Linsanity revisited

A new book explores Jeremy Lin's meteoric rise and the catharsis it offered Knicks fans and sports lovers alike

By David Roth

Published April 27, 2013 11:00PM (EDT)

Fans of Jeremy Lin hold up signs during the second half of the New York Knicks/Toronto Raptors game on Tuesday.   (Reuters/Mike Cassese)
Fans of Jeremy Lin hold up signs during the second half of the New York Knicks/Toronto Raptors game on Tuesday. (Reuters/Mike Cassese)

This originally appeared on The Classical.

The Classical It takes a fairly long time to write a book, for obvious reasons having to do with conceptualizing and writing and editing and the ambient neuroses that come with all that. For less obvious reasons having to do with things I'm not anywhere near as familiar with, it also takes a very long time to publish a book. When Jeremy Lin was off on his giddy and sudden ascent around this time in the 2011-12 NBA season, publishers were clamoring for a book on Jeremy Lin, any book on Jeremy Lin that they could sell immediately to the many people who were suddenly very interested in Jeremy Lin. But, for all the reasons mentioned above, and because Linsanity's bright bloom was so brief, no proper Jeremy Lin book ever came. There was a glossy Collector's Edition magazine-y thing with many photos of Lin on sale at the drugstore, next to assorted other Linsanity-related detritus—I remember a lot of pull-out plastic banners—but as it was all marked down and marked down again and finally gone, there was no Jeremy Lin book.

And now, with Lin in Houston and the Knicks a different, stranger and better team than they were at Linsanity's wild zenith, there's a Jeremy Lin book. The collection of Lin-related essays We'll Always Have Linsanity is in a more retrospective mode—a consideration of what happened during that brief, happily crazed time and what that time meant, written with the perspective of the present. Which, actually, is probably more valuable than anything written in the throes of Linsanity. "WTF" is still one of the best and most reasonable responses to Linsanity, of course, but it's no longer the only one. Classical contributors Robert SilvermanJim Cavan and Jason "Netw3rk" Concepcion contributed to We'll Always Have Linsanity, and Silverman and Cavan about the experience of Linsanity, writing about Linsanity, and some other things.

So, there's something inevitably and unavoidably weird and poignant about a Linsanity book coming out while he's plugging away for a lower-tier playoff team in the Western Conference, and while the Knicks are happily and effectively Knicks-ing away in the East. It seems strange to think that a year ago at this time, the city and the rest of basketball was just batshit insane and supremely giddy over this dude, who is now somewhere else and playing like a better-educated and marginally more effective Beno Udrih. Looking back, not just through the perspective of the book, how does last year feel from this year's vantage?

Jim Cavan: In hindsight it’s probably better that this didn’t come out when the Knicks were 18-5 and on an inevitable, totally sustainable scorched earth march to the title, right? I think the chief difference is that, with last season, you had this palpable sense that anything could happen. There was an emotional wide open-ness (too lazy to look up the German word) that you started to believe would be fulfilled no matter what – an expectation, almost. The magic waned, obviously, and now we’re doomed to an eternal purgatory of Frank Isola “85%” tweets and Raymond Felton.

Robert Silverman: There was a point during the editing process when we considered including a slew of game recaps that we’d written during the year, so I was re-reading about 50 of them and suddenly, I found myself right back in the thicket of emotions that that season engendered. Beyond Lin, the whole season was downright weird. Your opinion of the team could change radically from game to game, and sometimes even quarter to quarter. Novak became a sensation out of nowhere. J.R. Smith returned from China to bring his own very special élan to bear. Amar’e injured himself punching a goshdarn fire extinguisher after recovering from back surgery after re-injuring the back after tragically losing his brother. I’m so thoroughly enmeshed in the dramas surrounding the team this season—this season’s script is far more orderly and comprehensible, like a well-made chamber play—that I tend to forget how profoundly odd it all was.

JC: Comparing the two seasons is tough, if only because we still don’t know how this one—which has been silly in its own right, by the way—will ultimately play out. The closest real world analog I can conjure is that of a country blessed with an out-of-nowhere, charismatic, super-talented president who sweeps into office, spearheads a series of wildly popular reforms, and then gets kidnapped by aliens, leaving us with the capable but patently boring vice president. We root for him, because we have to: it's our country. But everyone knows it’s just not the same. Or it's like Children of Men. Either or.

