One of the most surreal weeks in NBA history started with an eviction. It was Feb. 3, an overcast Friday in New York City, and Joshua Lin, an NYU dental student, had sadly informed his little brother Jeremy that he needed to find another place to crash for the night. Jeremy, an undrafted reserve with the Knicks, had been signed shortly before the New Year; for the last several days, since being recalled from the organization's Developmental League team in Erie, Pa., the 23-year-old point guard had been crashing on the brown couch in Josh's one-bedroom on the Lower East Side. For plenty of Harvard economics majors, living on a sofa would have already proved demoralizing. For one who had already lost two jobs in a 15-day span this winter—the Warriors waived him on Dec. 9, and the Rockets did the same late on Christmas Eve—it was significantly worse.
This is an article from the Feb. 20, 2012 issue
Jeremy Lin's arrangement with his brother had provided a certain symmetry, though. The two had always been close: Josh, 26, the eldest of the three Lin children, was the person Jeremy measured himself against, trailing him as a kid in Palo Alto like a lost puppy. (Joseph, the youngest Lin, is now a 5'11" freshman guard at Division III Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.) When Josh played junior varsity hoops, there was Jeremy, thrilled to volunteer as scorekeeper. When Josh's Gunn High team completed conditioning drills, there was Jeremy again, sprinting and keeping pace on the sideline. Long after the middle child went on to star for the Crimson, finally growing bigger than any Lin in memory—"When he was a baby, Jeremy ate twice as much as his two brothers," their 5'6" father, Gie-Ming, likes to say—5'9" Josh still knew, better than any defender in college basketball, how to nullify 6'3" Jeremy's best moves.
But now came the weekend, and Josh and his wife, Patricia, had friends coming over. "So my couch," Jeremy recalls, "was occupied for the night." Clinging to his league-minimum contract, which was not yet guaranteed, he found harbor on a sofa in another living room, this one belonging to Knicks teammate Landry Fields. No one imagined that by the next evening, when an exhausted Jeremy returned from a win over the Nets to resume his tenancy on Josh's furniture, his world would be upside down.
Madison Square Garden turned 44 last Saturday, and up until seven days before, any Knicks fans worth their salt would have sworn that they'd seen everything. A villain scoring eight points in 11 seconds in the postseason? Reggie Miller, 1995. A coach clinging to the opposing center's leg in the middle of an all-out brawl, as if he were some kind of koala? Jeff Van Gundy, '98. A four-point play to seal a playoff victory? Larry Johnson, '99. And that was just the mid-to-late '90s.
But this? Nothing, anywhere, has ever resembled the ascendance of Jeremy Shu-How Lin, a legend seemingly pulled from the imagination of a goosefleshed David Stern, if not Disney's most hyperbolic global marketing exec. Five games, five wins for the foundering Knicks—a stretch during which they lost their two best players, Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire—all thanks to a Taiwanese-American Ivy Leaguer whose previous New York hoops experience mostly involved pickup games at an NYU dorm in Union Square last spring. "The whole thing has been overwhelming for me and my family," says Lin, who before last weekend was regularly asked by stadium security if he was a team trainer. "There are lots of times when we have to pinch ourselves and ask, Is this really happening?"
Yes, it is. Really. Lin's original free-agent signing by Golden State in 2010 may have been laughed off as a marketing stunt, and he may be making less than 1/20th of the salary of either Anthony ($18.5 million per year) or Stoudemire ($18.2 million). But there was Lin—whose alleged lack of athleticism had caused him to bungee off 2010 draft boards—outclassing a series of point guards who had been top five picks. First he came off the bench and crossed over the Nets' Deron Williams (No. 3 pick in '05), cleaving a double team and finishing at the rim—and one, en route to 25 points. That performance earned him his first career start two nights later, when he dropped 28 on the Jazz's Devin Harris (No. 5 in '04), perhaps the league's fastest player, while playing all but three minutes and eight seconds. (New York coach Mike D'Antoni said he rode Lin like "friggin' Secretariat.") And in Lin's first road start the Wizards' John Wall (No. 1 in '10) fell victim to a 23-point, 10-assist outburst, highlighted by a sequence in which Lin blew by him on a crossover and dunked, one-handed, sending the Verizon Center into whoops.
