Jeremy LiNYC


CUTLINE: Ky-Phong Tran fulfilled a lifelong dream in 2009 when he played basketball in Holcombe

Rucker Park in New York. Photos courtesy of Ky-Phong Tran

 


 


By KY-PHONG TRAN


 


            Jeremy Lin this, Jeremy Lin that.


            By now, the New York Knicks’ basketball sensation known as “Linsanity” has been more dissected than a frog in a middle school biology class.


            There’s the Christian angle. The Harvard perspective. And of course, there are the countless ethnic analyses that have magically turned Asian American scholars into basketball analysts like Dick Vitale or Hubie Brown.


            But make no mistake about the Legend of Jeremy Lin.


            This is a basketball story.


            First, second, and last. Because if he doesn’t put the ball in the bucket (or make passes that lead to scores), nobody would be talking, writing or tweeting about him.


            How do I know? Well, how much media coverage did Jeremy get before his breakout game on Feb. 4 against the New Jersey Nets? He had the same story then (Christian, Harvard, Asian American), right? I rest my case.


            To me, the special nature of the Jeremy Lin story has everything to do with place: New York City. And though it’s probably true that this story is more widely told because our national media is centered there, that’s beside the point.


            Because what I’m going to tell you can only told to you by a basketball player who lives outside of New York City. (And it’s even more relevant if that player happens to be Asian American).


            You won’t get this story from some stiff old man in a studio. Or an author who doesn’t know the difference between a pick and roll and roll of stamps. Or a scholar who couldn’t dribble a ball if his tenure depended on it.


            Remember, the Jeremy Lin story ― first and foremost ― is a basketball love story set in the most romantic hoops city in the world.


 


Point guard universe


            Though other cities will dispute this, New York is considered the spiritual home of the game, and the point guard, the position Lin plays, is seen as its denominational leader. Often the smallest player on the floor, the point guard usually is the most skilled player, as well, deft with his passing and most importantly his ball handling. It’s so critical that there’s even a saying in New York that any point guard worth his salt would “rather lose his girl than his dribble.”


            Just the list of high school New York point guards reads like a short list from the Basketball Hall of Fame: Lenny Wilkens, Bob Cousy, Nate Archibald and Larry Brown. There are also school boy legends Mark Jackson, Kenny Anderson, Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair and Kenny Smith. And the New York Knicks history includes two top-50 NBA players in guards Walt “Clyde” Frazier and Earl “the PearlMonroe.


            Though born in Los Angeles and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jeremy fits into this royal tradition: He has the shakes (the tricky dribbles) and the dimes (clever passes) that New York point guards are known for. He even has the unorthodox jump shot (which I might add goes against stereotype) that many New York guards have had due to playing the outdoor game where drives are more valued than outside shots due to the wind, crooked rims , and missing nets common to New York playground courts.


 


 



 


 


The Garden


            Madison Square Garden bills itself as “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” and with a performer list that includes every significant musician in the 20th and 21st century (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis and Michael Jackson) that may well be true.


            Basketball-wise, it’s also the most storied arena in the biggest media market in the spiritual home of the game, the crown jewel of basketball courts.


            The saying about making it in New York definitely applies to hoops, and when players come to 46 Pennsylvania Plaza, they always bring their “A” game. Every single important player in the history of the professional game has had a breakout, virtuoso performance in “The Garden.” A sampling:


·       In 1995, Michael Jordan drops a “double nickel” (55 points), just five days back from his retirement


·       That same year, Reggie Miller scores eight points in 11 seconds to defeat the Knicks


·       In 2009, Kobe Bryant sets the arena record by scoring 61 points


 


            It’s in this arena ― the most famous concert hall in the world, where every rock star and ballplayer around the world dreams to perform ― that Jeremy Lin gets to play his music.


            And though Jeremy is not yet on the level of the players listed above, in his two nationally televised games from Madison Square Garden, he scored 38 points against the Los Angeles Lakers and poured in 28 points and a career-high 14 assists against the defending champion Dallas Mavericks.


            Although both games resulted in victories, what New York Knicks fans love most about their players also happen to be two diametrically opposed traits: toughness and style. Again, Jeremy fits in here perfectly. All game long, he’s always driving to the basket and getting knocked to the floor, the Band-Aid on his chin and claw marks on his arm all badges of courage. And when he does a fancy dribble and throws a no-look pass, scores and gets fouled on a manic drive to the hoop, or throws in a clutch three-point shot, he has that killer glare in his eye, the boyish smile, and the head nod that says to the world “Yes, I’m putting on a show” and “All along, I knew this was in me.”


