -- that is, if you don't stretch out defenses, if you don't leverage his yearning to attack the rim -- "he's going to look mediocre."

"J-Lin is used to having the ball 90 percent of the time, and in my system, you just don't do that," Scott tells me after a recent Lakers practice. "He's had some moments where he's been terrific. But sometimes smart people who get in this system can be the dumbest people in the world."

In Lin's apartment, I wonder whether he ever looks around the league to one of the many winning teams that have installed D'Antonian elements -- from the Hawks to the Spurs to the Trail Blazers -- and salivates. Lin knows that a system can showcase or bury a point guard, more than any other position. And as a free agent this summer, he'll be able to pick a boss for the first time since he chose his hometown Warriors as a rookie.

"To be honest," Lin says, "I don't want to be defined by one style of play. People say, 'You're so much better without Kobe,' but you want superstars on your team. My goal is to evolve my game so I'm not so contingent on any system. Great players can figure that stuff out." By his own definition, he knows, he's far from great. The part that hurts is that it's not for lack of trying. "Shoot," Lin says. "What do you think I'm doing when I can't sleep?"

He visualizes Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley, who thrives without space, and Bryant, who inspired Lin's "point of emphasis" for this summer: midrange shots. Later, when I relay this plan to D'Antoni, I brace for a spit take. But the jobless coach invokes that PG-as-CEO metaphor. "There's trying to run your own company," D'Antoni says, grinning. "But you've gotta be employed too."

ANYONE EXCITED BY the idea of Bizarro Jeremy Lin, taking long 2s and spoutingmotherfucker, should take note, though: Although he embraces elements of Bryant's on-court skill set, personality is another matter. "Kobe and I just have different leadership styles," Lin says. "I'm not very outspoken. I might not be the guy who's going to cuss somebody out." His biggest off-court issue this year was an email an incensed neighbor sent to his landlord after the Joshes kicked a soccer ball around his apartment late at night. Lin is the guy who, after giving Bryant 38, saddened Knicks coaches by telling them he'd wanted to announce, postgame, "By the way, Kobe, I'm Jeremy Lin" -- but couldn't bring himself to do it.

"But just because I have a certain demeanor, it doesn't mean you can tell how much I want something," Lin says. "You can't just say that the more you talk, the more you care." Take Bryant's toilet paper tirade from practice. Most infuriating wasn't the expletive-laced insult, he says, or even the fact that Bryant had been taunting him, yelling, "This motherfucker don't got shit. He ain't got shit right now. Shoot! Shoot!" It was the fact that Lin's side lost, and that, when he begged Scott for a rematch, the coach wouldn't allow it because he wanted to rest the team before a back-to-back.

Or take the other viral Lakers Vine this season, from a game against the Grizzlies, down one with 24 seconds left. A clapping Bryant, standing near his man on the baseline, screams at Lin, who's guarding a dribbling Conley at the top of the arc, to intentionally foul. When Lin doesn't do it, Bryant sprints across the court, fouls Conley himself and throws a left hook into the emasculated air, basketball's Last Alpha Male flushing Charmin down the drain.

In reality, Lin couldn't hear Bryant because he had also been telling Scott, on the sideline, "We have to foul!" And Scott kept telling him no.

But the clip spread across the world anyway, distressing Lin's parents. And the larger public reaction -- concerning masculinity, toughness and race -- all felt very familiar. "There's this whole thing where it's OK to make fun of certain guys more than it is other guys," Lin tells me. "And Asians are very easy to make fun of. We're the model minority. So everyone can joke about Asians: They're nice people, respectful people; they won't do anything." He thinks about this dynamic often. "People look at me, and they've always jumped to conclusions. They don't see toughness. But how do you define that?"