The undermanned Knicks were riding a wave of energy from the unlikeliest source. By last Friday—a nationally televised game against the Lakers—the surreality spilled up and out of the World's Most Famous Arena, taking over Planet Earth. Yes, that was Lin, taking on a dismissive Kobe Bryant. (Asked about Linsanity in Boston the night before, Bryant had scoffed to reporters, "I have no idea what you guys are talking about.") Yes, that was Lin, directing the attack, draining threes and outdueling Derek Fisher, turning a five-time champion into a Dartmouth freshman. Yes, that was Lin, facing down Bryant and grinning, with his 38 points (to Kobe's mere 34), winning that many ovations from a mob of 19,763 who might as well have been standing 122 blocks north, at Harlem's Rucker Park. Twenty-four hours after that 92--88 victory, when Lin sank a game-winning free-throw with 4.9 left in a gutty 100--98 defeat of the Timberwolves and Ricky Rubio (No. 5 in '09), it almost felt like a letdown.
Occasionally a young, twice-cast-off NBA player will catch on with a team, maybe carve out a place in the rotation, even use that foothold to slowly build a career. Not Lin. When finally given a spot in the starting lineup, after playing all of 375 career minutes, he instantly put up numbers worthy of an All-Star. His 109 total points surpassed Allen Iverson's 101 for the most by any player in his first four starts since the 1976 NBA-ABA merger. And without either Anthony (out with a strained right groin) or Stoudemire (with his family after the death of his brother on Feb. 6), Lin became the first to have at least 20 points and seven assists in each of those initial starts. The last time he'd achieved such perfection was as a ninth-grader, when he aced the SAT II Math IIC. "It's indescribable," says Fields, a Stanford grad who once held Lin scoreless in college. "I've never seen anything like it."
As Twitter lit up with worldwide hosannas (@SteveNash: "If you love sports you have to love what Jeremy Lin is doing. Getting an opportunity and exploding!!"), the explosion of Lin's popularity caught even his employers unaware. On the Knicks' website the nine best-selling souvenirs became Lin items—all on preorder. Last Thursday, Garden employees had to iron number 17 onto jerseys just to have something on shelves for the Lakers game. "You came too late," one team store employee told Brian Land and his young son, Eli, who had come to the Garden from Jericho, N.Y., and were seeking any sort of Lin memorabilia. At that point it was already halftime, and the crowd—stippled with homemade Lin masks and poster-board signs not seen since he starred at Harvard (SI, Feb. 1, 2010)—had long been chanting M-V-P.
In recent, less cohesive times—notably, when D'Antoni was still pinning his hopes on the return of veteran point guard Baron Davis, who has yet to play this season because of a herniated disk—the players had been shown clip after clip of center Tyson Chandler running into the lane off pick-and-rolls and never receiving a pass. Lin promptly solved that issue. And now, despite a rotation reliant on low profiles (Jared Jeffries, Steve Novak, Bill Walker), the Knicks, who had lost 11 of 13 before Lin's breakout against the Nets, have rallied to a 13--15 record through Sunday, good for eighth in the Eastern Conference. "We have a rhythm," says Jeffries. "And we're riding this kid's coattails to the top."
In the summer of 2007, guard Dan McGeary was a sophomore transfer to Harvard from New Hampshire, and he had one prediction when it came to Lin: I'm going to punk this dude. A year earlier, on a foggy night in Durham, N.H., McGeary had helped limit Lin to two field goals and four assists in 26 minutes. But in retrospect McGeary admits that he was confident for another reason. "All I could remember was this Asian kid," McGeary says. "The Asian thing captivates everyone."
Evaluators of basketball talent, in particular, failed to see the whole picture. At Palo Alto High, Lin had sent out copies of his résumé and a DVD with five minutes of highlights and additional game film, all of which yielded precisely zero scholarship offers. Later he visited Stanford and Cal—not even bothering to push UCLA, his dream program—and got snubbed in person. Lin had led Palo Alto to the state's Division II title as a senior, but even former Harvard assistant Bill Holden, who recruited him, concedes that at first Lin seemed "like an ordinary Division III player." It was only later, Holden says, when he saw Lin at an AAU tournament in Vegas, that "Jeremy looked totally different. He was on a team with a lot of good athletes, D-I players."
