He slipped in the back of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House in Manhattan on Feb. 16, and briefly it looked as if New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin might actually enjoy a porterhouse in peace. Then “table after table started clapping,” says a witness. Lin smiled shyly and was later overheard saying that the special treatment felt pretty good.
It’s a new feeling. Cut from two pro teams last year, the undrafted 6’3″ bench-sitter had started the season crashing on his dental-student brother’s couch while waiting for the Knicks to seal his contract-a relative bargain at $788,000 for this season. But since team injuries finally opened the door for Lin to take the court as the NBA’s first Taiwanese-American player (and first out of Harvard in more than 50 years), Lin has transformed his middling team into a giant-killing winner and moved fans and headline writers to ever-sillier puns: Lin-sanity! Lin-credible! Lin-derella!
Madison Square Garden can’t stock Lin souvenirs fast enough (superfan Spike Lee showed up on the sidelines in Lin’s high school jersey), ticket prices have soared, and in Taiwan Lin’s sudden fame made an unwitting celeb of his 85-year-old grandmother. Behind the fuss was real skill: After seeing his Lakers fall to the Knicks, Kobe Bryant gave it up for the new kid: “He played phenomenal.”
But Lin, 23, did more: He became an instant American sports icon to a group that has few of them. “He’s knocking down a lot of people’s notions of what they think when they see an Asian guy with a ball,” says culture blogger Phil Yu of angryasianman.com. “There’s plenty of guys like me who have been picked last for sports, not based on anything but what we look like.”
Born in Palo Alto, Calif., to Taiwanese immigrant parents, Lin was raised as a devout Christian. “One of the earliest questions he asked me was ‘How do I honor God in basketball?'” says Stephen Chen, pastor at Lin’s church in Mountain View, Calif. Lin inherited a passion for basketball from his computer engineer dad, Gie-Ming, a “huge Jordan fan,” recalls Peter Diepenbrock, Lin’s high school coach. Mom Shirley, also an engineer, shuttled their three boys to their games but demanded good grades (an A- would result in a call to Diepenbrock). When he missed the first half of a middle school game, “Jeremy sheepishly walked in,” teammate Ryan Glasgow recently wrote on his blog. “And he softly muttered, ‘Violin practice.'” Lin went on to earn his degree in economics and last year sent up the cliche of a bookish Asian prodigy in a YouTube video called “How to Get into Harvard.”
But stereotypes have also stung. Even in his senior year, as Lin led Harvard to its then-winningest season, “he put up with a lot,” says former teammate Dan McGeary, recalling a game when a heckler “pulled at his eyes and yelled, ‘Open your eyes!’ while Jeremy was taking free throws.” He shrugged it off and worked harder. “He lived in the gym,” says former Harvard assistant coach Kenny Blakeney, an entrepreneur.
Still, Lin failed to get drafted. Last December, after 20 games in the NBA Development League, he was cut by the Golden State Warriors and then, on Christmas Eve, the Houston Rockets. “I was … actually reduced to tears,” Lin told ESPN. “What really hurt was I felt like I had the ability.” During the lockout he practiced more “than anyone I’ve ever trained,” says trainer E.J. Costello. “He was ready for his opportunity.”
It came Feb. 6, his first NBA start, when Lin put up 28 points against the Utah Jazz. Then down went the Lakers. Lin-sanity spread from New York to California to China. And what was Lin doing? Using a day off Feb. 12 to pile into the car with his family to see brother Joseph’s final home game at Hamilton College. “He’s the most popular athlete in the world,” marvels McGeary. “But he sees the bigger picture. And he has all the tools to keep moving forward.”