New York’s Salsa Sensation Gives Way to Lin-sanity

COMMENTARY | They say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.

Nothing though, is usually mentioned about young, phenom athletes doing that unexpectedly and instantaneously.

Yet, such was the case for New York Giants’ wide receiver Victor Cruz this past season, and currently, for New York Knicks’ point guard Jeremy Lin so far.

Those last two words are the key in that comparison.

While there are some remarkable and legitimate parallels to be drawn between New York’s two overnight sports sensations, Lin still has – even if the most staunch defenders of Lin-sanity aren’t willing to accept it right now – a lot left to prove.

In fairness, by the very nature of each sport, having to silence doubters over a lot more games, Lin might have the more daunting challenge in that regard, in basketball, than Cruz did in football.

Still, one thing can’t be debated. While each player had a major role in saving their team’s respective seasons, Cruz has helped the Giants achieve his sport’s ultimate goal, while Lin has simply gotten off to a terrific start.

Of course, you’d never know it from the attention Lin’s exploits have received relative to that for Cruz’s accomplishments.

Cruz quickly became one of the best stories in the New York City area and across the National Football League.

Lin, on the other hand, was already receiving premature M!V!P!” chants by supposedly savvy Knick fans at Madison Square Garden, after scoring 25 points off the bench in what was only the first game of what immediately ignited an eventual Lin-ternational movement.

Just five games later, President Obama was referencing Lin’s game winning three-pointer in Toronto on Tuesday night, which brought the house down on ironically, Asian Heritage night at the Air Canada Centre.

Amazingly, a player who has been nothing short of extraord-Lin-ary during his first seven games in his team’s regular rotation, was actually cheered on the road, making a game in Canada sound like a Knick home game.

With 27 more points, 11 more assists, and a buzzer-beater in that contest, the Knicks’ new offensive sparkplug fueled the love affair worldwide, turning a normal mid-February holiday into one all his own, as fans globally celebrated Va-Lin-tine’s Day for the first time.

Conversely, Cruz, despite setting a Giants’ franchise record of 1,536 receiving yards, ranking second in his conference, inexplicably failed to make the Pro Bowl, let alone gain prominence as a star athlete outside of the United States (not even in Latin America, for his salsa dancing!).

But Lin, the first American-born Taiwanese player in the National Basketball Association, isn’t just huge in New York and across America the way Cruz became during the 2011 NFL season, but he has superseded his sport.

Within the span of less than a week, the letters in the name “Lin” rapidly took on the meaning “Legend In New York.” And, in the following week, Lin made those who never watch basketball suddenly tune in and become Lin-toxicated as far away as Asia and Europe.

Before we all get too Lin-spired too soon though, it’s worth noting that some of the hype surrounding both Cruz and Lin is due to each playing in the world’s biggest media market, and in the case of Lin’s ridiculously fast ascension to stardom, both Lin’s rare background for an NBA star and the technology-driven age in which he’s competing have played a role in making Lin seem downright Lin-vincible.

America has always loved an underdog, especially ones like Cruz and Lin who through sheer hard work, perseverance, and determination (and yes, talent absolutely helps a lot as well), overcome great odds and an atypical pre-professional pedigree to make it big.

That’s especially true in New York, which can springboard players like Cruz and Lin into widespread celebrity better than any other city with a high-profile pro sports team.

Where Cruz and Lin part company is in Lin carrying the torch as the vastly uncommon Asian player to get noticed in the NBA, whereas Cruz is another in a long line of African American (albeit, also Puerto Rican) wide receivers to attain success in the NFL.

Another difference is in the seemingly limitless (or, if you prefer, the Lin-itless) reach social media and smartphones have, both of which has helped Lin’s story take on a life of its own faster than the Knick point guard can go coast-to-coast for a crowd-energizing layup.

Throughout today’s instant gratification society, the public, and sports fans in particular, crave immediate information, and they’re programmed with a constant need to process that data and come to a conclusion without letting things play out as they should (just look at the 2011 season of Denver Broncos’ quarterback Tim Tebow).

Could Cruz have a very average career from this point? Sure, although it’s not likely since he has thus far demonstrated more than Lin.

The season that was just completed by the 25-year-old Cruz will be remembered best for Cruz’s big plays in huge games. As well it should. But, Cruz’s best three-game stretch (22 catches, 404 receiving yards, each game well over 100 yards, three touchdowns) occurred during the tail-end of the Giants’ four-game losing streak, against some very tough competition in his own conference.

Even then, Cruz was producing.

We don’t know yet if Lin will do the same against the likes of the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Philadelphia 76ers, or Atlanta Hawks.

All we know is that Lin has looked tremendous against six teams mired in last place or next-to-last place, and (despite outscoring Kobe Bryant) at home, against a Los Angeles Lakers squad which has lost twice as many road games as it has won this season.

