Exactly a year after undrafted Harvard point guard Jeremy Lin dropped 25 points and 7 assists on the New Jersey Nets to kick off 45 days of basketball craziness, the sports story that’s come closest to the phenomenon of Linsanity is its depressing mirror image. For the last month, America has been fixated on the tale of a devout Asian-American from a famed institution of higher learning. Only instead of getting a lucky break and becoming a superstar while sleeping on his friend’s couch, Manti Te’o made headlines for being the dopey, grandstanding victim of bizarre fake-girlfriend internet long-con.
Jeremy Lin and Manti Te’o’s stories both transcended the boundaries of the sports pages. Both were crazy tales with a uniquely modern American twist — Lin became an emblem of an immigrant group gone mainstream; Te’o became an emblem of online culture’s strange dark side. But today Lin is back to just being a basketball player, a relatively anonymous point guard for a mediocre team. If you want to talk Lin these days, you’re talking shooting percentage and pick and rolls — basketball stuff, not Cultural Phenomena. And that’s good news for Manti Te’o, who would probably give his firstborn for the biggest national Manti Te’o storyline to once again be his failure to take on Alabama blockers in the college football national title game.
Lin and Te’o both became famous thanks to our collective jones to find a good hero, and the mockery directed at Te’o is in some way the other shoe dropping on the Lin story. A humble, religious, family-oriented kid taking over a sport on its most historically prominent stage? That’s something we can all get behind, and, as many have observed, Te’o made us feel like suckers for doing so. That’s why his downfall has been mirthfully enjoyed in a manner that’s probably out of proportion to what he did, which was to be a bit of a dummy who melodramatically milked his time in the spotlight. But, of course, despite whatever cynicism his story might leave behind, there will be another Te’o, another larger-than-life character who takes over the national conversation, another Lance Armstrong, another LeBron James.
And just as there will always be casual fans to be transfixed by those new characters, there will always be die-hards to take them back once the magazine covers and talk shows are finished with them. Linsanity is over, but Jeremy Lin is not: Although his numbers have dipped across the board — all except for his minutes played; he’s already logged nearly double as much on-court time this season as he did in all of last — he’s not a flop. It doesn’t hurt that, in a fortuitous bit of angling by Rockets GM Daryl Morey, Lin was relieved of what could certainly have turned out to be a crushing burden, i.e., being the Guy in Houston — James Harden has gamely taken on that role. Instead, he’s the solid-and-still-improving 24-year-old starting point guard on a team in playoff contention. Basketball geeks wonder if he’ll be able to add a three-pointer to his repertoire, and wonder if the Rockets can acquire a star in the frontcourt to take pressure off Lin and Harden.
And so soon, maybe even by April’s draft, there will be football geeks who just want to talk about how Te’o could fit into a 4-3 defense. He’ll be just another prospect waiting to find out where he’ll make a living playing football. Very few athletes remain above the game for very long: Said game is huge, evolving, and full of other guys waiting to be shuffled into the Sauron eye of the world. Jeremy Lin’s time as a celestial being was historic — but it’s also history.