The rise to fame of Knicks' Lin

Harvard grad got game: Jeremy Lin (right) celebrates with New York Knicks teammate Jared Jeffries after nailing a three-point shot with less than a second left to lift his team to a 90-87 win over theToronto Raptors.Story on C6.
Harvard grad got game: Jeremy Lin (right) celebrates with New York Knicks teammate Jared Jeffries after nailing a three-point shot with less than a second left to lift his team to a 90-87 win over theToronto Raptors.Story on C6. (FRANK GUNN / Associated Press)
Posted: February 15, 2012

During an otherwise unremarkable game several winters ago, long before Jeremy Lin would arc like a brilliant comet through the NBA sky, the Harvard basketball player lit up Yale's defense.

Afterward, Lin's mother approached Bulldogs coach James Jones, who like so many others had been unmoved by a video the then-unheralded California youngster had sent to the nation's top schools.

"She came over and I didn't know if she was mad at me or not," Jones recalled this week. "I told her Jeremy had played a great game. And she said, 'Yes, but you didn't want him.' "

A mother's devotion aside, it seems incredible now that anyone could have passed on Lin. The NBA's first Chinese American has transformed himself into a national phenomenon with a string of unexpectedly spectacular performances for the New York Knicks.

And as marketers, the media, and a wildly enthralled Asian American community flock to this 23-year-old whose personal resumé is unlike any the NBA has ever seen, it's become clear that this astonishing and unfinished story is as much about lost opportunities as a newfound star.

In a five-game stretch, Lin averaged 26.8 points, including a 38-point outburst against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. He had 10 assists to go with 23 points in a win over the Wizards.

Lin's spree has come while two of the Knicks' stars, Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, have been missing. But Stoudemire was in the lineup Tuesday night when Lin made a tiebreaking three-pointer with less than a second to play as the Knicks rallied to beat Toronto, 90-87. Anthony is expected to miss the next couple of games. Knicks Nation is holding its breath that Lin's magic continues with both back.

"There are a lot of schools and a lot of NBA teams kicking themselves right now," said Ed Gor, an executive with the San Francisco-based Chinese American Citizens Alliance.

Between his senior year at Palo Alto High School in California and his late-December signing with the Knicks, Lin was rejected by dozens of colleges and the NBA. Those oversights bring to mind a familiar Confucian proverb: There is beauty in everything. But not everyone sees it.

What they all missed seeing was not only a surprising basketball talent, but perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reach an Asian American community that is growing as rapidly as Lin's statistics.

The cultural implications of Lin's shattering racial stereotypes are so potentially profound that the New York Times has termed his story "Jackie Robinson-like."

The volcanic eruption of the Harvard-educated guard, a Chinese American no less, in a league where both are as rare as shutouts, flies in the face of conventional wisdom and prejudices.

"I'm sure there's a bias [in the NBA] toward the academic schools," said Lafayette coach Fran O'Hanlon, who didn't recall seeing the tape Lin sent to his school. "First, he's Asian American. Then there's the academic component."

According to the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, there are 15 million to 20 million Chinese Americans and millions more of East Asian descent in the country. It's a population whose educational and financial demographics are prime targets for marketers and college admissions departments.

Ronn Torossian, CEO of the public-relations firm 5WPR, said the fact that Lin is an Ivy League graduate starring in New York and an Asian American to boot makes him "a marketer's dream."

"He's every Asian parent's dream," said Gor, "a Harvard finance graduate and an NBA star."

Suddenly, Asian American faces are prominent at Knicks games, home and away. At a national board meeting of Gor's organization last week, Lin was the main topic of conversation. And on social-media sites there are countless reports of proud Asian Americans breaking down in tears while watching him perform.

Sixer fans will have a chance to see Lin at the Wells Fargo Center on March 21. The Sixers will see him before that, on March 11 at Madison Square Garden.

Not a single NBA team drafted Lin. And the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, both of whom had him on their rosters, misjudged the 6-3 guard's appeal as well as his abilities.

The Warriors, who play in an area where Asian Americans make up a sizable chunk of the population, signed the undrafted Lin in July 2010.