 


The Rucker


            North of Madison Square Garden by 122 streets or so lays a little park named after Holcombe Rucker in Harlem.


            Over the years, the roster of players who have visited Rucker Park includes all the great ones known on just a one name basis: Kareem, Skip, Goat, Julius, Wilt, Vince, LeBron, Iverson and Kobe. And this past summer, Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder put on a shooting exhibition that looks like it was created by special effects; it’s so unbelievable that it must be watched on YouTube to believed.


            Rucker Park is for all the basketball fans who can’t afford the pricey seats of Madison Square Garden. It is the people’s basketball court and so important to the lore of basketball that $100-million players travel there and risk injury every summer to receive the blessing and approval of its masses.


            If Madison Square Garden is basketball’s St. Peter’s Basilica, than Rucker Park is its Sistine Chapel. Because in its purest element, basketball is a free, wide-open game available to anyone who has the skills to represent themselves. And “the Rucker” is the ideal showcase for that wide-open, free-wheeling, entertaining style of play.


            And across Internet message boards and chat rooms, the questions are already surfacing: When will Jeremy visit the Rucker? When can we see him with our own eyes? When will he be baptized at the most the important court in the world and earn a real basketball nickname and not some gimmicky marketing one?


 


 



 


 


The pilgrimage


            If Jeremy plays at the Rucker, he won’t be the first Asian player to ever do so.


            In 2009, I played at the Rucker. Because I played point guard. Because every ball player outside of New York must make the pilgrimage to this Mecca. Because it was on my bucket list.


            After a business meeting, I ran back to my hotel room and quickly changed into my basketball gear. I jumped on the subway in eager anticipation. My previous two trips to New York, I had tried to play at the Rucker and been rained out both times. I wasn’t getting any younger so this could have been my last chance.


            I exited the subway station and entered the gates. There were many strategies to that day but the first one applies to every court you walk on: Act like you belong there.


            I shot around and showed off some dribbling. Then when I was warmed up, I asked to play in the next game. The guys looked me over and nodded.


            I was in.


            From the outside, it must have been some sight. A 5-foot, 7-inch Vietnamese American guy playing at the Rucker.


            But inside, I knew I could do it. I knew that on a regular day at the court, there would be good players but no college or pro players.


            I knew that I had enough skill and experience to play mostly anywhere. I had played in games with McDonald’s All-Americans, Division I college players and even a couple of NBA players. Plus, I cut my teeth playing on the playgrounds of Long Beach, Calif., and had done well in games at vaunted Venice Beach in Los Angeles and MacArthur Park in Oakland, Calif.


            I played two games. Won the first and lost the second. It was all a blur of bodies; adrenaline has made it all into one continuous memory. I remember all the players being skilled and tough. Most had great handles no matter their size. Most memorable and joyous to me was how physical the New York game was; no matter where you went, a body was leaning on you or a hand was in your back. It might seem dirty to the casual eye but it’s actually a great style because the same rules apply to everyone and it really tests your toughness. And one good thing about it is that you always know where your defender is (usually next to you with a forearm in your ribs).


            The guy I was matched up against was not as tall but quick and strong as a bull. He made a lot of shots on me, but it was OK because he knew he was the best player on the court.


            On one glorious possession, I caught the ball on the right wing and stared my man down. I dribbled to my right and then quickly crossed to my left between my legs. My man retreated anticipating the drive. Instead, I put the ball back between my legs and let go with a quick jump shot. My man tried to react and block my shot. He was too late. The ball went in.


            Swish.


            My defender nodded at me and slapped my hand in appreciation.


            He knows what every baller knows. What I knew that day. What Jeremy Lin knows every time he takes the floor as the first Asian American player in the modern era and now the biggest target in the NBA.


            If you can play, you can play.


            And after averaging more than 24 points and eight assists in his first 10 games as a starter, it’s evident Jeremy Lin can play.


            But the many stories of Jeremy Lin only grow if the ball keeps going in and the Knicks continue winning.


            Remember, this is a basketball love story and New York loves nothing more than a winner.


            And, if he can make it there, he can make it anywhere.


 


Editor’s note: This is the second part of Ky-Phong Tran’s essays on Jeremy Lin’s Asian American success story and the basketball experience in New York.


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