Like some kind of storybook tale, the young man who couldn’t make it anywhere else came to the big city. He slept on a couch in his brother’s apartment, put in his time again and again, and worked his tail off for an organization that could cut him any day.
Then, one night, it all came together. Good passes combined with good shots to become one epic game, then another. And as can only happen in a place like New York City, in a time when Twitter rules and everyone wants to lift an overachieving kid onto their shoulders, Lin took off.
Just as quickly as the magical story was written, though, reality returned, too. Lin was impressive for the Knicks in a stretch when New York was missing vital pieces, and when Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony came back to their regular roles, the endless ascension of Linsanity ran into the dysfunction that has always been the New York Knicks. If it’s not Patrick Ewing never making it over the hump, it’s Isiah Thomas burying the team one debilitating season at a time.
So, as quickly as the greatness of Lin began, it started to crumble. He could play, but he couldn’t necessarily play with this team. The world could hope, but that hope would have trouble combining with All-Stars and personnel matchups beyond a few beautiful games in the thick of winter.
Coach Mike D’Antoni left the team, and then Lin’s knee hung it up for the season, too. And while the Knicks were already speaking hopefully of Lin returning to another year of endless hype, fissures were beginning to appear. First, the Knicks hid news of Lin’s injury to squeeze more money from ticket sales. Then there were musings about whether slow-it-down interim coach Mike Woodson could run a team of plodding post stars with a dynamic player like Lin up front. Once the offseason came, New York was slow to make the first move on the popular point guard, who has signed an offer sheet with the Houston Rockets. And then the Knicks starting stocking up with veterans at the position where Lin would be expected to start, most recently with Saturday night’s acquisition of Raymond Felton.
The Knicks are a mess of a team, and anything good that emerged from last season has to be met with increased skepticism, considering who’s running the team and the pieces they’ve assembled. What has happened with Lin in recent days is, for lack of a better cliche, very much par for the course.
But while the news may be alarming to Knicks fans, it shouldn’t upset Lin supporters. This is exactly what Lin should want. Rather than feeling bound to the team that gave him his platform for greatness, he can now shed the issues of a group he’d never fit with and chart his own path.
As Lin’s time with the Knicks came to a close, he had to be thinking about his options. That’s what happens when you’re a player nobody wanted — when you’ve been cut by several teams in one season and toiled in the D-League for the chance to sit on an NBA team’s bench. Since the Knicks, like every other team, didn’t know what they had in Lin, he came to the team on a cheap contract without much security. But just as the deal was friendly to the team if Lin went bad, it was just as friendly to Lin if he did well. He’s a star now, and he has no basic contract weighing him down, keeping him on a team at a low salary like he would if he was a decent young player. He gets to be a free agent instead.
Lin has seen what he can do with his talent and his marketability. He no longer feels indebted to any team willing to scoop him up — rather, he knows he can be phenomenal if put in the right system, and downright terrible if not give the best chance. So, it only makes sense that Lin would be shy about gutting it out for a Knicks team that doesn’t seem to know where to put him. Lin doesn’t want to ever get close to where he was just a few months ago, where he knew he had ability but feared he would have no chance to show it. He’s not going to sign with a team that won’t let him perform, and unfortunately, the Knicks have not given him assurances they can do that. (And, really, the Knicks shouldn’t want him around if they can’t use him to the max.)
Lin also has the chance to tap into his celebrity, and New York isn’t the only place for that to happen. While playing in the Big Apple certainly got his name around, Lin can now build his own legacy. A place like Houston, which already has a solid Asian fan base thanks to its time with Chinese star Yao Ming, has been mentioned by many as the perfect place for Lin to cut a new niche. Lin is not the type of guy who wants to cash in all he can, but he also knows that as a Christian and an Asian-American, he’s been a powerful example and hope to many. He’ll want to carry that reputation and serve it well, and going to a city that can support him as both a person and a player will help that. New York, however, has an overflow of stars. While Lin could be a presence in any other basketball community, in New York he’ll be a competitor for the spotlight with bigger stars and stranger acts.
Best yet, leaving the Knicks gives Lin a chance to chart his own path. Others were writing the storyline for Lin last year, as he made the most of the opportunities that fell in front of him both on and off the court. But few likely know what Lin is truly capable of. He could be a drastically different player given different circumstances. And he could be eager to show his true persona outside of the frame that’s been painted around him in his first stint with New York.
While it may be painful to see the Knicks boot another chance and fumble Lin’s return, the situation doesn’t have to be seen as a debacle. New York needs to shed some stars to have a cohesive team, and Lin, for as much as he’s likely grateful to the Knicks for giving him a career, could do much better elsewhere, too. Lin should be thankful the Knicks are making this an easy choice, and he should hope the Knicks complete their part of the bargain by further bungling the situation and not re-signing him.