What happened last year was wonderful and transporting and random and obviously awesome; everyone who wasn't awful loved it. But so much of it was about things that are hard to express in print—all of us tried to write about The Linsanity Thing, and I imagine I'm not alone in feeling as if I'd fallen short. How challenging (or bracing, or fun) is it to write about it later on, once it has cooled some and been fogged over by memory?

JC: One of the things we decided early on was to have a good mix of polished-up pieces written in the moment, and retrospective bits that similarly tried to capture that same emotional gamut. When I was writing the final chapter, on Lin being cut adrift over the summer, the unchained rage and vindictiveness were still very real. I remember the night it happened, in fact, and realizing that this anger and confusion I was feeling needed to come out as quickly as possible, because that’s the process by which most of us operated with our different chapters in the book. Even if a few of them were crafted somewhat retrospectively. The end result, we hope, is a book that doesn’t merely serve as a dissertation on the meaning of Linsanity, but instead reminds us all how emotionally destabilizing—in a good way, for the most part—the whole thing was.

RS: The thing about Lin that was so fascinating was/is that there were a bajillion different angles to take in writing about it—the improbability of his ascent; the fact that he came from Harvard; how/why he was overlooked/passed over in the draft; a truly underrepresented ethnic other in a sport composed of ethnic others becoming the savior of a franchise as profoundly awful (and dumbly awful) as the Knicks; the freakin’ couch; Lin’s religious fervor. Tackling any one of them felt like an incomplete picture of what was occurring, because it was all of that at once. The act of writing about a single aspect of Linsanity felt limiting and necessarily incomplete and possibly wrong. There’s a theater director I studied with for a while who used to give this note quite frequently: “It’s the difference between the Moon and pointing at the Moon.” It sounds like a line out of a bad 70’s Kung Fu flick or Ram Dass, but I think she was right. It’s really hard to get to the essence of something and not just suggest it or point feebly at the fringes of it. Most of the time, you’re going to fail, and that’s okay.

Also, it’s a lot harder to write about an event as powerful and fascinating as Linsanity because your basic response is to be happy about it. It’s always easier to write about pain and feeling miserable than it is about something joyous. When you’re suffering, it’s easily identifiable and specific (for the most part). I hurt here. Woodson’s insistence on switching on pick and rolls makes me want to fling inanimate objects. I know the rocky borders of that state of despair and can describe them in great detail. But when you’re happy, it’s like you’re floating. You have no boundaries. Fuck, why write about it at all?It’s an a priori good thing. Do I need to tell you or the people who peruse our blogs that it’s a good thing? They know it too. That’s what Linsanity was, but stabbing at/defining the nature of that profound sense of wellness is what we all tried to do. Going back in to all that, even with the tempering effects of time and distance, is daunting. It certainly was for me.

What purpose do you think a book on Linsanity can have, beyond reminding people about this goofy thing that happened? What were you trying to do in the bit of it that your wrote?

JC: We wanted to capture the season in an emotionally taut, frame-by-frame sort of way, but I think there was an historical aspect to it as well. For all their farts and foibles, the Knicks are a team brim-loaded with tradition and historical narrative, and I think a good bit of that—particularly with respect to the past few decades—carries through. Nostalgia is the driving force, for sure. [But] a lot of us saw Linsanity as a kind of emotional counterpoint to 20 years of careening fortune and mushrooming futility—it was its own season and its own song. That’s part of the reason we settled on the title we did; @netw3rk’s Casablanca tweet captured perfectly this sense that we’ll likely never see anything like this ever again.

RS: My father is a painter and beyond the many, many lessons with regards to oils and turpentine that he’s imparted over the years, he taught me that the job of an artist is, first and foremost, to say what it means to be a human being at a particular time and place in history. If you’ll allow me the hubris to think that a book about a slightly-better-than-mediocre basketball team can do such a thing, I think that’s what I was—and we as a whole were—trying to accomplish. Not just as a, “Oh yeah. That season was cray-cray!” kind of way, but to say something about fandom and sports as a whole in the world we’re living in now. Awfully pretentious, but that’s what I wanted/want the book to be, or at least attempt to be.

