In the early hours of his NBA career, one scheduled to be painfully brief, the undrafted and unwanted Jeremy Lin predicted he would be an All-Star within three years. He had spent a little time competing against the pros in practices and summer games, and came away believing he belonged in a big way.
"All I need is an opportunity," he told those around him, and the perpetually desperate New York Knicks finally gave him one. On the verge of firing Lin just like the Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets had done before, the Knicks threw him out there and watched one of the most improbable basketball stories ever told unfold on their watch.
And now they're prepared to give Lin away for nothing. Forget for a moment the global marketing phenomenon that Lin represented, and what he meant to Madison Square Garden stock in February and what he's likely to be worth in merchandising, sponsorships, and ratings and rights deals to the team that employs him.
This is a 23-year-old point guard with a chance, a legitimate one, to become something of a star, and the Knicks are about to let him return to Houston without even getting a second-round pick in return.
Any successful business needs to protect its prime assets, and the Knicks aren't protecting one of their own. One of the smartest NBA fans I know emailed me the box score from Knicks-Lakers at the Garden, the one showing Lin with 38 points, 7 assists, 13 field goals in 23 attempts, and 10 free throws in 13 attempts.
"You can't fake this box," the fan wrote.
Jeremy Lin didn't fake anything in his 15 minutes as a Knick. He tore through the league before he tore up his knee, and in between ran into a Miami Heat team hell-bent on stamping out the raging fires of Linsanity. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade went at Lin the way Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen went at Toni Kukoc in the '92 Olympics, and hard lessons were taught and learned.
People who believe Lin to be a fluke, a figment of Mike D'Antoni's imagination, forever default back to that game in Miami before the All-Star break, when an exhausted Lin looked hopelessly lost. But that night was merely a case of a rookie quarterback running up against a fiercely determined defense. Lin is bound to become a better quarterback for that experience, not a weaker one.
The injury robbed him of a second crack at the Heat in the playoffs, and maybe another crack at enhancing his stock in free agency. The Knicks could've signed him out of the gate for four years and about $24 million, and instead they gambled that Lin wouldn't find a better offer elsewhere.
They lost that gamble. Lin signed a Rockets offer sheet worth $25.1 million over three years, including a $14.8 million wage in the final season designed to luxury tax the Knicks into oblivion if they match. This all happened after Lin beat his old team with the kind of head fake he used on Kobe and the rest in February, verbally agreeing to a $19 million guarantee and a more palatable $9.3 million wage in Year 3 and inspiring Mike Woodson to promise that the Knicks would match and that Lin would start.
Those turned out to be Rex Ryan guarantees.
Enraged that Lin took those assurances back to the negotiating table in Houston -- ESPNNewYork.com reported last week that Lin was pushing for more cash from Houston -- the Knicks responded by bringing back a cheaper alternative, Raymond Felton, and by telling Lin to get lost. According to a source close to the situation, Jim Dolan, a notorious grudge-holder, feels betrayed that the Harvard kid took him to school after the Knicks gave him his big shot.
Never mind that the Knicks were ready to waive Lin before he went off on Deron Williams and the Nets. Never mind that the Knicks got rid of Felton when it suited their needs last year despite his loyal service under D'Antoni. Never mind that business is business in the NBA, where it's understood that management and players always cut the best deals they can cut.
The Knicks are making this personal, and letting their emotions shape a decision that should be made at room temperature. There's no good reason to believe that Lin, a better player than Felton last year, won't be a better player than Felton next year and beyond.
Lin is four years younger, with a greater upside. As for the Knicks' pressing concern that Lin's third-year salary will saddle them with four players (including Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler) eating up $75 million, leaving them with a luxury tax bill in the tens of millions, what happened to the one positive Dolan forever brought to the table -- his willingness to spend, spend, spend?
Does he no longer share Mikhail Prokhorov's hunger for the no-budget kill? And shouldn't the Knicks be confident they can move one of those expiring contracts in the summer of 2014 -- say, Stoudemire's $23 million -- to a team that is under the salary cap and looking for another big deal to dump from its books in 2015?
The Knicks keep saying they're in a win-now mode, and yet there's no way Felton over Lin is a win-now proposition. Put the Miami Heat on truth serum and ask them if they'd prefer the Knicks with Felton, who's already maxed out, or with Lin, who could flower into the real thing.
Or ask these three Hall of Famers I polled about Lin during the season.
Willis Reed: "Jeremy Lin reminds me so much of Walt Frazier. It's how Jeremy controls the game, gets the ball to the right people for easy baskets, the lobs he's throwing to Tyson Chandler -- it all reminds me of Clyde."
Bob Cousy: "He's got the physical skills to reach a good, very good, or great level in this league. He's exactly what the Knicks needed, a leader and someone to distribute the ball as opposed to a bunch of guys just letting it fly."
Pete Carril: "Jeremy's innocent, he's young, he has no agenda, he throws the ball to the right guy. He's awfully fast, he can shoot, he can dribble and it doesn't look like he cares about playing for stats or money."
As it turned out, Lin does care about playing for money. He had every right to go for the big bucks, especially after half the NBA told him he wasn't good enough to remain employed, and the most recent franchise to cut him, Houston, decided to make him rich.
Anthony said he wanted Lin back, but called the $25.1 million contract "ridiculous." You know what's really ridiculous?
Ditching a 23-year-old player who saved the season and getting nothing in return.