A former coworker and friend of Chinese descent hit me a text this morning to say that he watched a sports talk show where the analysts were baffled as to why so many teams purportedly passed on Jeremy Lin. They wondered what took so long for the Linsanity train to leave the station. My friend, understandably, wondered why they didn’t just come right out and point to the race factor. I, however, wondered who in the world was paying these clearly uninformed, baffled, head-scratching pundits he was watching.
Let’s just get this out of the way: race was and is certainly a factor in the story of Jeremy Lin’s path to NBA relevance. The question is, however, just how much of a factor, and when?
That the sports talking heads my friend was watching couldn’t come up with valid reasons to explain Lin’s path to the Knicks is unforgivable, as far as I’m concerned at least. Again, these people are PAID to know what they’re commenting on. 5 minutes on Google – plus an objective mind – is all it takes to understand the long road that brought Lin to this point. Maybe 7 minutes if your internet connection is slow.
The road to Lin’s professional career begins, naturally, in high school. Jeremy as a prep was a 2-time MVP of his high school league, was rated the #1 player in California by virtually every major publication in the state, and his team had a high-profile state-championship victory over a much higher-rated team. Yet, Jeremy did not receive a single scholarship offer from even one Division-1 school. Let me repeat that: the consensus #1 player in the largest state in the entire United States did not receive so much as ONE scholarship offer. Now, objectivity might allow one to say, perhaps there were some other mitigating circumstances here; common sense tugs at you to point to his ethnicity. I have a very hard time believing there are circumstances mitigating enough to warrant his being bypassed by every Division-1 college in the country, outside of him being a convicted serial murderer. There’s just no plausible explanation that is going to be compelling enough, outside of “Asian guys can’t ball”.
So, Lin took his skills to Harvard, where he excelled in the Ivy League. By the end his college career, he was the #2 scorer in Ivy League history, and racked up equally-impressive numbers across the board. However, on NBA draft day 2010, his name went uncalled. Now, you may say again that race was a factor, but an equally-valid reason may simply be the view of the Ivy League at the time (or, at least, until Harvard’s current surge into national rankings). I’ll leave that call up to you. I tend to believe him coming out of the Ivy League is at least as much a factor as race or anything else.
So, from that point, Lin took his talents to the NBA summer league, and it is from there that it becomes increasingly difficult to blame race as the singular factor in his being “passed over”. He impressed everyone by going toe-to-toe with John Wall in one game in particular, raising eyebrows and getting notice is an fair amount of print publications. Measuring up to the #1 pick and eventual rookie-of-the-year will have that effect. He eventually found his way to the Dallas Mavericks prior to the 2010-2011 season – and it is at that point where simple circumstance and bad luck becomes the #1 factor for his delayed path to NBA relevance.
The 2011 Dallas Mavericks, for who may not know, were pretty stacked at the point guard position, with future first-ballot Hall of Famer Jason Kidd, speedy J.J. Barea, and capable Rodrigue Beaubois. It’s not much of a stretch to see how Lin wouldn’t make such a team. Eventually, he got picked up for the duration of the 2011 season by the Golden State Warriors. Golden State, however, is pretty well-to-do in their backcourt, with sharp-shooting Stephen Curry and the perennial almost-an-all-star Monta Ellis, as well as veterans Charlie Bell and Acie Law. Also not a stretch to see how a rookie might have trouble getting much more than garbage time on that roster – which is exactly what Lin got in 40-some-odd games for the season.
2012 is where the story gets interesting. The major factor in Lin’s long road at that point becomes the NBA lockout, which led to a truncated free agency and training camp period, and a compressed regular-season schedule built for robots, not human athletes. The Warriors, looking to clear cap space to make an offer to the L.A. Clippers restricted free agent center DeAndre Jordan, parted ways with Lin via the waiver wire. Now, we all like Lin’s talents, but when you already have Curry and Ellis, and you think you have a chance to snag someone like Jordan to man your frontcourt, the rookie guard on your roster is gonna be the one to hit waivers. Hey, that’s life.