McGeary's punking never came to pass. The year before, Lin says, the Crimson's strength coach had informed him that he was "the weakest Harvard basketball player that he or the program had ever seen," so he began lifting weights for the first time in his life. In fact, despite some healthy competition, he and McGeary ultimately became good friends. Lin would brush off racist jeers from opposing fans ("Sweet and sour pork!") and Ivy League opponents (he was called "Ch---" on the court) to average 16.4 points, 4.5 assists and 2.4 steals as a senior. (In high school taunts directed him to orchestra practice, volleyball, the math team—anywhere but basketball.) Last year, when McGeary worked an entry-level job in the Cavaliers' front office, he tried to convince co-workers that his buddy was more than just a novelty act. "There were not a lot of believers," McGeary says. "People couldn't wrap their minds around him."
Today, of course, millions of Asian-Americans are hoping that Lin's arrival sparks the obliteration of so much cognitive dissonance. There have been other Asians in the NBA, most notably Yao Ming. "But we've never had any skill players," says David Chang, a Korean-American hoops junkie and the owner-chef of New York City's renowned Momofuku restaurants. "And being Asian in America, you grow up with the notion that you're not as athletically talented as everyone else. This is all about changing expectations, and all these ridiculous notions of what an Asian should be."
That is the emotion driving the comments sections of every YouTube video posted about Lin. It's the primary engine behind the discussions on Twitter, where he's been a fixture as a worldwide trending topic, not to mention the hundreds of incoming text messages assaulting his phone after every game. Lin's agent, Roger Montgomery, says he's barely slept since Feb. 4. His e-mail server has collapsed, his voice mail is full, and he's hiring staffers simply to handle the volume of messages—inquiries from China, Taiwan and all across the U.S. Then there's Lin's ex-teammate's friend's sister, who works for a morning show. And Lin's friend's brother's friend, who works at a modeling agency and has clients who want to introduce themselves. And the 50 media requests for Lin-related interviews that have flooded Harvard, which last had an NBA player in 1954. "Jeremy is one of very few people who can be a game changer, who can make a difference," says Crimson coach Tommy Amaker. "I don't know what could be more powerful than that."
Think of the singular demographic alloy at play. Lin, who's worked endlessly on his strength and his jump shot in the past year, is a normal-sized, Christian, first-generation Asian-American. He's excelled academically, faced racism on the court, been cut twice and sent to the D-league four times. Now he's an NBA sensation amid the cultural diversity of hoops-starved New York. Opponents aside, who wouldn't be a fan?
Regression is coming, eventually. It must. The rhythm of these Knicks, who often resemble a college team—witness Fields's and Lin's handshake, in which they mime putting glasses into pocket protectors—will shift again. "Lin benefits from the New York philosophy on both ends of the floor. He's good in the pick-and-roll at reading defenses but not a good defender," says an Eastern Conference scout. "Once Melo and Amar'e are there to take the ball out of his hands and he goes through teams for the second time, we will see what he really is."
No matter what happens, though, a more personal point has been made. "We should have kept @jlin7," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted on Twitter last Thursday. Warriors owner Joe Lacob, who'd led the push to sign Lin after he turned heads in the 2010 Summer League, lamented, "Son of a b----."
Lin, on the other hand, will choose to keep pinching himself. It was not so long ago, after all, that he was a sophomore at Palo Alto, dunking for the first time. ("He came to tell me, 'Daddy, I can dunk!'" Gie-Ming says. "I said, 'Are you sure?'") Even his old Crimson teammates marvel at how vocal Lin has been with vets such as Chandler, grabbing jerseys and yelling across the court. While they're familiar with his humble postgame deflections of attention, this assertive brand of leader isn't the Jeremy they knew. "He's been more dominant in the NBA than he ever was in college," says Harvard guard Oliver McNally, a friend and former teammate. "His confidence is through the roof."
Speaking of roofs, Lin should shortly have one of his own, now that his NBA contract was guaranteed for the minimum $788,872 on Feb. 7. He will end his recent days of largely agoraphobic Lower East Side living. (He hasn't dared risk a riot, much less Josh's privacy, by venturing out for anything more than the occasional bite downstairs.) He'll surrender his spot on the now-mythic couch and pick out an apartment. He'll at last sleep on a mattress. But as recent events in New York have made very clear, those qualify as minor adjustments. Jeremy Lin is here, and he's already home.
FEB. 4, VS. NETS
25 POINTS, 7 ASSISTS
FEB. 6, VS. JAZZ
28 POINTS, 8 ASSISTS
FEB. 8, AT WIZARDS
23 POINTS, 10 ASSISTS
FEB. 10, VS. LAKERS
38 POINTS, 7 ASSISTS
FEB. 11, AT TIMBERWOLVES
20 POINTS, 8 ASSISTS