Jeremy Lin figured he’d be having this kind of news conference in New York.
Instead, he was talking about his new deal with the Houston Rockets on Thursday on the same practice court where he worked in virtual anonymity seven months ago before he was waived. Lin became a Rocket again when the Knicks decided not to match Houston’s three-year, $25 million offer.
”It’s been an unbelievable ride,” Lin said. ”Just a lot of things I didn’t expect to happen, in terms of just the way last season went. I still have to kind of remind myself that this is all actually happening, sometimes. But it’s a huge blessing. I can’t believe how it all shaped up and for me to be here right now. I’m definitely excited and thankful.”
Lin said he expected to be re-signed by the Knicks after he electrified the Big Apple last season before he was sidelined by a knee injury. Shortly after the Knicks officially declined to match, Lin was quoted on SI.com as saying, ”Honestly, I preferred New York.”
Lin said the question he answered was set in the context of before the start of the free agency period.
”The question was, `Going into free agency, which team did you prefer?”’ Lin said. ”Before July 1, I didn’t even know what teams were interested in me. But all I was hearing was, `You’re going back to New York.’ At that time, before free agency started, I preferred New York. By the time it came to the offer sheet, I was just excited about both opportunities.
”Houston and New York,” he said, ”I was definitely excited about the possibility to go to both.”
But probably not as excited as the Rockets were to get him.
Houston has missed the playoffs the last three seasons, and when Linsanity skyrocketed in New York, general manager Daryl Morey was kicking himself for waiving him on Christmas Eve. When Lin hit a winning 3-pointer in Toronto on Valentine’s Day, owner Leslie Alexander called Morey to tersely ask him again why Lin was no longer a Rocket.
”He was killing me,” Morey said with a smile. ”I think one of the reasons Mr. Alexander is a great owner is because we’re constantly evaluating our past decisions and deciding what did we know at the time? What could we have done better? How can we improve?
”People are making a lot of us admitting to our mistake,” Morey said. ”But the only way to get better is to quickly say, `That was a mistake. How can we do better next time?”’
At the time Lin was released, the Rockets had Goran Dragic and Kyle Lowry on the roster – two point guards with NBA experience. And who knew what Linsanity would become?
”We had very fair reasons to waive him,” Morey said. ”But the reality is, we shouldn’t have.”
The Knicks didn’t initially see his potential, either, dropping him briefly to the developmental league in January. He was recalled in early February and with team floundering at 8-15, coach Mike D’Antoni turned to Lin.
The 23-year-old undrafted point guard from Harvard scored 25 points in a 99-92 win over New Jersey and a global phenomenon was born. He proved to be more than a one-game wonder, becoming the first player in league history to average 20 points and seven assists in his first five games.
Lin jerseys became the league’s top sellers, he made the cover of Sports Illustrated in consecutive weeks and had drinks named for him in New York. He was initially overwhelmed by the media glare. Now, he takes it in stride.
He went to dinner with new teammate Chandler Parsons in Houston on Wednesday night and Parsons estimated they were interrupted 15-20 times by fans asking for autographs and photos.
”This past year, it took me by surprise and it was just this huge storm,” Lin said. ”It was kind of baptism by fire. You get thrown into it and you’ve just got to make adjustments and learn. That’s a lot of what I had to do.”
While Alexander said the decision to pursue Lin was ”all basketball,” he acknowledged that he could potentially impact on the Rockets’ brand in the way that Yao Ming did, expanding its reach in Asia. But hat, Alexander, depends on how good Lin becomes and if the team improves along with him.
Lin is American-born, but of Chinese and Taiwanese descent, and the number of Chinese media at the press conference was about equal to the American contingent.
”If you don’t win, what difference does it make?” Alexander said. ”If you get him, and he’s not a very good player, you look like a fool. How does that help you in any way?”
There’s an added caveat for Lin and the Rockets this season – the All-Star game will be played in Houston on Feb. 17. Yao was named to eight All-Star teams, largely on the strength of Chinese fans who voted online.
”It’s great for the city, it’s great for the fans, it’s great for everybody,” Alexander said of getting Lin. ”The sponsors, everybody associated with the team.”
On the court, though, all Houston really needed was a point guard. The Rockets lost the unrestricted free agent Dragic to Phoenix, then dealt Lowry to Toronto for a first-round pick, made more valuable because it has lottery protection.
Lin averaged 14.6 points and 6.2 assists in 35 games (25 starts) for the Knicks last season. His aim is to improve his statistics every year – and how good they get, not even he would venture to guess.
”I don’t know what my ceiling is, I don’t know what my potential is,” he said. ”We don’t know what the ending is going to be. But I’m excited to find out.”
With Lin in place, the roster is still taking shape. Morey says the team plans to sign Bulls center Omer Asik to a three-year, $25 million offer sheet on Friday.