|Jeremy Lin is only the fourth American-born Asian player in NBA history. (Getty Images)|
NEW YORK -- It was a different vibe at Madison Square Garden on Friday night, and when you go back in time and try to find something that compares, you come up with nothing.
There's been hype here before, and buzz, and the kind of energy that fills the place when everyone is standing and craning their necks during layup lines -- when thousands rise from their seats after a big shot, rising in the dimly lit, cavernous corners of the place, such a contrast to the brightly lit court.
You couldn't have expected all of that on this night, because this night couldn't possibly have lived up to the hype, to the billing on the famous marquee, or to the tabloid back pages.
"Kobe vs. Jeremy," they announced, and it didn't seem real. Seemed like the letdown had to be even bigger than the buildup. Seemed like this 6-3 point guard, undrafted out of Harvard, couldn't possibly conspire with the Garden mojo of Kobe Bryant and live up to all of this.
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And then, simply, he did.
Did he ever.
It was impossible, and yet it happened. I saw it happen.
Jeremy Lin, the Taiwanese sensation, has stormed seemingly out of nowhere to command the most brightly lit stage in the sport. The first time was a fluke. The first two starts were against the Jazz and Wizards.
Let's see him do this against the Lakers, against Bryant's Lakers, and then you've got something.
Lin, 23, topped all three of his breakout performances Friday night with 38 points and seven assists and led the Knicks -- without their two superstars, Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony -- to a 92-85 victory over the Lakers. His 89 points in his first three starts are the most by any player since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976-77.
"He played phenomenal," said Bryant, who had 34 points.
The headlines in Saturday's papers will be just as over-the-top as the ones from Friday -- "Lin outduels Kobe at MSG," etc. -- and Lin's emergence as a basketball and cultural phenomenon will continue to inspire countless interpretations across the globe. There will be plenty of time for that, to assess Lin's social significance as only the fourth American-born Asian player in NBA history, the first of Taiwanese descent and the first Harvard graduate to play in the league in 58 years.
But for now, there is only one way to put it, only one word that does justice to what transpired on an electric Friday night between Seventh and Eighth avenues, between 31st and 33rd streets.
"I think it's a great story," Bryant said. "It's a testament to perseverance, hard work, and I think it's a good example for kids everywhere. I'm sure he's certainly put a great deal of work in. He's always had that belief in himself, and he just now has the opportunity to do it. I think it'll be fun for the city here, obviously. Once they get Melo back and Amar'e back, it should be a lot of fun here."
Fun is what the Garden has been lacking for so long, the mere scent of it being sucked out of the place this season just when it seemed that the long basketball nightmare was over. And yes, in case you hadn't noticed, fun has been missing from the NBA, too. The 149-day lockout, the perpetual angst over which stars want to be traded, who wants to play with whom, who wants a bigger market or a stage more conducive to selling stuff -- and themselves.
Enough of that, please, for however long this Linsanity lasts.
"I am not really too worried about proving anything to anybody," said Lin, who has led the Knicks (12-15) to their second four-game winning streak of the season and will go for five Saturday in Minnesota -- against sensational Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio, no less. Twitter will break, I fear.
"As a team, we are growing, and I think everybody is buying into it and that is why we are becoming more dangerous," Lin said.
The night before in Boston, where Bryant's Lakers had beaten the Celtics in overtime, Bryant had remarked that he had "no idea what you guys are talking about" when he was questioned about facing Lin at the Garden. He watched video. He learned. And then he, the Lakers, 19,763 at MSG and millions watching on national TV saw what this was all about.
Lin scored nine of the Knicks' first 13 points and scored or assisted on all of their first 15. The Lakers called timeout, and from that point on, they sent one of their 7-footers to blitz Lin's pick-and-rolls, to try to disrupt him. Sometimes it worked. Most of the time, it did not.
It was only the first quarter, but Lin wasn't afraid of the moment. He wasn't afraid of the fourth quarter, either, not even when Bryant started feeling that Garden vibe of his and draining contested jumpers from spots all over the floor.
Mike D'Antoni, whose pick-and-roll offense finally, mercifully has someone to run it, subbed Lin back into the game after the Lakers cut the Knicks' lead to three, 70-67, with 9:26 left. Suddenly, the lead was nine ... 11 ... 13 ... even as Bryant kept doing his dastardly work at the other end. The Lakers never got closer than five the rest of the way.
"I don't know what to tell you," D'Antoni said. "I have never seen this. It is not often that a guy is going to play four games, the best you are going to see, and nobody knows who he is. That is hard to do."
Although it seems that way, Lin wasn't completely unknown. He didn't just take the 5:15 from Ronkonkoma one day and show up at the Garden and start playing. He had short stints with the Warriors and Rockets, but as an undrafted guy, there was no allegiance to him -- no necessity for him to stick. And as with all guys with non-guaranteed contracts, room has to be made for the guaranteed ones.
The Warriors and Rockets already have admitted their mistakes, but what's happened for Lin in New York isn't anybody's fault and couldn't have been foreseen. It was the perfect storm -- a floundering team whose offensively brilliant coach was barely coaxing 80-point nights out of a star-studded roster, while a new wave of malaise and angst hovered over the Garden.
"He's not a fluke," Knicks center Tyson Chandler said.
And he's not afraid. With Bryant unloading on the Knicks with a barrage of daggers -- like a double-clutch fall-away jumper and foul for a three-point play that cut the lead to 86-78 with four minutes left -- Lin kept attacking. And then, with 2:29 left and the lead still eight, Lin dribbled at the top of the 3-point circle and put up his hand to signal for patience. His gestures and body language showed that he was in control, until something good and fun happened, when he'd backpedal down the court with a big smile.
No green Gatorade stain on his tongue this time, but a smile that said it all.
With the floor spaced, he suddenly kicked into gear and drove straight into the heart of the Lakers' defense, all the way to the rim for a reverse layup. A dagger of his own.
"It's a completely different team," Chandler said.
And it is. And it will be again. Which brings us to the question of staying power for Lin, and whether this will run as smoothly as it has for four games once he gets his stars back -- particularly Anthony, one of the best isolation scorers in the game whose biggest strengths don't seem to mesh with what the Knicks are doing now.
"Melo's a hell of a scorer, and he has to do what he does best," Bryant said. "He's a great rebounder, tough on the offensive boards, and he's a handful on the block. I hope he has the stubbornness to stay with it and not let you guys talk him into changing anything about his game, because I damn sure wouldn't."
So that is the next step, the next challenge for the Knicks' new point guard phenom -- whose Twitter followers and newly minted No. 17 jersey sales are growing by the minute, and who's on the brink of becoming the biggest international sensation in the NBA since Yao Ming. His roots are in the most populated region on Earth, where basketball has exploded in popularity, and yet his influence collides with another phenomenon, religion, in a way that -- dare I say -- brushes dazzlingly close to the Tim Tebow effect.
Lin, who is devoutly religious and often mentions God in interviews, already has been called "a sort of Taiwanese Tim Tebow" by theNew York Times.
What happens when Anthony comes back? Will it work? Is it possible that Lin could unite billions of Asians, imbue religion into sports without drawing eyerolls, and yet not be able to play with one of the best scorers and most popular superstars in the game?
That's the drama, because despite this dose of uninhibited fun and raucousness, drama is always just around the corner in the NBA. But for now, spare me. Wake me up when Dwight Howard figures out what city he wants to play in, and with whom. Mail me a postcard when the next update on the chemistry between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade is available.
Let's enjoy this for a minute, shall we? Let's pretend we're Jeremy Lin and have some fun for once.