Next up was the Houston Rockets, who claimed Lin off of the waiver wire. Houston’s backcourt roster, however, already consisted of Kyle Lowry, Jonny Flynn, Kevin Martin, Courtney Lee, and Gordon Dragic. These are all guys who have long proven they can play in the NBA. Honestly, it’s more a wonder why the Rockets bothered to pick up Lin at all. Perhaps they thought they would still somehow be parting ways with Martin and Dragic via trade (similar to the Lakers-Rockets-Hornets deal that was declined by the Hornets owner), and would need to add depth. Not so far-fetched. However, the Rockets soon found they too needed to shed roster spots in order to sign a center, free-agent Samuel Dalembert. It was deja-vu all over again.
Moreover, with the lockout-condensed off-season, there was no time for a guy like Lin to even show he could outwork one of those proven guys. In a typical year, NBA training camps last the entire month of September, followed by a 3-week preseason schedule, then a few days to a week layoff before the real games begin. This season? After unlocking the doors to the arenas on December 9th, teams had exactly 16 days till the Christmas Day start of the season. That’s over 7 weeks condensed into 2. 2 weeks to get guys into playing shape, practice, and prepare for the season. What would you spend those two weeks doing: practicing with the guys who have already produced for you and others in the past, or dropping their practice time to give workouts for brand new players? Exactly.
So, again, Lin hit the waiver wire, without even playing a game for the Rockets. Then is when the Knicks finally get involved. After an injury to guard Iman Shumpert in the first week of the season, the Knicks needed some insurance depth, not knowing how long Shumpert would be out, but fearing the worst. As it turned out, the initial 4-week prognosis for Shumpert’s injury turned into barely a 2-week stay-cation. Who knows, had that initial prognosis been for 1-2 weeks, would the Knicks have bothered to look outside the team to shore up their backcourt? We’ll never know. However, once Shumpert returned, and proved he was healthy, what happened to Lin? The Knicks sent him down to the NBA Developmental League.
Here is where the lockout really screws everything up – unless you’re a Knick fan. The schedule this season has teams playing 66 games over 120 days, somewhere around 55% of the days. A normal NBA schedule sees 82 games stretched over 6 months, somewhere around 175 days. So they’re usually playing closer to 45%-47% of the time. What suffers? Practice time. In that, there is none, barely. This season is the worst possible scenario under which an unproven 2nd-year player acquired during the season would have the time to show off his skills. Knick coach Mike D’Antoni has been criticized for saying he had “no idea” what he had with Lin, but that criticism is completely unfair. Teams don’t even have adequate time to practice with their proven players, much less work out new guys.
However, after recording a triple-double in his first D-League appearance, Lin found his way back to the Knick bench. Why? Point guard Baron Davis. Once slated to be days away from taking the court for the Knicks, and looked upon (probably far too optimistically) as the possible savior to their season, Davis’ recovery hit a setback. An elbow infection halted his training cold, putting his return from a back injury completely on ice until the infection clears up. So once again, the Knicks found themselves in need of point guard depth. So then, finally, comes the day, Saturday February 4th, the day desperation turns to hope. Out of answers, and running out of time, after giving Toney Douglas, the ghost of Mike Bibby past, and Iman Shumpert all ample opportunity to masquerade at point guard, Coach D’Antoni turned to the very end of his bench. And the rest, as they say, is history.
So, did race play a role in the delay of Jeremy Lin’s opportunity on the big stage? Certainly, at least early on in his basketball career it likely did to some degree. But people need to not be so callous to paint Houston, Golden State, Dallas or any other NBA franchise with the racism brush. By a fortunate set of circumstances, Jeremy wound his way onto the Knicks roster, and naturally, after watching this kid play for the bulk of last week, I am more than glad that things panned out the way they did. All hail the lockout!