"I'm sure they took him for just that reason," said O'Hanlon.

He played in only 29 games, averaged only 2.6 points, and was released in December before the start of the strike-truncated 2012 NBA season.

"He's from Palo Alto," Gor said, "and given the Asian American population in the Bay Area, Golden State would have done pretty well even if they just kept him around for the marketing effort. It should have been a no-brainer."

Next came Houston, where the Rockets signed Lin on Dec. 11 but released him two weeks later. Houston previously had made a connection with the Asian American community with the signing of China's Yao Ming.

Ming fan clubs regularly brought thousands to Rockets games. Many of those fans became season-ticket holders. But when the center retired after last season, that support began to erode.

After averaging 17,482 fans a game in Yao's last full season, 2008-09, the Rockets are now next to last in the league with an average attendance of 13,823. Surely Lin could have helped.

"We should have kept him," Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted this week.

Like those NBA teams, the colleges that rebuffed Lin never believed he could be the player the world has seen over the last week.

"Who could have envisioned this?" said Steve Donahue, the Boston College coach who was at Cornell when Lin contacted that school. "If someone wrote a movie and put this kid in it, nobody would ever believe it."

Though he was an outstanding student and a good high school player on a team that won a California state championship, Lin didn't attract much attention from recruiters. He wanted badly to go to nearby Stanford but the Pac-12 school showed little interest.

So in the summer of 2005, just before his senior year, he began sending letters and videos to some of the nation's top academic schools. Many of the coaches never watched. And of those who did, few ever saw him play live.

At one point, O'Hanlon said, there was so little interest in Lin, even from Harvard, that Division III schools such as Williams began "trying to steal him."

Yale's Jones said that when he got the tape he had just signed another player who, like Lin, would also become an all-Ivy performer.

"We didn't have a space available for Jeremy," Jones said. "Other than on videotape, we hadn't seen him. It's so hard to recruit off of videotapes. . . . But had we not had a recruit committed to Jeremy's spot when we got the video, we probably would have seen him play."

Video can often mask or enhance a player's real abilities. Donahue, a Philadelphia-area native, said Lin didn't look overly athletic on the recording.

But then, on a scouting mission to watch Harvard play Boston College, Donahue saw him live.

"This is an [Atlantic Coast Conference] school and they can't stop him," said Donahue. "He's going between them. He's splitting it. He's shooting over it. He's getting guys layups. I walked into my assistant's office and I said, 'Is he an NBA player?' They started laughing."

So how did Donahue, who apparently was one of the few coaches who looked closely at Lin's video, miss such a talent?

"We weren't very good at the time at Cornell," Donahue explained. "We were interested, but that's not to say I thought he was going to be incredible. He was a good student and had some skills and looked like he had a good upside.

"We called, but I think he was trying to get that scholarship the way a lot of kids do. I think Stanford was something he was thinking about. And like a lot of kids, if they want to go Ivy, they think Harvard for academics."

Penn, when Fran Dunphy coached there, also passed, and Dunphy had no recollection of seeing Lin's DVD.

So now Harvard has its rare NBA alumnus to help with recruiting. The Knicks, who signed him in late December, sent him to Erie in the Developmental League, and then recalled him Jan. 23, are benefiting, too, though whether Lin can continue his astonishing play remains a subject of much debate.

Shares of Madison Square Garden Co., which owns the Knicks, have increased as much as 9.2 percent in the last six days. Several Asian TV outlets have picked up games, and demand for always hard-to-get tickets for Knicks games has skyrocketed.

"He can be bigger than David Beckham, bigger than Michael Jordan - he's Tiger Woods pre-scandal," Torossian said.

Whatever happens with Lin, a lot of college coaches will begin looking more closely at videos.

 "Tape's so hard," Jones said. "You don't know what some kids can do until the lights get turned on. There are some guys I've seen on tape and worked out and they've been absolutely unbelievable. Then you get them in a game and they can't play. And some guys are the other way around.

"I'm not saying Jeremy is one or the other, but he got his opportunity and he ran with it."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick

at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz

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