Given the furor over six games of success by Jeremy Lin, it is almost frightening to imagine what might happen if the New York Knicks rookie helps his team to even a modicum of playoff success. Tabloid writers in the City could experience mental gridlock as they try to generate headline after headline based on puns spawned by the player’s last name. Spike Lee would probably enjoy the experience so much that he would act happy for a couple days. Cab drivers could become polite. One man could transform an entire town into Eden.
For now, the 24/7 news cycle is reveling in the six-game binge Lin has unfurled to begin his NBA career. Undrafted and discarded by two NBA teams, he settled at the end of the Knicks’ bench during the first month-plus of the season and received largely “garbage time” minutes in blowout wins or losses. Prior to his emergence as this month’s Greatest Player in the History of Mankind, Lin had played 20 minutes in a defeat at Houston and no more than seven in the other eight games in which he had participated.
Then came the eruption. And the frenzy. Over the past 11 days, the Harvard graduate has become a folk hero on the level of – dare I say – Tim Tebow. He has inspired the kind of attention usually reserved for champions and record-breakers. (Lin does hold the record for most points scored in his first five starts by a player who began his career after 1976-77.) His popularity has spawned analysis by sports journalists, as well as business writers, social critics and the world of education. His play helped Madison Square Garden Co. stock reach a record high and spawned runs on merchandise at sporting goods stores that resembled the shopping activity at grocery stores before a snow storm. ESPN is probably planning a mini-series about the guy.
It’s fun. It’s exciting. And it’s way too much.
There can be no denying the entertainment value of Lin’s play. The cultural significance of the first American-born player of Chinese ancestry (Lin’s family emigrated from Taiwan) is large. That it has all occurred in New York matters, as well, since it’s unlikely that such a performance would attract such nationwide tumult if it took place in Sacramento.
Lin capitalized on the absences of Knicks stars Carmelo Anthony (groin injury) and Amar’e Stoudemire (death in the family) to score in buckets and dominate the ball. Stoudemire returned to the lineup Tuesday night in Toronto, while Anthony is expected back soon. Their presence could limit Lin’s production, since each prefers to have copious opportunities to shoot. It’s likely Lin’s numbers will fall, though through no fault of his own.
Whatever happens, the media sensation around his first six games of full-time action has demonstrated just how starved outlets are for stories that captivate. Few people are writing or talking about whether Lin has what it takes to be a big-time star or if he is the type of point guard who will blend well with Anthony and Stoudemire. They’re not wondering if Lin’s skills will allow him to be a top NBA point guard for the long haul, and few are mentioning that he is averaging 5.2 turnovers during the past six games, a hefty number.
Nope, it’s all about the here and now. That makes sense from the Knicks’ point of view. Before embarking on their Lin-fueled six-game winning streak, New York was floundering in the nether reaches of the NBA’s Eastern Conference, looking very unlike a playoff contender. Lin’s play, at a time when the team’s two best – and most marketable – players were sidelined, was fortuitous and extremely beneficial to the Knicks’ marketing efforts. As a result of his play, ticket sales are up, merchandise dollars are pouring in and the team is able to maximize its social media efforts. A quick visit to the Knicks web page Wednesday morning yielded a greeting that encouraged fans to like the team on Facebook.
All of that is expected, since teams are always looking for ways to create excitement and revenue. The concerning thing is that the media is acting the same way. Lin provides an opportunity for a surge in traffic and interest, so outlets dive in. They celebrate the moment without providing perspective or objectivity. They glorify a young player who produces over a short period of time without stopping to consider what it really means. The existential approach has short-term benefits, but beyond that it creates a reactionary climate that paints the media as no more capable of controlling its excitement than the most rabid fan. If Lin’s production were to moderate, as reason suggests it will, papers, web sites, networks and other media likely will turn to the next hot thing, leaving Lin alone.
The question is whether media members should continue to satisfy fans’ cravings for ever-larger doses of athletes and teams that “move the needle” or if restraint is in order. Here’s a vote for restraint. It’s fun to read the headlines and listen to breathless commentators extol Lin’s virtues, but after too much it becomes almost cartoonish. And after every new sensation is celebrated as if he had just reinvented the game, the sports media begins to seem more like entertainment reporters, who largely lack the objectivity to cover a story credibly.
I wish Lin great success and prosperity. But let’s hope those charged with covering him have the sense to take a step back and realize that six games comprise but a nanosecond in an NBA player’s career. It’s good fun now, but too much of this erodes the trust in the media and makes it seem more interested in a quick buck than the big picture. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game (March 2), let’s keep in mind the difference between the truly spectacular and the heat of the moment.
That would be Lin-spiring.
Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on CSNPhilly.com, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.