|As Asian TV adds Knicks games to the slate, a viewing party was held in Taiwan for Knicks-Lakers. (NBA)|
NEW YORK -- There was a night at the Harvard Law School gym a few years back that seemed like any other night at the time. Just a few future lawyers and aspiring statesmen blowing off steam with that tried-and-true release valve of pickup basketball.
Except now, after the basketball world has been turned upside-down in the past week, that innocent night seems so different. That's because someone had shown up, looking for a game. Someone named Jeremy Lin.
Yared Alula, now an attorney for the National Basketball Players Association, laced them up and faced Lin in three games. Lin's team won two. Everybody knew the Asian kid was on the Harvard basketball team. And despite the fact that he dunked that night -- the first time anyone could remember seeing that at Hemenway Gymnasium -- nobody remembered thinking that someday, Lin would catapult into the NBA.
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"The most aggressive thing that ever happened there was an aggressive backdoor cut," Alula said this week. "He came in there, and I can't remember if came in with anybody else. I remember him not being super talkative. He was kind of shy almost. Nice and very friendly, laughing and shaking hands with people. But he was much more reserved and quiet."
And so was his game.
"Now to see him with 38 against Lakers was like a surreal experience," Alula said. "I know he was clearly better than everybody on the court that day, but it wasn't so dominant that you'd say, 'This guy was going to come to Madison Square Garden and almost score 40 points.' "
And yet that is what he has done, and more. In barely more than a week, this undrafted point guard from Harvard, released by two teams and forsaken in the eyes of most scouts, has taken New York City and pro basketball by storm.
"Well, it just means that we probably haven't been paying attention to him," said Lakers star Kobe Bryant, the greatest player of his era, who called Lin's sudden and spectacular emergence a "great story" after Lin dropped 38 on the Lakers in a 92-85 victory last week. "It seems like it comes out of nowhere, but if people go back and take a look, that skill level was probably there from the beginning. It just went unnoticed."
Nothing Lin does, it seems, ever will go unnoticed again.
"I think this is a miracle from God," Lin told reporters in Toronto before the Knicks beat the Raptors 90-87 for their sixth straight win -- incredibly on a 3-pointer by Lin with 0.5 second left.
Within days after Lin had first emerged with a 25-point, seven-assist performance off the bench Feb. 4 against the Nets, the Knicks had rebranded their website with all things "Linsanity." Replica jerseys were rushed into production, the back-page headlines were buzzing with the latest Lin-related hype. He won his first two starts, against Utah and Washington, and the otherworldly performance against Bryant and the Lakers pushed Linsanity to its breaking point and beyond.
Lin, the first Taiwanese-American and fourth American-born Asian to play in the NBA, has accounted for four of the top six videos on NBA.com in the past week, including the most viewed clip, according to the league office. He was the third-most searched term on Baidu.com, the leading search engine in China, and represented 12 percent of all customized products sold on NBAStore.com. He's had more Twitter mentions than LeBron James, and his followers on Sina (the Chinese version of Twitter) have grown from 190,000 on Feb. 2 to more than 916,000 as of Tuesday, according to David Shoemaker, the CEO of NBA China. A viewing party last Friday for the Lakers-Knicks game drew 1,200 fans in Taiwan.
"About 300 million Chinese people play basketball," Shoemaker said Tuesday on the phone from Beijing. "There's a huge fan base and the NBA is without question the most popular professional sports league in China. I believe the seeds have been long planted before I even came to NBA China for this sort of phenomenon to take root. We're now somewhat the beneficiaries of it all."
CNBC sports business analyst Darren Rovell unleashed a torrent of tweets Monday that quantified Lin's exploding popularity. Among them: web traffic to NYKnicks.com increased 550 percent last week, and video views rose 1,205 percent. When stock in publicly traded Madison Square Garden hit a 52-week high Monday (and closed at $32.32), it marked an increase in the company's market capitalization of $228 million since Lin's debut, Rovell wrote. With a lockout-adjusted second-year minimum salary of $613,474, all the Knicks had to pay Lin for his week's work was approximately $25,000.