Lin knows that his story has so many different threads that, at this point, it's an imprecise experiment for isolating the effect of race upon perceptions of manhood. Still, he's been gathering evidence his whole life: on the kids who invariably demanded to guard "the Asian" on the playground; on the fans who yelled "sweet and sour pork" and "wonton soup" at Georgetown and UConn; on the Ivy League opponent who called him "Chink" on the court; on the basketball observers who argued that Golden State only wanted him as marketing stunt; on the racist comments at the bottom of any video or article about him. Lin doesn't hear everything. But he can't ignore everything. And to him, any imprecision in such an experiment fails to mask an even more troubling reality: In 2015, he remains the only such experiment. Just ask anybody to name one Asian-American man Hollywood might cast as a superhero or romantic lead. (I'll wait as you Google "guy who played Harold in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.")

This yawning void is why Lin believes that race shapes his reputation as a hapless turnover machine, even though he has cut his rate down from 21.4 percent in New York to 18 percent (through March 24) in LA. And his reputation as painfully one-handed, even though, per Synergy Sports, Lin's drives left in iso situations now rank in the agreeable 56th percentile two years after sitting in the abysmal 12th. "And why, if someone drives by me, it's like, 'Oh, he's a horrible defender, he just doesn't have speed,'" Lin says. That's a fallacy debunked by D'Antoni, who says Lin "was one of the quickest athletes we've ever worked out."



"People just aren't used to seeing Asians do certain things, so it creates a very polarizing effect," Lin concludes. This effect can breed invisibility. As his stock declines, friends argue, nobody seems to care that Lin's 16.2 player efficiency rating is higher than Clarkson's (14.6) and Price's (10.2), and not far behind Kobe's (17.7). But Lin also knows better than anyone how his peak was overhyped -- a celebration of a nonblack hoops hero -- like few others have been. "I might score 20," Lin admits, "and it can look better than the next guy that scores 20."

That is why book agents wanted to meet me. That is why, when the Knicks visited the Heat in February 2012, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade actually argued over who would guard him. And that is why Jeremy Lin goes out of his way to avoid saying the word Linsanity aloud.

"One of the tough parts about being a 'pioneer' or a 'trailblazer,'" he says, making scare quotes with his fingers, bringing out those verbal tongs again, "is who can you talk to that can really relate?"

AS UNPREDICTABLE AS his career has been, pretty much everyone who knows Lin agrees on one key to his past and future success. "You give him the confidence that comes with not looking over your shoulder," D'Antoni says, "and you get the special qualities he's shown his whole life. Great, great things can happen."

"It's never been about effort with him," Scott says. "It's about just reacting and playing instead of thinking."

"There are times," Lin says, playing with a sleeve of Girl Scout Cookies at his dining table, "when I just need to go out there and hoop."

This is something of a paradox, inconveniently, and antithetical to Lin's human impulses, which call for introspection and obsession as his method of problem-solving. If he's not yet confident enough to stop thinking, he needs to think about why he's not being confident. "I can look at his body language on the floor and tell when he's in his own mind," says one of his agents, Roger Montgomery. "Like, 'If I do this, I can show everybody I can go left now.'"

All of which leads Lin to sleeplessness and, well, God. "I pour my heart out after games," he says. "I don't have to sugarcoat anything. I complain, I vent." Then, "I start to regain peace. I want to be present, in the moment."

I wonder whether Lin's life being this cinematic makes him more eager to confide in an unseen, mysterious force. "One hundred percent," he says brightly. "I thought my career in the NBA was over. And then New York happened." He hasn't stopped talking to God since.

Now, as his clock's hour hand ticks toward shrimp sushi, Lin points behind my head, to his white canvas board. He begins to break down John 3:30, written out in purple Sharpie: He must increase, but I must decrease. "It reminds me to be less obsessed about myself," Lin explains. But it is another inscription on the board that sticks with me after I leave Santa Monica, as everyone keeps worrying about what the hell is happening to Jeremy Lin. The writer of this red-lettered directive is a 62-year-old Taiwanese immigrant, recently retired, who once taught his son to love a game that suddenly raises walls between them.

Thank God, Gie-Ming Lin wrote, for carrying us this far.

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