By JERÉ LONGMAN
Published: April 21, 2013
The Houston Rockets were on a West Coast swing at the time. Their coach, the former Celtics star Kevin McHale, had more than a passing curiosity in Lin, and perhaps even a twinge of regret.
“I was fascinated like everybody else,” McHale said.
Two months earlier, for 12 days in December 2011, a still-obscure Lin had been a member of the Rockets. But he had a minimum contract and thus a maximum chance of not surviving a lockout-shortened training camp.
“Everything he did was full-bore,” McHale said. “I thought he’d be a great energy guy on our team.”
Before this season, Lin returned to the Rockets as a free agent with a better-known name and a three-year, $25.1 million contract that the Knicks declined to match. He also faced impossible expectations among Houston fans and a challenge that seems to confront artists more often than athletes.
He was the equivalent of an unknown singer who had written a megahit or a nameless writer who had penned a great novel. After a flash of the extraordinary, could Lin sustain a career of the routine? Or would he fade as a one-hit wonder?
“Linsanity was an unbelievable three-week period in his life,” McHale said. “He’ll look back when he’s 80 and go, ‘Man that was magical.’ But magic don’t last forever.”
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Lin’s current season of discovery, full of predictable highs and lows, has beenthe achievement of the unremarkable. He has shown himself to be an everyday player in the N.B.A., a starting point guard who pushes the pace on a team that ranked second in the league in scoring and a leader who helped Houston reach the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.
The Rockets opened their first-round series on Sunday at Oklahoma City, with Lin scoring 4 points in a 120-91 loss.
“It seems like everybody’s perception of me is very bipolar,” Lin said. “To one group, it’s overpaid, overrated; to another group, it’s underpaid, underrated, underdog. It’s funny to me because there’s no real balance. Why can’t I just be a young player who’s shown some potential and has a lot of learning to do?”
Lin’s Harvard education, his professed faith, his humility, his resolve and his athleticism have resonated with Asian-Americans in the Houston area, which Rice University researchers say has become the most diverse region in the country.
As an American-born son of immigrants from Taiwan, an island that is 100 miles from mainland China and is democratic and self-ruling though not independent, Lin is regarded somewhat differently from Yao Ming, the retired Rockets center from Shanghai. Yet each has helped to change perceptions of how Asians are viewed and even how they view themselves, a number of the players’ supporters said.
On one hand, Lin “represents the model of the Chinese family,” said Wea H. Lee, a Taiwanese-American who is the chairman of the Houston-based Southern News Group, which owns a digital television station and publishes The Southern Chinese Daily News. “Many parents want their kids to go to American schools to be lawyers, not athletes.”
On the other hand, Lee said, Lin’s athletic achievement makes him a “unique symbol.”
“It’s a new image for Asians,” Lee said. “We need more Jeremy Lins, not just doctors.”
As an N.B.A. point guard, Lin, 24, is not yet fully formed. He has started 107 regular-season games, a total that amounts to less than a season and a half. He is still prone to commit critical turnovers. He moves reluctantly to his left, his shooting touch can abandon him, and he does not always fight insistently through screens on defense. Nor does Houston as a team always move the ball urgently, sometimes leaving its drag-strip offense stuck in neutral.
Lin has essentially maintained his averages of last season. His scoring is down slightly, to 13.4 points a game from 14.6. His assist average is virtually identical (6.1, from 6.2), his 3-point percentage is higher, and his turnover rate is lower.
In December, against San Antonio, Lin matched his career high with 38 points. A week later, he returned to Madison Square Garden with 22 points and 9 assists in a victory over the Knicks that aroused flashbacks of Linsanity.
Mostly, though, Lin has concerned himself with the workaday chore of every young player: trying to improve by increments. He assimilated into the league’s youngest team, flattened the arc on his jumper, tempered his drives with 3-pointers, pulled out of an early shooting tailspin, remained healthy and established a pick-and-roll and drive-and-kick rhythm with James Harden, a dominant scorer and ball handler.
“We’re pleased,” said Chris Finch, a Rockets assistant who works with the team’s point guards. “Jeremy is superaggressive. For us, he’s a big X factor.
“He has the ability to make big plays in runs. And where he’s matured is, he doesn’t have the runs of mistakes. He’d have a bunch of really good plays, and then he’d have a run of compound mistakes. He’s minimized the mistakes and done a better job understanding the ball is not in his hands as much as it was for that 25-game period in New York.”
Opportunity to Improve
In the preseason, as Lin struggled, each game seemed to become a referendum on his career. Once the Rockets traded for Harden, who went on to finish fifth in the league in scoring average at 25.9 points a game, Lin no longer had to be the face of the franchise. Relieved of the pressure to be perfect, he finally had the luxury of tending to his flaws.
“I look at this as my journey, and it’s just the beginning,” Lin said. “God willing, hopefully this will be the worst player that I am for the next 8 to 10 years until my body can’t hold up anymore. I just want to continue to improve every year. I’ve shown that I can play in the N.B.A. How good I can become, that’s to be determined.”