What a steal -- and Lin has 11 of those to go with his 161 points, 51 assists, 23 rebounds and 50 percent shooting (59 of 117) during this six-game assault on everything we thought we knew about the basketball world around us. The Knicks, who were 8-15 before Linsanity, are 6-0 since.
So what has this quiet, unassuming, deeply religious 23-year-old from Palo Alto, Calif., tapped into? What nerve has he struck?
"It's an example of a player going to the right situation," an NBA scout said this week. "There've been a lot of players in the league, and many more that we'll never know about, that if they had ever gotten an opportunity with the right team, maybe they could've made the league or been better players than they turned out to be. But we'll never know."
The merging of Lin's uncanny but previously ignored or unseen point-guard talents with Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni's ideal system -- and desperate need for someone to run it -- provides the basketball backdrop. But it takes more than pick-and-rolls and dribble-drives to captivate the nation and a better part of the world. And here is where the story of Jeremy Lin becomes bigger than basketball, and why he has become, so suddenly, larger than life.
Davin Chew is a Harvard graduate and American-born Taiwanese like Lin. The 32-year-old engineering entrepreneur who lives in Manhattan is acutely aware of the stereotypes Lin faced as he tried to navigate the basketball food chain -- from the YMCA in Palo Alto to the state championship and 32-1 record as a senior at Palo Alto High School, to being denied a scholarship by every single NCAA Division I school, to going undrafted and unnoticed in the NBA until some incredible circumstances collided.
"It's pretty amusing to me when I watch games on TV, when Jeremy first started blowing up, the commentators would say kind of subtly biased things," Chew said. "Like, 'He's deceptively big and strong.' What's deceptive about 6-3, 200 pounds? Why, because he doesn't look like the average basketball player?"
|Fans at Target Center go 'Linsane' last Saturday as the Wolves hosted the Knicks. (Getty Images)|
Hmm. Nothing untoward was meant by such a comment, and it may have whooshed past non-Asians without a second thought. But those who have experienced what Lin has experienced -- being called "wonton" or "eggroll" by hecklers during games, having his ability largely ignored -- causes a visceral reaction. And it's an aspect of the Lin phenomenon that can't be ignored.
"He probably has been this skilled but nobody took notice," said Chew, who has played pickup ball with Lin's older brother, Josh, the NYU dental student whose couch Lin was sleeping on because he didn't know if he'd stick with the Knicks. "All my Asian friends knew about him and watched Warriors games in the hopes that he would get a few minutes of garbage time. And often he wouldn't, not even a minute."
Karen Lin, 41 and no relation, is a mother of three boys from Bayside, N.Y. She was born in Taiwan and came to the United States when she was 3. Her Taiwanese husband, John Tsai, emigrated when he was 1.
A graduate of the State University of New York at Buffalo and Brooklyn Law School, Karen Lin showed up for work one day at the housing division of the Civil Court of the City of New York. An attorney greeted her and said, "Oh, are you the interpreter?"
"No," Karen Lin said. "I'm the judge."
The embarrassed attorney couldn't have been more apologetic, but the damage had been done.
"It doesn't get easier," Karen Lin said. "Recently I was driving five blocks from my house, and a car pulled up and stopped short. A person got out and raised the corner of her eyes to make those 'chinky' eyes, and then got back in the car and drove off. And I was like, 'What century do we live in?' I should be used to it, but I have the hope that in this, of all places, we would get along better."
This is part of Jeremy Lin's experience, in basketball and in life. This is part of the explanation for why an undrafted, Asian-American, Harvard-educated point guard has captivated so many, so profoundly.
"Actually, I'm a little surprised how big of a story it's become," said Eric Sheu, 34, a Chinese-American and surgical resident at Harvard. "For me, I completely identify with him as an Asian-American who went to Harvard, wishing I was a basketball player forever and not being good enough to do it."
In a 2009 Time Magazine article, Lin spoke of encountering "everything you can imagine" on a basketball court. "Racial slurs, racial jokes, all having to do with being Asian,” he said. Since getting his chance, Lin already has been exposed to a tasteless tweet from a prominent media figure and another from boxer Floyd Mayweather, whose unsolicited opinion harkened back to Isiah Thomas' infamous comment a quarter century ago that Larry Bird would have been regarded as "just another good guy" if he were black.
