TORONTO – Linsanity is no longer.
The Toronto Raptors‘ 129-120 win over the visiting Washington Wizards was nothing to be remembered for other than as another in a seemingly endless string of career-highs in scoring from Pascal Siakam, who led all players with a remarkable 44 points.
But for most of the night it was a game played by two teams mostly counting the minutes until their all-star break, with beach time on their minds. It will not be looped on YouTube for years or a cultural touchstone for one ethnic community or another. It won’t go down as anything other than Siakam’s big night and the Raptors’ 43rd win against 16 losses, their sixth straight and another ‘W’ to help them keep touch with the Milwaukee Bucks atop the Eastern Conference.
No one got hurt? Good. Let’s get to Cabo.
The contrast was fitting, in a way. Seven years ago almost to the minute, Jeremy Lin was the focal point of one of the most magical nights of basketball in Raptors history.
Sure it came in a loss, but let’s face it, the Raptors’ 2011-12 season was lost before it started.
But on Valentine’s Day 2012, Lin’s moonshot from undrafted, twice waived, couch surfing bench-warmer to the cover of both Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine peaked when he hit a game-deciding triple over then-Raptors guard Jose Calderon in front of a delirious crowd at the then-Air Canada Centre.
“Lin for the Win” was Raptors play-by-play voice Matt Devlin’s spot-on, spontaneous call. The crowd – packed with Lin fans who paid top dollar for tickets on the secondary market to see their personal comet – went crazy.
A lot has happened since then. Most notably, for the moment, Lin is now a Raptor, making his debut in far different circumstances that he was in seven years ago.
Not surprisingly, Lin couldn’t keep up the 27-point and nine-assist pace he managed through his first 10 games as part of an NBA rotation. Not surprisingly, instead of becoming basketball’s reigning Asian-American superstar, he became an NBA journeyman point guard.
Figuring that part out – how to carry the weight of millions of people’s hopes across the world while simultaneously trying to carve out a career at the most competitive position in the sport’s most competitive league – has been as big a part of his journey as the injuries and the trades and the doubts that are part of the job, but in his case, magnified.
He was trying to scratch out a career, but all anyone wanted to know him for was his first hit song.
“Yeah, I mean, I think I was really jaded after the New York stretch. I think there was a lot of things that happened that made me give up a little bit on people, per se,” he said of his sudden crush with fame, the residue of which is still potent enough that his post-game press conference was held at a podium in the media room rather than try to fit the media horde into the Raptors dressing room. “And that was a huge part of the story, and that was a huge point of contention for a lot of people as to why I was getting the publicity, or why things were the way they were. So I kind of wanted to run from that a little bit.”
Inevitably, time has put some distance between who he is now and who he was then – or who the world knew then. When he stepped out on the Scotiabank Arena floor to do his pre-game warmup with Raptors assistant coach Phil Handy, he was suiting up for his eighth team in nine seasons, with more games coming off the bench than as a starter in his career.
And while his presence still makes him the centre of attention – that a segment of the crowd chanted his name when he checked in with 4:05 left in the first quarter speaks to how powerful a moment ‘Linsanity’ was for so many – the Raptors need for him to be here was pure NBA expediency.
In the past week, the Raptors traded one of their backup point guards [Delon Wright, to Memphis]; their other one, Fred VanVleet, had thumb surgery on Wednesday and will be out for five weeks while their starter, Kyle Lowry, has a wonky back.
Enter Lin, now 30, bought out and waived by the lottery-bound Atlanta Hawks on Monday, signed by the Raptors Wednesday two-and-a-half hours before the opening tip.
The NBA is without a doubt the highest level of basketball played on the planet but at times like this it can feel like men’s league with private jet travel.
“Hey, what’s your name? Jeremy? Cool. I got next, you can run with me.”
How in-depth was Lin’s pre-game preparation after being officially signed at 5:00 p.m.? About 30 minutes.
“What do you do when you’re a point guard and have no idea what’s going on?” Lin said. “You just do your best.”
But Lin was more than an emergency replacement and certainly the best of the available point guards on the market.
Apart from needing him in such a hurry, Nurse was pleased to have him.
“I would have liked him to be a little more aggressive,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “…[But] it was nice. I think he looks good out there. His speed, his quickness, ball-handling. He fits in nice out there.”
Lin’s ethnicity has always been front and centre as a Taiwanese-American. He is an NBA one-off. When he was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Harvard it was by his hometown Golden State Warriors, where he was already a bit of a cult figure with the Asian community in the Bay Area. They had a press conference to announce his signing – nearly unheard of for an undrafted player. His jersey was on sale at the arena before he ever played a game. He made his NBA debut on Asian heritage night.
After being waived by the Warriors, his next opportunity came with the Rockets — another team with strong ties to the Asian community after their Yao Ming years.
His rocket-ride with the Knicks in his second season was part underdog story but a larger part was about Lin representing hope for a few hundred million Asian NBA fans without a hero to call their own.
There was no way he could sustain those kinds of expectations. But after struggling under the weight of them, he’s come around. He’s embracing them, recognizing that being unconditionally loved is a privilege few athletes are ever afforded.
“I would probably say three years down the road, I kind of turned a corner,” he said. “And I would say being hurt for two straight years, and seeing that my Asian fan base, I don’t feel like it dropped off one bit. … Like, every year I go over to Asia, and I can’t even walk through the airport, it’s insane.
“So to see them do that after all the highs and lows, but really going through the lows post-Linsanity, which culminated in those injuries, for me, I’m still blown away. And again, that’s fed into why I want to carry myself a certain way.”
Just because he’s never approached his Linsanity numbers with the Knicks doesn’t mean he can’t play and hasn’t had a career of note, rather than as a footnote. No one lasts in the NBA for nine seasons and counting without being a baller. No one makes it back through career-altering injuries – a torn hamstring, a season lost to a blown knee — by being someone’s idea of a gimmick.
After a rough first half – he had company as the Raptors as a group were awful — Lin was on the floor with the starters (minus Kawhi Leonard who was resting his sore left knee) as the Raptors ripped off a 13-0 run to get themselves back in the game after trailing by 12 with four minutes gone in the third. Lin’s fastbreak layup gave Toronto an 83-80 lead with 17 minutes to play. They never trailed again – Siakam saw to that.
But Lin asserted himself. He was active. He moved the ball quickly. He finished with eight points, five rebounds and five assists in 25 much-needed minutes. He got off a plane from Atlanta in a snowstorm and found a way to contribute.
That will suit the Raptors just fine in a season that has at once been so successful but often feels like it could disassemble at any given moment under the weight of injuries and unfamiliarity and expectations.
So the Raptors don’t need Lin to be Lin-sane. Those days are likely long gone. They just need him to be him: respected journeyman point guard. Do that and still in front of him and all his fans is the opportunity for a key role on a team that is trying to go places it’s never been, and Lin hasn’t either.
“It’s very important,” he said of his chance to be on a winner. “I’ve been to the playoffs four times and haven’t been past the first round … [so] to have a chance to play deep into the playoffs? Yeah, I’m tired of watching and being hurt for two straight years kind of adds to that.”
Lin has embraced his past. He understands what it has meant to so many people for all this time, through the highs and the lows.
But now in Toronto, where ‘Linsanity’ reached its fever pitch all those years ago, he’s excited to embrace his future.