Two-plus weeks into the Jeremy Lin Era, you’ve no doubt heard the odd reference to one Billy Ray Bates. When basketball sage of yore Bob Ryan recently did a podcast with heir apparent Bill Simmons, Billy Ray’s out-of-nowhere emergence in 1980 was held up as the only apt comparison. Indeed, Ryan — whose stellar work for the Boston Globe in the 1970s and ‘80s fueled my interest in sports writing — claims to have been the first to make the Billy Ray analogy.
Not so. I believe I can claim to have made it almost immediately — not only because I, too, revere David Halberstam’s iconic book, “Breaks of the Game”, in which Billy Ray’s legend figures prominently, but because I stare Mr. Bates in the face every day when I sit down in my barn office. Yes, I own the poster pictured here and have since 1981. I only wish I’d have taken better care of it through the years. I mean, how many of these can there be out there?
Listen to the podcast linked above. It’s 45 minutes of all-world basketball chatter. But it should be said that even the Billy Ray analogy doesn’t quite fit (despite the fact that he, too, was cut by the Rockets before signing the 10-day contract that stuck). Bates was a brawny, 6’4” shooting guard, not a point guard like Lin. What’s more, he wasn’t completely unknown and unheralded: Billy Ray was voted Rookie of the Year in the Continental Basketball Association, the D League of its day; he won the CBA All-Star Game dunk contest and is reported to have broken no less than four backboards. Even in the media dark ages of 1980, word like that gets around.
In other ways, Lin has a ways to go in order to produce the same impact. Billy Ray was a gunner par excellence — he once scored 40 points (in 32 minutes) against the San Diego Clippers, and 35 in 25 minutes against the Mavericks — but he saved his best for the playoffs, averaging 25 ppg in the 1980 tournament and 28.3 ppg a year later (still a franchise record).
So while the Billy Ray-Jeremy comparison might be the best we can identify in the long history of the NBA, it’s not perfect — which merely speaks further to the truly anomalous goings-on in New York these days. The point guard aspect makes it completely unique. There simply isn’t any sort of precedent for a point guard emerging from developmental-league obscurity to score and dish on this scale.
If we mine the point guard vein a little deeper, we begin to better understand the evolution of this phenomenon. Lin was an excellent high school player and solid contributor on some decent Harvard teams, decent for the Ivy League anyway. But he never starred or produced anything like the numbers we’ve seen these last few weeks. Further, he was cut by both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets this year. Clearly he didn’t show this sort of offensive firepower in either place.
Why? Well, because he was doing what he’d always done, what marginal back-up point guards in the NBA are supposed to do — that is, run the offense and avoid mistakes.
Lin himself has said that he was determined in New York to try something else — clearly what he was doing in Houston and Oakland weren’t working. This is not the same ol’ Jeremy Lin now setting the League on fire. It’s a radical departure, of his own making. That he landed in New York beside a coach who doesn’t care about defense (Lin remains a suspect defender) and encourages such aggressive (some would argue reckless) offensive hedonism is either blind luck, fate, or both.
Perhaps without knowing it, Lin changed his game in New York by channeled his inner Billy Ray.