Jeremy Lin’s season lasted 43 minutes and seven seconds last year. Lin, who had gone up for a layup, came down hard. He grabbed his right knee, his mouth gaping in shock, and shook his head as if he couldn’t believe it. Then he started to cry.
In the ensuing months, there were times he thought his career was over, he said. He played only 36 games after signing with the Nets in 2016, and this lag time meant that except for that one game he would be out of the league for more than a year and a half by the time he got back.
“There’s times where you go through the rehab process where you’re like, man, I don’t know if my body is going to be the same,” Lin, now coming off the bench for the Hawks, said Wednesday at the Garden. He played 14 minutes and improved as the night progressed, scoring eight points with five rebounds and an assist in a 126-107 loss to the Knicks.
“I don’t even know if, when I come back, I can stay healthy. A lot of these negative thoughts have come into my mind the last two years. It’s like nothing is guaranteed. I’m healthy today, but you never know. The game can be taken away in half a second.”
Gone are Lin’s signature hairstyles — it’s spiky and cut short along the sides — and gone, too, is a sliver of his confidence, something coach Lloyd Pierce said they’re working to get back, step by step. Both lived in the Bay Area when Lin was growing up, and Pierce has been following his career since high school.
“I want to get his spirit back,” Pierce said. “We’ve got a guy that played one game last year, 34 or 35 games the year before that, coming off of injuries — there’s some things there. I’m looking to recreate Linsanity tonight.”
He was joking, but he wasn’t. Pierce has no expectation that Lin can recreate that heady time during the 2011-2012 season where the then-Knicks point guard took over the city. But he wouldn’t mind some of the Linsanity era swagger back, he said.
Lin, when told of his coach’s comments, wanted to make doubly sure that Pierce was joking about the Linsanity thing. Lin said he doesn’t like focusing too much on the past, though there’s not much of a chance to escape it when you come back to MSG. That’s OK, because he said there’s no more fitting place to make his return.
“If I go through tonight, opening night, and I didn’t have a ton of fun — regardless of whether I play well or not, regardless of whether we win or not — if I didn’t have a ton of fun, if I didn’t soak in those moments of being able to play basketball again, then I’ll consider this a failure,” he said. “I think I’m just going to be really excited, really grateful ... In a lot of ways, I made it. I made it back.”
Lin was disappointed with how things ended with the Nets, who brought him on to be the face of the franchise, then traded him this offseason. With Atlanta, he’s starting from the bottom. The expectations are tempered. The first goal is health.
“I always felt like I had unfinished business. I always felt like I was there for an opportunity that never really came,” he said of the Nets.
Lin hasn’t lost any of his thoughtfulness or candor, and readily admits he still isn’t where he used to be. He’s not defeated, though: He’s still only 30, he’s progressing, and every day is a step closer.
“The toughest thing about coming back is definitely getting up to the level you were before, whether it’s speed, your rhythm, your explosiveness, your shot, your decision-making — the longer you’re out, the harder it is,” he said. “I don’t know if they are where they used to be right now, today, but that’s all right. I know it’s a process.
“I’ve been gone a long time.”