The Undersized Basketball Star Making a Play for the Record Books
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s nothing like breaking records to get yourself noticed.
By Reid Forgrave
Damon Lynn was putting up extra shots after practice one day when a janitor kicked him out of his high school gym. Waiting outside the New Jersey school — its doors locked; its lights off — Lynn noticed an open window leading into the second-floor weight room. He hopped onto a garbage can to reach the roof, then scampered through the weight room window. He hoisted up three-pointers late into the night.
“I’ll go to my deathbed not knowing anything about it,” smirks Jim Reagan, Lynn’s high school basketball coach and assistant principal.
That is the sort of ambition you need when you’re always the smallest kid on the court. Now a 21-year-old college senior, Lynn has the body of a walk-on (5′11″ and 165 pounds) but the résumé of someone dead set on achieving all-time Division I records. Almost everyone in the country underestimated him coming out of high school. He received only one Division I recruiting scholarship, and it came from the red-headed stepchild of college hoops: New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, the only school in the country not affiliated with a conference. It seemed like more a ragtag bunch of barnstormers than a proper college program. But now, Lynn is approaching the NCAA record for three-point shooting and gets mentioned in the same breath as legendary shooters like Steph Curry and J.J. Redick. Already, he has surpassed the reigning NBA MVP (Curry, formerly of Davidson) on the all-time collegiate list for three-point field goal attempts. If Lynn maintains his pace of 12.5 three-point attempts a game, he’ll set the record in February.
I don’t think I’ve seen him take more than 10 bad shots in three years.
Former head coach of New Jersey Institute of Technology Jim Engles
So he’s just a chucker, you say, and the record he’ll almost certainly set (barring injury) is emblematic of today’s me-first basketball culture? Not so fast. The record for made three-pointers is far-fetched but still within Lynn’s reach. And Lynn has somehow done all this without getting dubbed a ballhog. “People used to come up to me and say, ‘Man, you let him shoot all the time,’ ” says former NJIT head coach Jim Engles, now head coach at Columbia. “I’d look at them and say, ‘I don’t think I’ve seen him take more than 10 bad shots in three years.’ ”
Neither NJIT nor Damon Lynn are overlooked today. Two years ago, NJIT announced a major upgrade in its facilities — its dingy high school–like gym will be replaced with a $102 million Wellness and Events Center in 2017 — and last year the school joined the Atlantic Sun Conference. Quite the leap from seven years ago, when the program sustained a 51-game losing streak. Lynn also scored 20 points in an upset against 17th-ranked Michigan in 2014, the first time NJIT had ever played a ranked team.
An uphill climb looms even now, though. “I still joke about getting a growth spurt,” he says. “It hasn’t really hit me yet.” The odds of him hearing his name called at the NBA draft are remote — at his size, Lynn would need Russell Westbrook–like athleticism. If he were 6′4″, Lynn would likely be a lottery pick. A few generations ago, he’d have been just fine: In 1947, the average height in the NBA was 6′2″. Today? 6′7″. Despite some exceptions — Boston Celtics star Isaiah Thomas is 5′9″; 5′7″ Spud Webb won a slam-dunk contest — sub-six-footers rarely make an impact. While it’s unlikely Lynn goes to the NBA straight out of college, Sporting News’ NBA draft analyst Sam Vecenie says Lynn will probably get looks in the D-League draft or in Europe. “After that point, it’s up to him to improve his game and perform well enough to break the mold in terms of what NBA teams look for,” Vecenie says.
Of course, Lynn’s heard that his whole career. At age 11, everyone towered over him. “He would literally cry on the court, he’d want to win that bad. But when he started crying, you better believe he’d take it up a notch,” his father, Al-Tariq Lynn, says. Once, Lynn was playing in an outdoor league in the park and losing. Kids were pushing him around and his father saw the tears coming. He told the other parents, “It’s about to happen, right now.” For the next 10 minutes, Lynn attacked. “At the end of the game, they all said, ‘This kid has the biggest heart I’ve ever seen,’ ” Lynn’s father remembers.
The talent bloomed. His dad remembers him dropping 55 points in a rec league game at age 13. By his senior year, his coach gave him the green light; in his first two games he put up 44 points and then 38. All the time, Lynn would be calling his summer league coach, Aaron Desir: “You wanna go to the gym?” Lynn’s dad calls his son a workaholic: “He’ll probably die on the court, he’s that hard of a competitor.”
Last season, Lynn played the final one-and-a-half months of the season with a stress fracture in his foot. He wore a walking boot around campus and didn’t attend practices, but he still played every game, and only three players in college basketball played a higher percentage of their teams’ minutes than Lynn did for NJIT. This season, it’s almost assured he’ll set some records. And, it’s almost as certain that he won’t get picked in the next NBA draft. But he still wills himself to try. Every morning, he says, he wakes up, sits on the edge of his bed and thanks God for the new day. And he tells himself, “You will be an NBA player.”
- Reid Forgrave, OZY Author Contact Reid Forgrave