What Do Oil Barons, Rappers, and Jeremy Lin Have In Common?

How the Houston Rockets can find their team’s true identity.

Jeremy Lin with his fellow Houston luminaries, Bun B and Slim Thug. (Illustration by Kevin Lincoln)

The Knicks’ stupid and psychotic and ridiculous rejection of Jeremy Lin has a lot of people worked up. And Lin’s magnetism isn’t about to diminish; he’ll be in line for more attention next fall no matter how he plays. But a lot of people probably shared the same reaction to news of where he’s headed: “Hmm. That’s nice.” How can the mere mention of the Houston Rockets deflate something so powerful as humankind’s interest in Jeremy Lin?

It starts with the fact that adding Lin to Houston is like adding Lin to a blank sheet of paper. With Yao Ming, the Rockets were just recently a franchise so popular overseas that Tracy McGrady’s jersey often sold as well as Yao’s. Since Yao last played a full season in 2008-09, though, the Rockets have been rudderless, cobbling together capable but flawed and flavorless lineups from a mixture of late-blooming guards (Kyle Lowry, Aaron Brooks), role players (Kevin Martin, Luis Scola), and young guys with prep-shool names (Chase Budinger, Chandler Parsons.) GM Daryl Morey has shown a knack for acquiring decent pieces, but he’s missed out on the one or two major players that guys described as “pieces” need to be effective.

Although Lin doesn’t have the basketball potential that Yao did, he’ll help bring back some of the excitement of that time when Houston had one of the world’s most beloved stars. And certainly, he’ll help make Houston marketable overseas once again, which is short-term good news for Houston’s books. But on his own, Lin probably isn’t enough to give the entire franchise a coherent character, and succeeding in the NBA seems to hinge on Knowing Who You Really Are — as much on the court as it does off it. Think Oklahoma City’s swarming young offense and insane this-is-all-we-have fans or Minnesota’s burgeoning, incongruously flashy internationalism. It’s a strange meta-phenomenon: when your players are on the same page about their own media image, they seem to play better. (A good example of this happened last season when an unknown point guard turned a team whose superstars were injured into a squad of hustling, ball-sharing upstarts — you may have heard about it.)

So what do we do with the fact that the two most famous Asian basketball players of all time ended up in the same random Texas city? Where players land is, to a huge extent, coincidence: if the Rockets hadn’t had the first pick in the 2002 Draft, they wouldn’t have gotten Yao; if the Knicks had decided to match, they wouldn’t have gotten Lin. This Asian-hoops-hotbed identity becomes even cloudier in light of the other things Houston is known for: conservative oil executives, rappers drinking cough syrup, and obesity. Not easy to get from there to a single hook that has basketball-cultural resonance in the way of L.A.’s Showtime, or even something as relatively unconvincing as the Detroit Pistons’ early-aughts “blue-collar” defense-first squads. (Boxing out is like making a muffler!)

Lin has his work cut out for him. The scenario I’d like to see is this: Lin blossoms into the league’s best point guard, his Harvard economics degree and behind-the-back passes bringing Houston’s oil barons and hip-hop community together in admiration. His three-point shooting not only improves but begins to have healing properties a la the light touches of saints. During his spare time he helps Morey streamline the Rockets’ spending habits and erases the United States’ national debt solely through complicated arithmetic. As his legend grows, Lin turns down an offer to be the United Nations’ Secretary-General because too many now rely on his basketball-created miracles, but the globe unites behind him anyway, and we all live happily ever after, with Houston the capital of our benevolent Illuminati New World Order.

Or maybe Houston makes the playoffs, and we can go from there.

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