Long before Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey signed Jeremy Lin to a training camp contract in December, they met on an hotel elevator at the 2010 Portsmouth Invitational Tournament. As an MIT graduate, Morey was intrigued with the Harvard star, and the Rockets had a deep scouting profile on Lin and a deeper personal interest.
Yes, Yao Ming had known all about the Asian-American in the Ivy League, and this had been a natural way to ease into a conversation.
“Jeremy asked a lot about Yao, and we talked about him,” Morey said. Yet, the discussion shifted into something far more pressing, far heavier on Lin’s mind. This was the spring of his senior year at Harvard, and a question hung heavily on his mind. All these fringe prospects had come to Portsmouth to impress NBA scouts, to maybe get drafted, and Lin confided to Morey a most real fear.
“He was so unsure,” Morey said. “He wondered if he would even get an invite to a training camp.”
For fringe prospects at fringe predraft camps, that’s how it works: Who will give me an opportunity? Who will allow me to succeed or fail? That’s the beauty of the Jeremy Lin story now, the collision of a franchise’s desperation and a prospect’s preparedness. The Rockets were intrigued with Lin in this season's training camp, but they had three point guards with guaranteed contracts – Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic and Jonny Flynn – and never imagined that cutting him loose in December would have such immense implications on the NBA.
“Even if he stayed here, we probably wouldn’t have recognized his talent as much as we should’ve,” Morey said. “He probably wouldn’t have played much at all, and then would’ve been released at the end of the year. I didn’t know he could play this well, and if I did, we would’ve kept him.”
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As Linsanity takes over the New York Knicks and NBA, as the phenomenon of the point guard sensation with such unique, broad appeal hurtles into a second week, there promises to be much blame passed around basketball for missing on him. The Golden State Warriors signed him to a free-agent contract, but everyone’s suspicions were confirmed when they cut him in December: As much as new ownership management might have been intrigued with Lin’s talent, it was always hard to separate the seriousness that they had over his basketball talent and the marketing ability of an Asian-American player with Bay Area ties.
Nevertheless, the Warriors did keep him for a season. Of course now, owner Joe Lacob is blaming the old coach, Keith Smart, for failing to play him as a backup last season. Lacob is playing the “"I-knew-it-all-along" game, and it’s downright embarrassing. Twenty-seven teams never bothered to sign Lin, so yes, the Warriors and Rockets do get credit for taking that step.
“I talk to other GMs about this all the time, and [Rockets coach] Kevin McHale says this: 'There are only 40 or 50 obvious NBA guys who can create a real edge, and the rest rely on opportunity, role, coaching, opponent and hope that comes together with their attitude and work ethic,' " Morey said. "This is not a science, and never will be.
“Look at it this way: Twenty-eight teams and what, over 300 Division I schools – the whole food chain of college basketball – passed on him.”
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Pro scouting is so sophisticated now with so much access to video, information, analytics that there’s no excuse for failing to study a prospect. Failing to believe in him? Well, that’s different. That happens, and always will. The Knicks were no geniuses for claiming Lin off waivers, just desperate. New York coach Mike D’Antoni had nowhere else to turn, and nothing but more games to lose. Lin changed everything for the Knicks, changed the NBA for a week, and still there’s no one to truly take a bow for Jeremy’s Lin’s emergence. No one but him.
Two years ago, he was the Harvard kid wandering around the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament hotel chatting up GMs, wondering if he’d ever get a chance in the NBA, and suddenly it’s happened without a moment’s notice. Sports are funny that way, and so is life. From the Warriors to the Rockets, there’s no use playing the "what-if" game, because sometimes these things happen the way they’re supposed to happen, when and where and how.
Everything conspired for Lin with the Knicks, momentum gathering like a runaway train. These things happen when they’re supposed to happen, and that’s the Jeremy Lin story now. All those fears, all that uncertainty, has been replaced with a brave, bold confidence. Just maybe, Jeremy Lin was finally ready.
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