As expected, there were rough patches. At times, Rockets coaches said, Lin grew discouraged, overthinking, being afraid to make mistakes. McHale said he encouraged Lin to remain aggressive without becoming reckless, telling him, “It’s not going to be 82 games of living on the ceiling, but you can’t remain in the basement for long.”
One of the biggest challenges this season, McHale said, was tempering the public expectations.
“They thought it was going to be Linsanity and he’d average 28 and 11,” McHale said, referring to points and assists. “I was like, ‘No, no, no.’ He had never had this responsibility for 82 games. I was really worried the expectation level would get to him.
“He still has a lot to figure out, but I was really proud of Jeremy, how he handled the ups and downs.”
In retrospect, Lin said the phenomenon of Linsanity — he had the most points (136) by a player in his first five starts since the 1976-77 N.B.A. merger, and it was the first time a player collected at least 20 points and 7 assists in his first five starts — left him exhilarated and scared. He was a quiet man who lost his anonymity, who could no longer blend in on the subway, whose every move was suddenly “critiqued or criticized or appreciated and praised.”
“I’m more than thankful for everything New York gave me,” Lin said. “It helped me grow spiritually, taught me how to be more business savvy, who to trust, who not to trust, how to say no. All the things you usually get a little more time to learn, they came quickly.”
Yao, the first player selected in the 2002 draft, played a vital role in expanding the N.B.A.’s influence in Asia. The international news media frenzy that accompanied his arrival in Houston has subsided. In those fevered days, the Rockets’ media relations staff once found a Chinese reporter trying to watch a practice by crouching furtively behind a large, inflatable exercise ball.
“Now the media knows they can’t be hiding behind workout balls,” Tracey Hughes, a team spokeswoman, said with a chuckle.
Still, 8 to 10 Chinese journalists attend each Rockets home game. Chinese Central Television, or CCTV, is unfailingly present. And more local media outlets aimed at an Asian audience cover the team now than in the Yao era, Hughes said.
A Different Story
After Yao retired in 2011 because of chronic injuries, “Jeremy got Chinese fans to love the Rockets again,” said Zhang Qiang, a Rockets beat reporter for NetEase, a Chinese Internet company.
Lin and Yao have exchanged text messages, but their stories are fundamentally different. Yao was a No. 1 draft pick and became an eight-time All-Star. Lin was undrafted and arrived here with a career built on the hope of first impression, not the assurance of steady achievement.
Yao grew up in Shanghai, Lin in Palo Alto, Calif. Yao stands larger than life at 7-6. At home games, fans are still invited to try on his size 18 ½ shoes and measure themselves on a display against his wingspan, as wide as nine basketballs. Lin is a more conventional and accessible 6-3.
“People used to think you have to be a giant” to play in the N.B.A., Hannah Liao, 18, an international student from Beijing who attends high school in Houston, said at a game last weekend. “Jeremy shows that if you play hard and try your best, you can reach it.”
Explaining how Lin was helping to change views about Asians, Liao said: “A lot of people think, ‘You are good in math and science; you must be studying machines.’ Jeremy breaks this stereotype. No more nerds.”
Given that Lin’s parents came to the United States from Taiwan and that he grew up in California, persevering despite receiving no college scholarship offers and no draft interest from the N.B.A., his story more than Yao’s echoes the classic immigrant experience, said Patrick Nguyen, 20, a Vietnamese-American student at Rice.
“His life story is to follow a dream, work hard, never give up,” Nguyen said at a recent game.
Last summer, when Lin visited Taiwan, he was welcomed by a screaming crowd at the airport in Taipei, the capital. Perhaps 200 people showed up once to watch him play pickup basketball. Paparazzi followed him.
“People holding cameras outside their car at 80 miles an hour,” Lin said. “It was crazy.”
An Expression of Taiwan
Taiwan is considered a breakaway province by China, which continues to claim sovereignty over the island. In the Olympics, for instance, Taiwan competes as Chinese Taipei.
Through professional athletes like Lin, the L.P.G.A.’s Yani Tseng and pitcher Chien-Ming Wang, Taiwan can most visibly express its self-determination, said Yungshi Lin, 34, an engineer in Taipei who flew to Houston for the Rockets’ final regular-season home game.
“We have a strange relationship with China,” said Lin, who is not related to Jeremy Lin but wore a T-shirt that said, “I Am Lin 2.”
“This is the way we can represent our country to the world, the only way to show our national flag,” he added.
Of course, not every Asian-American in Houston is rooting for Jeremy Lin and the Rockets against Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant, the Thunder’s star forward, attended the University of Texas for a season and also has a big following here.
“I’m not leaving the Thunder because I’m in Houston,” Kelvin Tran, 27, a pharmacy technician and a Texas alumnus, said, laughing. He added that he appreciated Lin for his “arduousness and industriousness.”
“He went to Harvard,” Tran said. “That’s another reason” for others “to see Asians failing in basketball.”
Tran added: “The Crimson — what’s that? He’s shown that even if your mascot is sponsored by Crayola, you can do great things.”