GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Before about a week ago, the Erie (Pa.) BayHawks’ most famous alumnus was Ivan Johnson, a rookie forward now averaging 5.5 points a game with the Atlanta Hawks.
“We had Ivan Johnson last year,” Erie coach Jay Larranaga told SNY.tv Monday during a phone interview. “He’s been a pretty big story for the Hawks who we’re very proud of as well.”
As grand as Johnson’s stint in Erie was — he averaged 22.6 points in 49 games with the NBA D-League outfit — he has already been supplanted in BayHawks’ lore.
You see, a young man named Jeremy Lin played one game for Erie on Jan. 23 against the Maine Red Claws in Portland, Me. All he did was put up a triple-double of 28 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds in a 122-113 win.
What’s that guy up to now, anyway?
“He’s the most famous basketball player in the world,” Larranaga said with a laugh.
Yes, it was a different time when Lin played in Erie. Nicknames like Linsanity and the Lin Dynasty had yet to be coined.
Lin and Knicks teammate Jerome Jordan were sent down by interim general manager Glen Grunwald Jan. 17 in an effort to get them some playing time because they weren’t getting much with the Knicks.
“They’ll be back pretty soon,” Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni said Jan. 18 before the Knicks lost the fourth game of a six-game losing streak to Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns. “There’s not enough practices. They were just sitting there. We do want them to play and be in game condition in case you need them. This is the perfect time to do it now.”
Up until that point, Lin had appeared in five games for the Knicks and scored just five points while dishing two assists. There was no indication — none — he was anything more than a backup, stop-gap type of point guard in case Toney Douglas or Iman Shumpert got hurt.
Larranaga said that some guys have trouble adapting to being sent down to the D-League, but that Lin and Jordan were exceptions.
“It’s a difficult time for certain guys to get assigned to the D-League,” he said. “You know, they look at it as a demotion and neither Jeremy nor Jerome looked at it that way.
“They looked at it as an opportunity for Jeremy to play in game conditions.”
Lin himself called his time in Erie valuable. He was not unfamiliar with the D-League, having spent several stints there last season with the Reno Bighorns, the Golden State Warriors’ affiliate.
“It definitely helped me because they run the same system in Erie and I think that’s proper development, I guess,” Lin said Monday at Knicks’ practice. “It helped me a lot and Jerome a lot, too, actually, just learning to work together, work the pick and roll, understand the chemistry, the flow, the pace.”
Larranaga said Lin was the perfect teammate during his brief stint in Erie.
“From the first practice, it was noticeable that Jeremy first of all had a personality and a spirit about him that other players gravitate to,” Larranaga said. “He had an energy about him the way he approached practice, the way he approached the travel.
“This is a team he joined and two days later, he’s organizing everyone going to the movies together and organizing what are we getting to eat and then picking up the tab, on a team he had known for two days. He just knows the right thing to do and the right situation and I think that’s why people love playing with him. He’s a great teammate.”
Before and after the game in Maine, Larranaga emailed with Grunwald and Erie GM Allan Houston “just giving them feedback.”
After the triple-double performance, Lin sat out Erie’s next game with a sprained ankle and was then recalled by the Knicks, along with Jordan, on Jan. 23.
Part of the motivation in recalling Lin and Jordan was that rookie Josh Harrellson had fractured his wrist and Baron Davis’ ever-vague timetable remained vague.
“That’s why we brought the two kids back from the D-League and we’ll be able to go three-on-three , four-on-four, maybe even five-on-five, but we’ll have enough to where we can practice,” D’Antoni said then.
Still, Grunwald, D’Antoni and Larranaga could have never imagined what would come next.
Since stepping in to play major minutes against the Nets Feb. 4, Lin has led the Knicks to a 5-0 record, 4-0 as a starter. He was named the NBA Eastern Conference Player of the Week, becoming the first player to win the award in the NBA and the D-League, where he earned it with Reno.
The 109 points he scored in his first four NBA starts is more than Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jordan.
“I don’t think anyone could expect a young point guard to come in and break the scoring record of the first four starts of Michael Jordan,” Larranaga said. “I don’t think anyone would expect that.”
No, but now that he’s done it, it’s safe to say Jeremy Lin has eclipsed Ivan Johnson as the most famous Erie BayHawk of them all.