As Lin Heads to Houston, Some Words of Caution

For Jeremy Lin, the basketball player who is turning his back on New York and heading to a city that pronounces its name funny, we have two words of caution: Cliff Lee. Actually, we have two more words: Joan Didion. We’ll get to that in a moment.

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

Mr. Lin electrified this city last winter with his emergence from seemingly nowhere to take a dead-from-the-neck-up basketball team, the New York Knicks, and inspire it to a level of respectability it had not known for years. This was one of the more successful marches out of the wilderness since Moses finally got his people to the river Jordan.

Even New Yorkers whose knowledge of professional basketball consists of a vague awareness that every 24 seconds or so 10 very tall men jump in the air found themselves caught up in a phenomenon that quickly came to be known as Linsanity.

This was an irresistible story: The soft-spoken son of immigrants from Taiwan, Harvard-educated no less, comes to the big city, has so little money that he sleeps on relatives’ and friends’ couches and then makes good in a sports league where people with his background are almost as hard to find as the Higgs boson.

Well, goodbye to all that, to steal from Ms. Didion.

Mr. Lin has signed with the Rockets of Houston, which is in no way to be confused with Houston Street. (In case you’ve wondered about the distinctions, the city pronounced Yoo-stin is named for Sam Houston, a leader of Texas independence from Mexico, while the Manhattan street pronounced How-stin honors with altered spelling a Georgia delegate to the Continental Congress, William Houstoun. Texans no doubt believe that we’re the ones who are saying it funny.)

The Knicks had until Tuesday night to match the Rockets’ offer and hold onto their young phenom. But for reasons too boring to go into here, it would have cost them tens of millions of dollars in league penalties. In the end, they decided that it was an awful lot of money to pay a fellow who had been a starting player in a mere 25 games and who may very well prove to be to basketball what iron pyrite is to gold.

Now die-hard New York sports fans are likely to spend the rest of the summer debating passionately whether the Knicks displayed supreme wisdom or cosmic foolishness. Some may wonder if City Hall, which practically got down on bended knee two years ago begging LeBron James to sign with the Knicks, might have hounded the team to take a deep breath and pay whatever was required to keep Mr. Lin.

A few may even wonder what the New York tabloids will do now that they won’t get to write all those Linsufferable plays on the man’s name in their headlines, day after day.

But maybe it’s Mr. Lin who is making a mistake.

Granted, it would be hard for anyone — especially a 23-year-old of unproven durability — to turn down $25 million, which is what Houston will pay him over the next three seasons. But if Mr. Lin is indeed the real thing, there would have potentially been many more millions to be made by staying in New York and reaping the benefits of a news media spotlight that burns hotter and brighter than anywhere else. He may yet regret this move.

That brings us to those words of caution.

New York went through something very much like this 19 months ago when Cliff Lee, a highly prized baseball pitcher, snubbed the Yankees and the city, and sold his services for nine figures to the seemingly unbeatable Philadelphia Phillies. Where are the Phillies today? Dead last in their division. And the New York-spurning Mr. Lee? His victory total this season can be counted on one finger. That’s right, one.

Then there’s Joan Didion. In her 1967 essay “Goodbye to All That,” she wrote how wonderful it had been in New York, but how she came to understand that “it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair.” She moved to California. “All I mean,” she wrote, “is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore.”

Ms. Didion is now even more not that young. But she moved back to New York years ago, and this is where she shares her magical thinking.

Mr. Lin just might want to keep that fact in mind. It could come in handy some day.


E-mail Clyde Haberman: [email protected]

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