"Jeremy Lin is a good player, but all the hype is because he's Asian," Mayweather tweeted Monday. "Black players do what he does every night and don't get the same praise."
Similar views -- and worse -- were prevalent on the Knicks' very own Facebook page in late December, after New York claimed him off waivers from the Rockets. "won ton soup to go pls!!!" wrote one user on the Knicks' Facebook page.
"Oh herro Jeremy Rin," wrote another.
"He just delivered me some Chinese last night. Now on the Knicks." (Three people "liked" that bit of biased ignorance.)
"he can't see the ball! Hey j open your eyes!"
And on and on.
"he folded my laundry last semester."
"Lin is a bum. go back to china."
|Lin is splashed across the front pages of daily papers in Taipei, the central city of Taiwan. (Getty Images)|
When he isn't with his family or dribbling a basketball, he's observing his Christian faith, which he speaks openly about and which helps him curb his tongue when he hears a derogatory taunt from a heckler.
"It's just something I'm used to now, and it's a good opportunity to reflect the grace of God when you don't say anything back, or when you're really respectful in return," Lin said said in a 2010 interview with the religious website Patheos.com. "That says something powerful."
There was the time in the D-League when Lin heard a particularly vicious epithet from a fan, and his supportive teammates rallied around him and "put a stop to it pretty quick," said Eric Musselman, who coached Lin for 20 games last season with the D-League's Reno Bighorns. It was their way of returning the favor for Lin's generosity. Not only was Lin adept at sharing the ball, but he also gave up the priority airline seating awarded to NBA assignment players to teammates who were only D-Leaguers.
"I've seen other assignment guys that don't say a word to their teammates, and there can be resentment," Musselman said. "Jeremy turned being an NBA assignment guy into an advantage."
And so it is about the underdog. It is about race. And yes, it is about something else, too: religion.
"It's been a ride," said Stephen Chen, Lin's pastor at the Redeemer Bible Fellowship in Mountain View, Calif.
Chen has known Lin since the future NBA phenom was 13 years old. That was about the age when Lin confided in Chen that he wanted to "declare himself" a Christian and be baptized. Also, that was about the time when Lin realized he was really good at basketball and gave up his elementary school dream of becoming a professional soccer player.
Lin has been called the Taiwanese Tim Tebow, and his rise has inspired Christian rapper Jin Au-Yeung to release a song that has been interpreted as a tribute to Lin, called "Nick of Time."
"I think Jeremy's experience and testimony is a great example of how, quite often, God's timing is beyond our comprehension," the 29-year-old rapper, a Chinese-American known as MC Jin, wrote in an email Tuesday from Hong Kong.
After games, Lin says simply that he plays "unto God," but the struggle to avoid the temptation of playing for the crowd, and to the expectations of others, is only beginning. His astonishing rise perhaps could only have happened this way in New York, where media power is centralized and where the lights shine a little brighter.
"If this were going on in Sacramento," an NBA team personnel man said, "nobody would've noticed yet except a couple of beat writers."
As much as Lin's story transcends sports, it could not have happened without a series of unrelated basketball events that came together at precisely the right moment.
Two years ago, Lin was invited by the Dallas Mavericks to the Las Vegas Summer League, and can be seen here holding his own against No. 1 pick John Wall. But Lin didn't stick with Dallas, who had Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd and a drafted backup, Roddy Beaubois. He got a chance with the Warriors and Houston Rockets, both of whom released him under similar circumstances. The Warriors let him go because they needed cap room and a roster spot for their bid to sign restricted free agent DeAndre Jordan -- a bid that failed -- and also because they'd drafted a point guard, Charles Jenkins of Hofstra. The Rockets, who had failed in their attempt to obtain Pau Gasol from the Lakers as part of the doomed Chris Paul trade, needed room for free-agent center Samuel Dalembert.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has candidly admitted on Twitter that he "should have kept [Lin]" and that he "did not know he was this good."
Join the club. Join the Linsanity.
