Tuesday, July 17, 2012 will go down as a historic and emotional moment in New York Knicks history. It’s officially the day that the Knicks parted ways with Jeremy Lin, the Asian-American point guard who electrified Madison Square Garden and became a global icon when he was inserted into the starting lineup in February. Lin led the team to a seven-game winning streak and showed that he could compete with the upper echelon of the NBA including a 38-point performance in a win against the Los Angeles Lakers and a double-double (28 points, 14 assists) in a victory over the defending champion Dallas Mavericks. He also sold more jerseys during the 2011-2012 regular season than any other player in the league (although he only played in 35 games). In July the Knicks refused to match the Houston Rockets’ three-year, $25.1 million offer to Lin that contained a $14.98 million balloon payment in the final season, which would have cost them more than $35 million in luxury-tax penalties. Knicks fans were under the impression that their team would match any offer made to Lin. According to sources it appeared that the Knicks were under the impression that they would be matching a three-year, $19 million-dollar deal and not the higher salary that Lin, a Harvard economics graduate, later restructured with Houston.
In the days after the contract was finalized the Knicks had no comment on what led to their decision and Lin only communicated via Twitter thanking the fans of New York for their support during what he called the best year of his life. It wasn’t until CNN correspondent Mark McKay conducted an interview with Lin on July 19 that we actually were able to see and hear from the new floor general for the Rockets before he was officially introduced by the team at a press conference in Houston. McKay, a renowned reporter with more than 25 years of experience with CNN sports has interviewed the likes of Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, Barry Bonds, Shaquille O’Neal and covered the Olympics. I spoke with CNN International’s “World Sport” anchor about how he prepared for the first in-depth interview with Lin since he left the Big Apple.
This is the first interview that Lin has given since he left the Knicks. How did this interview come about?
When the Rockets announced that they were going to introduce him on Thursday, July 19 I was asked by one of our coordinating producers whether I was available to go. Then we heard that we secured a one-on-one with him before the actual main media session where he would be introduced to local and national media. From that point questions were then decided upon. It was a collaborative effort between myself and our CNN sports editorial director Kathy Kudravi. Through her contacts with the Rockets she was able to help us secure the interview with Lin.
Where did this take place?
It took place in the Toyota Center. They put us in an auxiliary locker room, not necessarily the Rockets main locker room but one that certainly is used as a locker room in the bowels of that arena. We asked the Rockets for his new jersey. We didn’t even know if the jersey was available or not. The next thing you know they brought in two with his number and name already on it so we used that in the background and then we set up two chairs and two cameras and we were just waiting for them to come down. He had a bunch of obligations that day. The Houston Chronicle had him doing a photo shoot in the actual arena itself and we just waited. We were told it would be anywhere from 8 to 10 minutes of time with him.
Is that why he was still wearing the Rockets uniform in your interview?
He was being pulled by PR to go do this and that. I found it to be great because for our interview which goes to an audience that is not necessarily sports related, it was great to have him in that uniform because during the press conference if you remember he came and changed and he was in a suit and tie. I thought it was so much more effective. For him to come in with the brand new shoes and brand new shorts it even made it moreso because it showed he is a Houston Rocket by having that on.
Were there any limits on what you could ask Lin?
No, nothing at all. I worked with a producer on the shoot who had more direct contact with the Houston Rockets PR team when we were on site. I was kind of up to my own accord as my producer Dan Moriarty and our photographer were engaged with the Rockets PR people to find the place for us to do the one-o one and for us to set up from our live satellite truck into the main press area. Once we were done with him we then had to go and shoot the main press session for our entities that wanted it as well. There was nothing ever communicated with us in terms of any kind of parameters whatsoever.
We learned something new from your interview. Many of us had no idea that Jeremy Lin trademarked Linsanity. He even seem shocked when you asked about that.
That was actually a question that Kathy Kudavi, our editorial director, presented to me. I didn’t know that either and so all credit goes to Kathy on that one. It was a collaborative effort in terms of the questions that were going to be asked of him the night before that we went down. Not only was I writing for our midnight “World Sports” show but I was also going back and forth between Kathy and the coordinating producer in terms of what we wanted to ask and the directions we wanted. I am looking right at Jeremy. There is a camera over my right shoulder looking at him. There is a camera over his left shoulder focused on me so we can have what we call reversals. It makes it look like its live but the editors can make it look like as if I’m asking the questions and it really works well. I’m not looking at the time. When we reach the time limit or they have to hustle him on to his next responsibility the producer will then slowly get up, not within camera range, and I can see him wrap. But I asked everything that we thought were the main points from being back in Houston, the surprise of coming back to a team that actually cut him, touching on the Knicks situation in terms of what he learned. We really wanted to get his connection with Yao Ming. That was really important for our international audience and the importance for being a role model for Asians who want to play basketball at the highest level.
In your interview Lin stated that signing with Houston wasn’t about the money but a team investing in him. Some would argue that the Knicks were also investing in him since they also offered a three-year deal. You didn’t ask him about the contract or why he renegotiated with Houston. Did you not think it was relevant?
There are a couple angles in terms of how we wanted to go with it and how much we wanted to get into the Knicks. That was a question I asked in the pre-interview process. Kathy, our editorial director, helped with the direction of the interview saying it’s not as much to dwell on New York as to report on where is he now and where is going. There were other questions that were thrown in it that we did not use in the interview with the Knicks because Kathy’s direction was to hone and shape the interview in terms of where we want to go.
What were your impressions of Lin?
My impression of him is that he is a very humble and a straightforward guy. I thought I was going to get very short answers at the beginning when I came out the block and asked him about his role and what comes to his mind after the Rockets had cut him and made him an offer sheet. But as Dan noticed as an observer and our producer, he did seem to open up as we went along.
We will all wonder how to measure the success of Jeremy Lin as he moves forward. You also addressed that in your interview.
And the way he answered was pretty straightforward. He said that’s going to still be determined. He is going to have to let others judge that. He really comes across as someone who is a team guy, a guy who cares about team and not necessarily him as an individual. I’ve dealt with athletes before and maybe we’ve got him before he got jaded but he was great with us. We even got him to do promos when the basketball season comes saying, “This is Jeremy Lin. You are watching World Sports on CNN.” I kind of joke sometimes that when these guys get big they won’t necessarily do that.
How long were you in Houston?
Less than 24 hours.
Did you get any feeling of excitement from the people with Lin being in town?
We hoped there would be something buzzing because part of what we like to do is get fan reaction. Our photographer arrived the night before our producer and I arrived. We had him go to the Chinatown district and try to get some reaction from people there and it was really difficult. And I said maybe there would be people who show up at the arena outside because they see the TV trucks and know he is there. But we really didn’t see any of that. But the press conference itself was attended by hundreds and not just media. If I’m not mistaken the owner or General Manager said that when Scottie Pippen was there he had a big crowd but the crowd that was there to see Jeremy at his main press conference, media and otherwise was bigger than Scottie Pippen’s.