Monday, February 13, 2012

The USS Linsanity Pulls A Crazy Ivan.

Linsanity has, I think, reached critical mass. No matter how Jeremy Lin's career unfolds from here on out, the heady rush of watching improbable (and possibly fleeting) greatness unfurl before our eyes this past week is not going to remain at this frenzied pitch. Lin might prove to be a very good NBA point guard if he's capable of fixing some of the holes in his game. Or just a solid, competent starter. He might wind up in the lower echelon of an eight-man rotation once defenses figure him out a little, or even (and heaven forbid, because he's been an absolute joy to watch) back in the D-League if he can't adapt to those defenses. Whatever the ultimate outcome for Jeremy Lin, America will never be more wholeheartedly invested and more gleefully rooting for the Harvard alumnus than it is right now.

There has been so much worthwhile Lin-oriented output by so many writers that there is almost no angle left un-bisected. Zach Lowe warned us to temper our expectations. Emma Carmichael waxed smart and lyrical about witnessing Lin's play. Scott Carefoot compared his cultural impact to Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters. Danny Chau discussed the Lin phenomenon through the prism of Asian-American NBA fandom. So, to an extent, did Jay Caspian Kang. On and on and on. And of course many, many people have made the Tim Tebow comparison, which makes sense in terms of Lin's Sports Center-dominating scale of hype and not much else. Some of the tripe being trotted out in the great Tebow/Lin analogypocalypse:

Wow they're both Christian!!! (They have something in common with like a gazillion other people.)

They're both underdogs!!! (Tim Tebow was the QB for a college football powerhouse. He won a Heisman, two SEC Championships, two BCS National Titles, and was a first round NFL draft pick. Jeremy Lin played hoops for an Ivy League school, went undrafted, and pinballed around 2 NBA organizations and various D-League teams before a slew of injuries and other issues forced him into a prominent role for the Knicks. Also, Jeremy Lin can complete a pass.)

They're both feel-good stories!!! (To paraphrase a current guilty-pleasure TV show: "If you want a happy ending, it depends on where you stop the story." Time will tell if these stories are legitimately feel-good or merely flash-in-the-pan ratings boosters with unpleasant comedowns.)

They're America's darlings!!! (An awful lot of people, and I don't agree with this viewpoint but it is fairly prevalent, really want Tim Tebow to fail/go away/fall, figuratively or literally, from grace. Everyone except maybe Kobe seems genuinely excited and happy for Lin, and fervently hopes he can build on, if not maintain the pace of, his initial success.)

The point is, Jeremy Lin is getting all the burn he can handle and then some, both on and off the court. But I'm going to add to it because there's one thing I haven't seen discussed yet that I find a little intriguing: other than a marketing windfall and the salvation of Kicks fans' collective hopes, what does Jeremy Lin represent for basketball in the context of a compressed and lockout-shortened 2012 NBA season? Because, of all the comparisons that have been made, the guy Jeremy Lin reminds me most closely of is Ivan Johnson, and together they represent the first two salvos of a trend that we may see a good deal more of before this season is over.

Like Lin, Ivan Johnson is an undrafted player who spent time careening around various lesser iterations of professional basketball before ultimately catching on with an actual NBA team this season. (Granted, Johnson's path has been a little more ... exotic. See: Banned for life from Korean Basketball League.) And like Lin, Johnson was initially supposed to be the ultimate contingency; a backup to a backup, signed just in case the worst should happen to a few someone elses. He put in a few scattershot appearances, but only started getting significant minutes when injuries compelled the team to play him in the absence of any other options. And he made the most of those opportunities, endearing himself almost instantly to the home crowd because he played with an obvious hustle and love of the game. Unlike Lin, Johnson has not had any breakout "holy %$^#!!!" performances, and he probably will never start a game in the NBA, but they're both "names" in the league now. Characters. We are emotionally invested in their career arcs. Six weeks ago we had no idea who they were.

And they might not be the last to end up in that incredible position this year.

As we expected, the unique nature of this season is causing a lot of injuries. Is Ivan Johnson as much of a story if the Hawks have a healthy Al Horford and Jason Collins? Not likely. Does Jeremy Lin put up the gaudy numbers that have fueled Linsanity with STAT and 'Melo on the floor and getting their touches? Of course not. They are products of circumstance that have captivated fans in a way they never could have in a normal season. The opportunities simply would not have been there in the first place. We were worried about injuries causing a degradation of the quality of play; we never stopped to consider how many people with resumes similar to those of Lin and Johnson might suddenly have the opportunity to become relevant in the NBA, and how enjoyable and entertaining the infusion of those new personalities and stories might be.

I don't know where or even if the next breakout, singed-in-desperation former D-Leaguer is going to make an indelible mark on the 2012 season. But because the players are being forced to soldier through a truly insane schedule, the odds are good that we'll see a few more. And that's a good thing, because the more players like Ivan Johnson and Jeremy Lin we can usher into the league, the more fun we'll all have. And as Johnson and Lin continue to remind us, having fun is kind of the point.

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