The thing is, despite the incredible influx of smart people who are covering sports and the increased tools we have at hand to understand the games and the players themselves, the experience feels a great deal less permanent. There’s something glib that could be said about the disposable nature of society/late-period US Capitalism, and such a sentiment probably wouldn’t be entirely incorrect. But also every moment on the field of play is so hyper-analyzed and dissected, and then market-analyzed/market-tested and slapped on a Burger King cup/into a Wieden+Kennedy ironic anti-ad ad campaign—it makes it harder any harder to find what's mythic or heroic in any one particular game or season or athlete. Linsanity somehow managed to break through all that, and feel organically like a heroic/mythic/meaningful event, even in spite of the massive coverage and mediation that followed his every move. Being in the center of that vortex of the improbable and the beautiful is what we’re trying to impart.

Clearly, you'll stay following the Knicks, for better or worse. Do you expect anything quite like Linsanity, or anything even approaching it, in the foreseeable future? What would that even look like?

JC: If Hollywood has proven anything, it’s that bad sequels sell. So bring it on. I have animals to feed and beer to buy. In all seriousness, we’ve already seen a bit of half-joking—the old Vonnegut line about “laughing in self defense” applies here—about possible Knicks on the team right now duplicating Linsanity. Pablocura, Copesanity, Flightsanity: all have made brief Twitter cameos. Obviously these were hardly sincere, but there were a few “What if?” neurons flickering in backs of our minds. And that will probably linger a while. Another team might see something similar, and I’ll root like hell for it. But it won’t be the same.

RS: If they win a chip…wait, whom am I kidding? The Knicks’ll never be champs. But, if the Gods were to smile on this misbegotten franchise, if every man woman and child were to get down on their knees in prayer and beseech whatever unseen, inscrutable, supernatural powers they fancy to favor the bungled, botched, wand’ring lost souls in orange and blue and/or someone took a tire iron to LeBron’s shins and they actually ended up doused in champagne, I think it could approach the delirium (if not the improbability) of the two weeks of Linsanity. During the mid-90’s, before the Yankees strode the Gotham sporting scene like a faux-squeaky-clean, unstoppable colossus, this was a basketball town. The wars with Jordan and Miller and Olajuwon were serious cultural touchstones for the city.

JC: One of the most frustrating things about being a Knicks fan is that it’s never been in the team’s genetic code to flail into the lottery and rebuild. For good or ill, the “Thunder Model” is a wholly alien concept to this ownership and management. On the one hand, it’s a weirdly noble notion: We know we’ll always have the resources, so if we can simply tread water and land the next superstar free agent, what reason is there to tank? But what we end up missing out on is a breed of excitement that, while perhaps lacking the temporal immediacy and brilliance of something like Linsanity, has a longer potential payload. A Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, or even a Patrick Ewing—a wagon to which we hitch our cheers, tears, and jeers for the long haul. That, or winning a title, is the only thing that could match the sheer visceral joy of those few batshit fortnights of a season ago. Dolan just won’t let it happen.

RS: I remember I was riding a cab the day after the ’99 team had improbably knocked off Indiana and the driver had WFAN on the radio, and Mike Francesa in his mangled Newyawkese was talking about Latrell Sprewell and saying something stupidly Nativist/reductive about how even if he leads the Knicks to a title, he’ll never live down laying hands upon P.J. Carlesimo. The cabdriver screamed, in an equally thick Jamaican accent, “Fuck that. Fuck that guy!” And we started talking about the Knicks and how he’d come to America only a few years ago but the Knicks we’re his team, because, “Spree, when he dunks, it’s like he’s dunking 400 years of slavery and oppression!” People care a lot, is what I'm saying. The city would be insane if the Knicks won. Winning trumps everything, even this.

That said, this fictional future team won’t be able to do the one thing that hasn’t occurred since the ’69 Mets and possibly the ’70 Knicks—make sports fans from the rest of the country (and these days, the world) root for a New York team. I get that because of our self-centeredness and ego and money, New Yorkers (and our teams) are always going to be perceived as hateful overdogs, as bullies. For the most part, we like this designation. Part of a New Yorker’s identity sits squarely within the notion that it’s a good thing that we’re loathed.

But Linsanity flipped that. People who hated New York were actually pulling for the Knicks and Lin. We were the underdogs, the impossible dream. That’s something that we may not ever see again in my lifetime. The fact that the team ditched him for reasons that are truly beyond explanation—save for the fact that the team is owned by the Platonic ideal of a Rich Kid/Bully/Arrogant, Spoiled Jerk—is also possibly the most New York thing imaginable.

David Roth

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Jeremy Lin Linsanity New York Knicks The Classical We'll Always Have Linsanity