Two days after his seemingly fluky performance off the bench against the Nets, Lin started at point guard at Utah and produced 28 points and eight assists in a 99-88 victory. The next day was the deadline for the Knicks to request waivers on Lin's non-guaranteed contract or his salary for the remainder of the season would have become guaranteed. Lin's sudden and unexpected outburst, and the fact that D'Antoni had nowhere else to turn, finally made him stick. When his mythical rise began, the Knicks had lost 11 of 13 games.
If the Knicks hadn't included point guard Raymond Felton in the trade with Denver that brought Carmelo Anthony to New York last February, they wouldn't have had any reason to claim Lin off waivers, much less thrust him into the starting lineup. The same goes for veteran Chauncey Billups being waived with the new amnesty clause to clear space for free-agent center Tyson Chandler.
If Lin hadn't stayed ready during the lockout, working for hours each day from May through September with trainer E.J. Costello at a 24 Hour Fitness in Pleasanton, Calif., about 30 minutes from Palo Alto, he might not have been ready. Lin was doing rehab for knee tendinitis and developing upper body strength and core balance while hoisting hundreds of jump shots a day as some NBA players were sitting around thinking the lockout might never end.
"We couldn't control that he wasn't getting a fair look or opportunity," said Costello, who also trained Warriors players David Lee and Ekpe Udoh during the lockout. "But we could control that when he does or if he does, he would be ready for it."
If the Knicks were running a more traditional NBA offense instead of D'Antoni's floor-spreading, high-octane, pick-and-roll scheme, would Lin have experienced anything close to this outlandish level of production? Probably not, said the NBA scout I spoke with about his game.
"I'm a big believer in Jeremy Lin," the scout said. "As an aside, I'm a big believer -- whether it be Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, the elite guys -- that you can take a [point guard] like that and put him on a team with four D-League guys and play .500 ball in the NBA and be competitive. Whereas you take the Knicks prior to Lin and load them up with All-Stars and cut the head off and don't give them a point guard, I think you struggle to win in our league. It's a lesser version of quarterback in the NFL."
Behind the premature comparisons of Lin to two-time MVP Steve Nash -- D'Antoni's point guard in Phoenix -- is a truth: D'Antoni's fast-paced system wouldn't have worked in Phoenix without Nash, and Nash wouldn't have been a two-time MVP and perennial All-Star without D’Antoni and his system, which Alvin Gentry continues to run there.
"If you were to now take Lin and trade him to the Celtics or the Magic or the Lakers, that would all go away," the scout said. "Not to say he wouldn't be a contributor or a good player, but he wouldn't be putting up these highlight numbers."
Which brings us to the questions of how sustainable Lin's production is, and how he'll fit with Anthony -- a classic isolation scorer -- once the All-Star returns from a groin injury. Anthony and D'Antoni have downplayed the idea, but NBA personnel people know it's real.
"What happens when those guys start demanding the ball, especially Carmelo?" a rival personnel man said. "It will be interesting to see how D'Antoni handles that. He may say [to Anthony], 'Hey, we were winning. We're not going back to you isolating with the ball the way you were.' But on the other hand, he can't totally alienate him."
So here comes the next challenge for Lin, the next chapter in this improbable story. Will he flame out? Will he fail? In some ways, the opportunity to fail -- to make mistakes and keep playing -- is all he ever wanted.
Lin has been in touch with his physical advisor (Costello) and his spiritual one (Chen) all week as he tries to come to grips with all that has happened. He reached out again Tuesday morning from Toronto, where he was the guest of honor in a packed news conference hours before the Knicks would play the Raptors.
He has a bruise on his arm from all the contact he's absorbing, and told Costello, "My body is beat up right now." Nobody knows how long this show lasts, just that it must go on. After Toronto, it's a five-game homestand back at the Garden, where it all began.
"He has a joy that cannot be taken away from him because his joy is not founded in success or in temporal things, but eternal things," Chen said. "Would it be heartbreaking for things to head south? We would say yes. But at same time, he understands that ... everything that he has is by the grace of God, and so he's thankful for the opportunity he has. I don't think he would despair."