Before their loss to New Orleans Friday night, the New York Knicks had won seven straight games. Ordinarily, that might not be that big a deal. Lately, when the Knicks win, it is.
There are many ways to know that someone has attained stardom in our fickle culture. One sure indication is a mention on the Colbert Report:“He came out of nowhere, which is my name for Harvard,” said Colbert on Monday night’s program.
The object of Stephen Colbert’s affection/derision? Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin, who has inspired a deluge of puns in various places, including the New York Times, Bloomberg and the Colbert Report:
“I have got a raging case of Linsanity,” said Colbert. “I have been declared legally Linsane. Fans have not come down with a basketball-born disease this intense since the mid-70s outbreak of Kareem Abdul Jabotulism.”
In just over half a dozen games, Lin, who went undrafted and was dropped from the benches of two other NBA teams after brief, undistinguished stints, has led the Knicks from irrelevance to contention. His statistics? Since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, no player scored more than Lin’s 136 points in his first five starts. No wonder his teammates are enthusiastic, and Knicks fans regularly chant “MVP” when Lin gets the ball.
Tommy Amaker, Jeremy Lin’s coach at Harvard, maintains that Lin had some experience in the celebrity spotlight as an undergraduate:
“Well, on a limited basis, he was that here,” Amaker said. “He had a following, he was somewhat of a cult figure.”
Injuries to various Knicks – actually lots of them – provided Jeremy Lin with the opportunity to play. Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre was not entirely surprised when Lin grabbed that opportunity by the throat and started generating numbers that have had observers comparing him with Lebron James at the beginning of his pro career. According to Torre, Lin is accustomed to contributing scores of points, dozens of assists, and the occasional, last-second, game-winning shot.
“At Harvard, he was basically the entire team,” Torre said. “He once hit a three pointer at half-court to beat William & Mary. He once scored thirty points against UConn. He beat B.C. every time he played them. So he’s had these moments before when people counted on him to do things. The fact that he’s adjusted his confidence level to absorb everything that’s being thrown at him in Madison Square Garden and certainly on the road, you know, this is the next level that people maybe didn’t anticipate, but you could sort of see the seeds there in retrospect.”
The seeds were impressive, but Torre said, in the pre-NBA days, the package needed some work.
“You know, Jeremy once told me, the Harvard strength coach came to him and said, ‘You are the weakest basketball player in the history of this program.’ And since then, he has become a very different physical specimen. He’s 6’3″, 200 pounds, he’s muscular, he’s strong, and he’s going to be getting better with his endurance.”
None of this is to suggest that Jeremy Lin has answered all the questions about how effectively this dazzling if brief stretch of games will translate into an NBA career. Even in a lockout-shortened season, the physical demands on the pros are far greater than those college players face, as are the demands on any pro who’s suddenly fielding calls from TV producers and the attentions of fans proposing marriage.
Endorsement opportunities in the U.S. and in China will certainly follow, and Lin may be better prepared than most players to evaluate them. At Harvard, he majored in economics.