NEW YORK (AP) — Jeremy Lin was barely hanging on to an NBA job when he stepped on the floor at Madison Square Garden last February.
He returns Monday having proven he’s a legitimate starter and sometimes star, capable of energizing a franchise and a fan base, a player who saved his team’s season and was rewarded with a lucrative contract.
Linsanity was short but spectacular, and even the New York Knicks’ locker room is filled with Lin admirers.
Yet on the court, his old team hasn’t missed him at all.
“What he did was amazing. I mean, I was watching every game. He was hitting game-winners, he was doing all that. He was amazing,” point guard Raymond Felton said. “But it’s time to move on. We’re 18-5, whatever the record is, we’re 10-0 at home, so no need to talk about that no more.”
Lin makes his lone New York appearance with the Houston Rockets, who threw big dollars at Lin in July and were maybe just as surprised as so many others when the Knicks let them have him. They could have kept Lin simply by matching the Rockets’ offer, which was widely considered to be a foregone conclusion, and the big-market Knicks certainly could have afforded him.
Instead, they traded for Felton, and signed Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni, and nobody can argue now. The Knicks are the best in the league in taking care of the ball — a Lin weakness even during his highest point — and they have the best record in the Eastern Conference with Felton and Kidd starting together in a two-point guard backcourt.
“I’m not taking anything away from what we had last year, those guys gave us all they had, but to win at a big level in this league you’ve got to have good point guard play. I think Jason Kidd and Raymond and Pablo have filled that void that we were somewhat missing last year,” Knicks coach Mike Woodson said.
The Knicks were going nowhere without anyone to run former coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense and just days from needing to cut Lin or guarantee his salary for the remainder of the season when D’Antoni turned to him in a Feb. 4 game against the Nets. Lin scored 25 points, was promoted to the starting lineup two nights later, and the phenomenon known as Linsanity was born.
The undrafted player from Harvard had been cut three times already and was so uncertain of his NBA future that he had slept on teammate Landry Fields’ couch the night before his breakout because he had refused to get his own place with an unguaranteed contract.
And he became an immediate hit with fans around the world.
The first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent made a massive impact for the Knicks at the box office and merchandise stands, not to mention what he did for them in the standings.
A season’s worth of highlights were packed into just a few weeks: the double-double in a national TV rout of defending champion Dallas; the 38 points to outduel Kobe Bryant in a victory over the Lakers; the 3-pointer in the final second to win a game at Toronto. He became a media sensation, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated in consecutive weeks, and brought the Knicks more positive attention than they had received in ages.
Lin was quoted on the Rockets’ website after their loss to Toronto on Sunday as saying he was looking forward to getting his return over with and getting some closure, and was asked what he anticipated.
“That’s one of those things where I’m not going to try to guess what’s going to happen because I have no idea,” Lin said. “Once the game starts I know I’m going to be focused on basketball. If I were to be realistic, there will probably be some nostalgia and reminiscing and thankful for those times because those were some great times, but at the same time it’s the next chapter.”
D’Antoni was booed when he returned Thursday with the Lakers, but the Knicks think Lin has earned and will receive a huge welcome back.
“I think that he touched a lot of people who are going to be in the stands,” said Steve Novak, one of Lin’s best friends on the team. “There’s going to be some people come to see Jeremy, there’s no doubt about it, because he did have an incredible run and touched a lot of their lives, and a lot of little kids got Lin jerseys and stuff like that. So I think it was tough when he left for all those people that have those jerseys and stuff, but they remember how much fun it was when he was here.”
It wasn’t long. Lin ended up needing knee surgery in March that ended his season after just 25 starts. Woodson had insisted Lin would be back, even after Lin and the Rockets had agreed to a contract that was worth about $28 million over four years. The terms were then amended to about $25 million over three years, the final year worth nearly $15 million but would cost the Knicks more than twice that in luxury tax payments under the harsher penalties in the new collective bargaining agreement.
So they let him go, and so far Lin has had some solid moments, but few that indicate he could turn into a $25 million player. He did match his career high with 38 points in a recent loss to San Antonio and helped the Rockets rout the Knicks in Houston last month, but was averaging about 11 for the season while shooting under 40 percent from the field. He has been replaced by backup Toney Douglas, another former Knick, in the closing minutes of some close games.
That’s far below the 24.6 points and 9.2 assists he averaged in those first 10 games from Feb. 4-20, when he was the biggest story in basketball. That’s what the Knicks expect fans to remember on Monday night.
“He did an excellent job of bringing a lot of cheer. He brought a lot of great vibes to the city and just the arena in general. I had a fun time playing with him,” center Tyson Chandler said. “So I don’t know what his reception is, but whatever it is he’s on the other side now, so he has to pay for that.”