In March, Lin tried to sneak into a Harvard-Columbia game in New York, wearing a hoodie over his bowed head. But Spike Lee, also at the game, yelled at him, "Jeremy, you gotta stand up! You gotta stand up, baby! Stand up!" Lin then sheepishly rose to offer a quick wave, and before long fans were passing him business cards. He rarely left his room at the downtown W Hotel again, unless it was for practice or a game. "I was pretty much eating in my room every night," Lin says. "I could probably recite the menu to you. My go-tos: steak sandwich, salmon, and tuna tartare."
How insulated was he? Not until April, when his season was over because of a meniscus tear in his left knee, did Lin see Times Square. "I didn't even know where it was," he says. "I actually thought Koreatown was Times Square." When he worked up the courage to go, with a cousin in town from Taiwan, he went at night, wearing glasses and a baseball cap pulled low. "I was seeing my picture and my apparel everywhere," Lin recalls. "I had never walked into a store and seen my T-shirts or jerseys on sale. I was like, Whoa. Wow." Lin fit with New York only in terms of business and basketball. Asked to pinpoint his most challenging moment, he says, "The whole time. I think the toughest part was the lack of privacy. I'm a very private person. When people approach me on the street, I still get nervous."
Even so, he wanted to play for the Knicks—he felt no fright before the crowd at the Garden, which he loved—and assumed he would. A restricted free agent, Lin needed just one offer for them to match, so on July 4 he took a recruiting trip to Houston. On the video board outside the Toyota Center was a message that read, WELCOME BACK JEREMY. A photo of him in a Rockets uniform hung in the locker room. The last time Morey talked to him had been Christmas Eve. They had both been through a lot. "I'm sorry," Morey began.
Lin celebrated the Rockets' initial offer by treating 15 friends and relatives to steak and lobster the next night at Scott's Seafood, a restaurant back home in Palo Alto, Calif. The following night was dinner with coaches at Sundance, a local steakhouse. As Lin feasted, Houston only grew hungrier. After they traded starting point guard Kyle Lowry to Toronto and lost backup Goran Dragic to Phoenix as a free agent, the Rockets were stuck with 10 forwards, no true center and nobody to run the offense. Alexander told Morey, "We should be more aggressive."
The Rockets raised the offer to Lin to $25.1 million, including a $14.9 million "poison pill" in the third and final year, which would send the Knicks deeper into the luxury tax, where they have taken up permanent residence. "Poison pill?" former Knicks guard Landry Fields mused to the MSG Network. "That's a Tic Tac for James Dolan." But New York's billionaire owner found it hard to swallow, having also declined to match an offer sheet from Toronto for Fields. "This was the best structure to give us the best shot," Morey says now. "They seemed to get upset at us."
Knicks executives were in Las Vegas for summer league, and when a Rockets emissary delivered the offer sheet to their hotel, a receptionist said, "They're not accepting packages." New York, which would have 72 hours to act once it received the offer sheet, was stalling. Forward Carmelo Anthony called the contract "ridiculous." Guard J.R. Smith said it could provoke resentment in the locker room. Regardless, Morey never believed Dolan wouldn't match. "I thought they were doing a Sam Young shot-fake the whole time," Morey says. "I was like, 'I'm not going to bite.'"
But come 11 p.m. Tuesday, Lin was a Rocket, and one of the first congratulatory text messages came from a student at Shanghai's Jiaotong University named Yao Ming. Lin met Yao two years ago, at Yao's charity game in Taiwan. "The culture of the team is very down-to-earth," Yao wrote in an e-mail. "Everyone can be more united in this environment." The Knicks still have not commented on Lin's departure and told staffers not to invoke his name publicly.
After Lin checked into the Four Seasons, he bypassed the room-service menu and went to dinner at Katsuya with Chandler Parsons, one of two returning starters for the young Rockets. Fans politely approached during the meal, along with a couple of real-estate agents, but Parsons provided a buffer. "What am I, chopped liver?" he said. The 23-year-old forward gave Lin a tour of Houston neighborhoods. "It's not New York," Parsons says. "It's not L.A. There's not going to be paparazzi. He can chill and not worry about things that get him in trouble."
Lin will mesh smoothly with McHale's up-tempo offense, which emphasizes the pick-and-roll. He will also fit into his new hometown, the most ethnically diverse city in the U.S.. (Houston's Asian-American population grew by 76% in the 1990s and by 45% in the 2000s.) The Rockets promptly announced that their season-ticket base had already grown nearly 10%, even though they are in a massive rebuild.
Houston is still bidding on All-Star centers, specifically Orlando's Dwight Howard and the Lakers' Andrew Bynum, using Lin as a lure. In the Yao days virtually every Rockets regular inked endorsement deals with Chinese sponsors, and Alexander founded an investment firm that focused on Far East markets. The owner downplays the business opportunities Lin affords—"Those other things are there," Alexander says, "but it's always a basketball decision"—while acknowledging that the NBA is more popular than ever in China. TV ratings there last season were up 21%, although the Rockets are no longer everyone's favorite franchise. "There are still Rockets fans," says Andy Yao, a close friend of Yao Ming, "but now there are also Lakers fans and Heat fans and Thunder fans."