Lin leaves indelible mark in New York

BY Sam Gardner • July 17, 2012

Well, would you look at that? He really did it. James Dolan let Jeremy Lin walk.

The New York Knicks’ owner let the biggest, most fascinating story in basketball — and the most exciting thing that’s happened to his club in more than a decade — leave for the Western Conference, and he did it without getting so much as a draft pick in return.

The wunderkind point guard Lin is now a member of the Houston Rockets after Dolan and the Knicks decided Tuesday night not to match Houston’s three-year, $25 million offer sheet for the restricted free agent.

And just like that, Linsanity and everything it represented in the Big Apple is over — even if Lin’s time at the center of the basketball universe has only just begun.

Certainly, Lin will be a star in Houston for the team that, just eight months ago, released the would-be superstar to make room for Samuel Dalembert. But Lin’s footprint in Texas will never compare to the one he left on the Knicks, the city of New York and the sport of basketball on a global scale during one of the most unorthodox, short-lived tenures the game has ever seen.

During his 26-game, 50-day reign atop the New York basketball world, Lin’s name became synonymous with the Knicks, almost in the way that Walt Frazier, Willis Reed and Patrick Ewing once did.

It almost feels like I’m doing wrong by the basketball gods to mention Lin’s name alongside such tenured New York legends, each of whom have their numbers hanging in the Madison Square Garden rafters. But if you ever got the chance to see Lin’s impact on the Knicks and the MSG faithful in person — even just once — you know what I mean.

Like Fernando Valenzuela in Major League Baseball or Kurt Warner in the NFL before him, Lin was a phenomenon — a kid who literally came from nowhere to become the game’s most popular player seemingly overnight. To call him underrated would be an understatement; before Jeremy Lin was the Jeremy Lin, the undrafted guard out of Harvard barely registered a blip on the basketball radar.

After scoring just 76 points and handing out 42 assists in 29 mop-up duty performances with the Warriors his rookie year, Lin was cut by Golden State, then bounced around and eventually landed in New York. But even the Knicks didn’t expect Lin to be a factor and sent him to the D-League, where he recorded a triple-double in his only game with the Erie BayHawks.

Lin only got a shot to play on the big stage because the Knicks were so futile (they were 8-15 at the time) and their point guard situation was so dire (with Iman Shumpert and Toney Douglas splitting time) that they figured it couldn’t hurt. But Lin scored 25 points in 36 minutes off the bench in a Feb. 4 win over the cross-town Nets, then scored 28 points in his first start two nights later against Utah, and at that point, there was no turning back.

Over the next seven weeks, Lin averaged 18.5 points and 7.7 assists for New York, single-handedly putting the Knicks back in contention for a playoff spot — while making himself the most popular guy on the planet — before a knee injury ended his season on March 24.

Sure, he was turnover-prone and his numbers took a hit after Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire made their respective returns to the lineup. Also, because Lin wasn’t able to return in time for the playoffs, we still haven’t seen if he can maintain his previous level of success on a surgically repaired knee.

But none of that ever really mattered, because the stats were never what made Linsanity so easy to get behind. Lin’s success on the court transcended sports, and his story of redemption was what made everyone a fan. He was humble and grateful and, frankly, just as shocked as we were that he was where he was.

The first American-born NBA player of Taiwanese or Chinese descent, Lin was once so unsure of his own future with the Knicks — even amid the insanity surrounding him — that he famously slept on former teammate Landry Fields’ couch while he waited for his contract to become guaranteed. And even after it did, Lin remained modest, dedicated to his faith and eager to prove he was more than just a flash in the pan.

The consummate team player, Lin never wanted anything more than a chance to help a team win, and being a global phenomenon was never part of his plan. It just sort of happened, and everyone — myself included — wanted to be able to say they were there for it.

Though I loathed the thought of battling with the ballooning media hoard that followed Lin’s every footstep, I found myself excited to show up for each Knicks home game this spring, just to see what this 23-year-old nobody would do next.

And I wasn’t alone.

We all wanted to know what would happen next for Lin, and we all still do. Even amid Dwight Howard’s drama with the Orlando Magic, Lin is the most talked-about guy in basketball. That’s why it’s so shocking that the Knicks decided to part ways.

Don’t get me wrong, I argued the other day that the Knicks would be wise to not match Houston’s back-loaded offer sheet, and I still stand by that statement. I think Lin has already reached his peak as a player, and as his play tapers off, his popularity will follow.

I think that New York will be better in the long run for ending Linsanity so abruptly, but that doesn’t change the fact that I never thought it would actually happen.

During the “poison pill” third year of his contract, Lin would have cost the Knicks nearly $15 million before any luxury taxes are considered, and ultimately, that was the reason for letting him go. But the free-spending Dolan has never exactly been the picture of fiscal responsibility, so now seems a curious time for him to become so prudent.

However, what’s done is done, and now New York is left to remember Linsanity for what it was as the Knicks put their hopes in the hands of Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd and move on.

And they’ll be fine . . . or at least as fine as they’ve always been. The Knicks weren’t competing for the Eastern Conference title with Lin at the helm — that’s where he’s different than Valenzuela and Warner before him — and their fate will depend on Anthony and Stoudemire playing well together, same as before.

It’s just a strange and untimely — and in some ways fitting — ending to one of the most unlikely stories the Knicks and the NBA have ever seen.

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