HOUSTON – For the monumental lengths the Houston Rockets had gone to wrest him out of New York, Jeremy Lin still walked into this franchise an uneasy, mistrusting soul. Somehow, the $25 million free-agent commitment hadn't eased an impending suspicion of betrayal, a gnawing uncertainty that sides would soon be chosen against him, that welcoming faces could soon turn without warning.
From the front office to the coaching staff, the Rockets found Lin slow to embrace them. New York had built up Lin, torn him down and spit him out far more cynical, far less earnest. In so many ways, he had come to isolate himself with the Knicks. He was wary of management and media, coaches and teammates and, ultimately, even his closest friends.
Who was with him?
Who was against him?
"I went into an absolute shell for a few months in New York," Lin told Yahoo! Sports. "I went through a phase when I didn't want to talk to anybody. I didn't want to talk to my friends. I didn't want to give anybody close to me a chance to mess up our relationship. I saw how publicity and fame changed certain people around me, and changed how people looked at me. And I hated it."
Fame had come so fast, so without warning, it hasn't been until training camp and starting the season with Houston that Lin has finally breathed out, finally understood he had found a franchise that will let him grow, let him make his mistakes, let him be.
"It wasn't like I worried they were going to cut me," Lin said. "But it just seemed too good to be true. Like, the coach actually cared about what plays I enjoy running, or that the coach would text me on a day off to see how I was feeling. That type of stuff was too good to be true."
Lin was asked, "You had that with Mike D'Antoni, didn't you?"
"But it was so short," Lin responded.
And when Mike Woodson took over?
"It changed," Lin said. "Different style, different coach."
Everything changed for Lin's reality, and maybe nothing at all. The Knicks never matched the offer sheet in restricted free agency, and some NBA players lined up to do something that that almost never happens to a peer in public: They ridiculed his $25 million deal.
Several days before that air ball in the final moments of a narrow loss to the Miami Heat on Monday night, before everyone started to ask again about his worthiness, Lin spoke of an NBA culture that will demand that he not only justify his contract, but his heritage.
Of the open criticism on his free-agent windfall, Lin told Y! Sports: "I was a little surprised, but I wasn't shocked. I honestly feel it's part of the underlying issue of race in American society … of being an Asian-American.
"I haven't figured it out. I haven't wrapped my head around it. But it's something I'm thinking about."
James Harden has come to the Rockets and unburdened Lin of the impossibility of him successfully playing the part of the franchise player. If people wanted to make Lin that in Houston, the organization and player never did. Together, they understood, but the cultural and global phenomenon surrounding Lin's magnificent run with the Knicks skewed expectations.
If the move out of New York has softened the glow on Lin's celebrity, it hasn't softened the ferocity with which the sport comes for him. From the playground to the Ivy League to the NBA, the eyes on America's breakout Asian-American basketball player felt the same.
"I've always been a target," Lin says. "Everyone looks me and says, 'I'm not going to let that Asian kid embarrass me. I'm going to go at him.' That's how it's been my whole life. This has been different, though. Now, I was on the scouting report. People started to pay attention to what I could and couldn't do.
"But a target? I was used to that. I'm not saying I get everyone's best shot, but I would say people don't want to be embarrassed by me because of my skin color."
Looking back, Lin had to find a way to compartmentalize everything that happened: undrafted out of Harvard, cut in Golden State and Houston, and a brief stardom borne out of the Knicks' desperation for a point guard. Between trying to keep hold of his career and personal life within the center of the perfect storm, he lost an inevitable measure of earnestness to perhaps an inevitable measure of cynicism.
"You have change," Lin says. "It just depends on how you change. The change that I never fall into is the, 'I'm-above-you-look-at-me-do-stuff-for-me change.' The change that I'm hoping I get to is where I become wiser, smarter – where I put myself in situations that don't have a huge potential for disaster."
Everything had come with those starry performances in February and gone with knee surgery in March. Eventually, he let his friends back closer in the spring, but nothing changes a wary eye, an uneasiness with trusting. Yes, New York spit him out in a most unceremonious way. From teammates trashing Lin, to the organization disowning him, to the media ridicule, the ending in New York delivered him a sobering primer on the realities of sporting commerce and celebrity.
Over and over, Lin insists that so much of the basketball criticism had been justified – yes, he turned the ball over far too much, he says – but Lin had always considered himself a work in progress, far from polished, and he assuredly insists that he never compared himself with the game's elite. In the end, Jeremy Lin became a flash point on race and opportunity, and even Harvard doesn't prepare a kid for all of that.
Most of all, this past year reinforced one of the most important talents a point guard can own: an ability to rise above the chaos, make smart, shrewd choices in chaotic, congested moments.
"I get scared of a lot of attention," Lin says. "I get scared of the spotlight. And I'm not talking about on the basketball court. So I was just in shock when everything happened. I was startled about it all. I just thought, 'Oh man, I wish some of this stuff could slow down.'
"Over time, I became more and more used to do it. I became more savvy about it, able to get a better perspective about it. I was able to open up more.
"Now, I'm at the point where if I meet somebody, I look at their reaction: If it's over the top, that's a huge red flag. … I won't let any of my friends become a fan. To me, you're either a friend or you're a fan. That doesn't mean my friends can't support me, because they all do, but they can't treat me differently than they would treat someone else. None of my friends are in awe of me."
When Lin agreed to that offer sheet with the Rockets, neither he nor the organization ever believed it wouldn't be matched. New York encouraged him to get it, and he did. "I signed it, and I thought I was going back to New York," he says.
In his mind now, it turned out to be a blessing. After knee surgery, he's still finding his way back, still searching for his own game, and the resentment that existed for him from Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, the reluctance they had about him running the Knicks, would've made difficult his growth in New York. Woodson was far more respectful, but simply wasn't interested with incorporating Lin into his vision.
New York can be so many spectacular things in basketball, but a home to figure out your place in the game isn't among them.
"I just turned 24 and I'm pretty much the average age here," Lin says. "There I would be the second- or third-youngest. And I would be in a position to have to lead with so much still to learn; with so much urgency for everything to happen now. I do feel like for my career, I'm in a better position in Houston.
"Here, we're learning together. It's almost like we're thrown into the fire and you've got to figure it out. And the best part is that we have a coach [Kevin McHale] who knows exactly what he's doing to lead and guide us. It's different, because we're so young, we're going to have to make mistakes, and grow."
And slowly, surely, Lin learns to let everyone closer again, lets himself understand that his growing bond with Harden could be the most important element to his career now. Where does he want the ball? What drives him? Those are all questions he's pursuing answers about now, just as he's trying to understand where and why and how his Asian-American heritage fits into this basketball journey.
Finally, far from New York, far from where he needed the answers yesterday, Jeremy Lin says with a laugh that's part knowing, part relief: "The great thing about it is that I don't have to figure it out all at once."
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