Jeremy Lin, fresh off winning an NBA championship with the Toronto Raptors, made his much-anticipated Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) debut on Sunday night for the Beijing Ducks, leading the team to a 108-81 win against the Tianjin Pioneers in Tianjin.
While his numbers were modest relative to the hype — 25 points and 9 assists — Ducks fans nonetheless are hoping that this is the first step toward a revival of “Linsanity,” a nickname the 31-year-old earned in 2012 over a torrid two-week stretch while playing for the New York Knicks. During that stretch, the undrafted guard out of Harvard led the Knicks on a seven-game winning streak, outplaying the likes of Kobe Bryant and hitting a buzzer-beater in Toronto that delighted the opposing fanbase.
I was lucky enough to be in New York in right when Linsanity was at its peak. Watching him pick apart the Sacramento Kings in front of a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden, I experienced the excitement and buzz firsthand. Wherever I went in the city, I would hear chatter about his latest performance. He adorned the cover of Sports Illustrated and was front-page news in the New York Times.
Linsanity, however, ended quickly, first with the return of Carmelo Anthony, then with the firing of coach Mike D’Antoni, and then, finally, with a knee injury that required surgery. Lin signed with the Houston Rockets as a free agent, but could never rekindle his previous success. Five teams later — most recently with the Raptors as a little-used bench player — he found his services no longer needed in the NBA.
Playing his CBA debut in a small gym at the Tianjin University of Finance and Economics, the contrast from MSG in Midtown Manhattan couldn’t have been starker. Gone were the Mike Tysons and the Al Gores of the world sitting courtside. No one waved signs reading, “Are you not Lin-tertained” (Gladiators reference) and “All we do is Lin Lin Lin” (DJ Khaled reference). A few spectators wore Lin jerseys from his NBA days — the Knicks, Nets, and Hawks — but not much else suggested this game was extraordinary.
Still, fans knew who Lin was. Each time he brought the ball up the crowd, the crowd seemed to hush in anticipation. Tianjin and Beijing fans alike groaned audibly with each missed shot — Lin was off on his first five three-point attempts. (Before the game, Lin announced on his Douyin account that he would donate 3,000 yuan — just over $400 — to charity for every three-pointer he makes this season.)
Lin will be playing with the burden of expectation all season. The Beijing Ducks and their fans know what a dominant foreign star should look like, because they had Stephon Marbury, who is revered across China after playing seven dominant seasons and leading the Ducks to three CBA championships. What remains to be seen is if Lin has the same sort of drawing power across China as Marbury did. So far, signs are positive: Tianjin fans applauded every time Lin made a bucket, yet bizarrely also booed and heckled him as he stood at the foul line to shoot free throws.
Lin, for his part, looked like he wanted to impress, diving on the hardwood and driving hard into the lane. He was left with a bloody gash on his knee for his efforts. Given his rocky journey across nine different teams in the NBA and a disappointing free agency where no team would offer him a spot, Lin knows all too well not to get caught up in the highs and lows of professional basketball. But given his online popularity in China and his proven ability to take over games, his fans at least can be forgiven for expecting more: Linsanity 2.0, or bust?