It’s still a huge leap to go from that to what Cruz has – a world championship ring.

Not only did Cruz shine in regular season wins or in losses to good teams, he also led team his when it mattered most.

A record-setting 99-yard touchdown catch and 164 yards in Week 16 against the New York Jets carried the Giants from a 7-7 record and a season the brink of ruin, to serious playoff contention.

One week later, 178 more yards, a key 74-yard touchdown catch, and a huge 44-yard reception in the final minutes by Cruz dispelled the Dallas Cowboys, and were among the biggest factors in helping the Giants to a division title.

He then drew so much attention in a wild-card playoff win over the Atlanta Falcons, and the following week, during an upset victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, that receiving mate Hakeem Nicks was free enough to take over the lead in directing the Giants to a conference title game. And, Cruz still chipped in with five important catches for 74 yards in Green Bay.

After that, the Giants rode Cruz’s ten receptions for 142 yards in San Francisco to the Super Bowl, where Cruz continued to play a vital role in his team’s success.

Adding four more catches, including the game’s first touchdown, Cruz once again had the defense drawn to him enough to allow not just Nicks to have another big night (ten catches for 109 yards), but to force the New England Patriots’ defense to focus on he and Nicks so much, that third option Mario Manningham was able to make a crucial catch that set up a last-minute, Super-Bowl winning touchdown.

Given all of that, the 23-year-old Lin still has much to show to vindicate (or even, Lin-dicate) his wonderful, yet over-exposed, and to some degree, overhyped story.

For the moment however, the potential remains high for Lin, whose journey to the pros matches that of Cruz’s in several respects.

Both players starred at small-program, Massachusetts universities – Cruz, at the Football College Subdivision level at UMass, and Lin at the lower mid-major Harvard, which including Lin, has produced nearly three times as many U.S. presidents (eight) as NBA players (three).

Each was then overlooked and went undrafted. And, each had to persist to chase down a lifelong dream after sitting behind others who kept getting chances before them.

The first opportunity for Cruz came two years ago, when he opened eyes with some spectacular circus catches, including a trio of touchdown receptions in a preseason game against the Jets, before a hamstring injury ended his regular season early, without a catch.

Similarly, Lin raised some eyebrows by outplaying guard John Wall, the top overall draft pick in 2010, in a summer league game prior to Wall’s rookie season.

Although he was a fan favorite playing before a large Asian population near his native Palo Alto, California for the Golden State Warriors last year, Lin was used too sparingly to make much of an impact, and he was later cut by the Warriors when he was beaten out for the backup point guard spot by former Hofstra University star Charles Jenkins before this season began.

Golden State passing on Lin at that time was analogous to the Giants’ lack of confidence in Cruz early last season.

Unimpressed with Cruz’s ability to catch on in an abbreviated training camp caused by the NFL’s offseason lockout, the Giants resorted to signing washed-up 12-year veteran Brandon Stokley following a disappointing Week 1 loss in Washington during which Cruz was targeted only twice and made no catches.

Then, just weeks after possibly being cut did Cruz begin to show what he could do.

Just like Lin did, only after guards Toney Douglas, Iman Shumpert, and Mike Bibby all failed to give the Knicks what they needed at the point guard position, and after Baron Davis’ bad back couldn’t heal in time to prevent Lin from being cut from an NBA team for a third time.

Following Cruz’s lead though, after being cut by the Houston Rockets and making a couple of NBA Developmental League stops along the way, Lin finally made the most of his opportunity and etched his name into the record books once he reached New York.

There’s also the comparable approach shared by Cruz and Lin – one filled with the admirable traits of humility, a strong work ethic, believing in putting one’s team first, and recognizing that when the opportunity of a lifetime knocks, it must be answered with all the vigor and pursuit one can muster.

So now, as the schedule will get tougher for the Knicks, as star forward Carmelo Anthony returns to the fold, and as Anthony’s ex-teammate in Denver, fellow first-round draft pick, Guard J.R. Smith, could soon reunite with Anthony in New York via a potential free-agent signing, a few questions linger:

Can New York’s newest star from virtually out of nowhere keep Rol-Lin’ and can the Knicks keep Lin-ning?

Will Lin’s magical tale continue to have legs, at least as good as the pair that Cruz used to rewrite NFL history and win his first league championship?

Certainly, Knicks’ head coach Mike D’Antoni, who has labeled his latest point guard “Lin-derella,” is hoping to see more Lin-credible things being done with an orange basketball before Lin wakes up and turns into a pumpkin.

If D’Antoni might be worried that Lin’s historic ride could fizzle out like the rollercoaster season that ended on a sharp downturn for Tebow, he should be bolstered by the fact that unlike Tebow, Lin can actually pass.

That could be the biggest thing that keeps the Lin buzz alive. Perhaps, to Lin-finity and beyond.

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