The plushest seats at Madison Square Garden are filled with Oscar winners, Grammy winners, a famous boxing champion, even a former vice president. But on this night, they were all simply taking in the show. The New York Knicks were up by 26 points when the fans broke into a chant — “We want Lin!” — begging for their newest hero to play just a bit more.
Everyone wants Jeremy Lin these days. Unknown just a couple of weeks ago, the 23-year-old basketball player’s celebrity has skyrocketed. Unlike most success stories from the sports world, it’s not just basketball fans who are along for the ride on this one. For many, he’s much more than a mere point guard.
“People gravitate toward one part of his story based on their own story, based on what’s important to them,” said Peter Chin, a Washington area pastor. “There’s a lot of reasons to be compelled by this because there’s something for everyone.”
Lin’s tale of woe and redemption has been difficult to miss: scholarship-less out of high school, he went Harvard. Team-less after the NBA draft, he bounced around the league. Jobless at the start of 2012, he’s now a bona fide star. The NBA emerged from its messy labor strife last year facing an uncertain future, and at the season’s midpoint, Lin is suddenly the league’s biggest hope.
In the Knicks’ most recent game — a 100-85 victory over Sacramento on Wednesday evening — Lin lobbed an alley-oop pass toward the hoop, and fans jumped from their seats. For a second, it felt like Madison Square Garden was lifting off the ground. And it’s true, New York — the city’s basketball diehards and novices alike — are intoxicated with “Linsanity,” floating together, enjoying this unlikely trip and hoping they never have to come down.
“The fans are on fire,” Knicks forward Amare Stoudemire said.
“It’s really indescribable,” guard Landry Fields said.
“It’s a lot right now,” Lin conceded last week. “I think I’m getting used to it a little more.”
Lin has played significant minutes in the past seven games, and the Knicks have won them all — even without star forward Carmelo Anthony. Fans tune in around the globe to watch the player who’s burst onto the public consciousness like few before him.
“At this point, it’s pretty clear he’s bigger than sports,” said Mike Yam, an ESPN sportscaster.
The crowd at Madison Square Garden wears masks depicting Lin’s face. They wave the Taiwanese flag and hold signs celebrating “Super Lin-tendo,” “To Lin-finity and beyond,” and “Lin-sync.” He’s quickly become a rallying point, dribbling a ball at a unique intersection where culture, religion and sport meet.
Yam went to a New York bar Wednesday night, talking to Asian Americans as they watched Lin and the Knicks. Their reactions, he said, weren’t like those of typical sports fans. “There is a glow they all have,” he said. “This is one of their own really making them all proud. Yao Ming was big, but he was from China. Jeremy Lin is Asian American, and there’s been no one like him before.”
Lin was born to Taiwanese parents whose roots stretch to China, he graduated from an Ivy League school, and he openly shares his faith. Despite his unlikely trajectory, his success is perched on familiar pillars for many Asian Americans.
“He’s something we thought was impossible,” said Edward Hsu, 37, a Taiwanese American Knicks fan who works at the World Bank.
For Lin, basketball was always more than a hobby, even if talent evaluators didn’t spot his potential. No Division I universities offered him a basketball scholarship. No NBA teams risked one of their draft picks on him. In fact, two NBA teams cut him before the Knicks signed Lin last month.
“I think there’s definitely stereotypes,” Lin said. “I mean, obviously, there’s a lot of them. The more we can do to break those down every day, the better we’ll become.”
Even the Knicks weren’t completely sold on Lin, and if it wasn’t for injuries, they likely would have waived him. “Every time I try to get into Madison Square Garden, the security guards ask me if im a trainer LOL,” Lin tweeted last month.
Instead, injuries to others created opportunities for Lin. He scored more points in his first five starts than any player in NBA history. He toppled the mighty Lakers, beat the Raptors with a late game-winner and dished out 13 assists in only 26 minutes in Wednesday’s win over the Kings. The hapless Knicks are suddenly unbeatable, and more than the basketball world noticed.Lin has been added to the league’s All-Star Weekend, with a spot in the shooting stars competition and a berth in the rising stars game.
In less than two weeks’ time, the Knicks’ television ratings have jumped, Lin jerseys have sold out and ticket prices have skyrocketed. Lin’s own Twitter account has exploded to more than 365,000 followers.
“Jeremy Lin is the American dream,” said Ronn Torossian, chief executive of 5W Public Relations, who has worked with a variety of athletes through the years, including ex-Knicks Jalen Rose and Allan Houston. “What Jeremy Lin is doing is the stuff Hollywood scripts are made of.”
When Lin takes off his T-shirt to enter games, cameras, cellphones and even iPads pop out from fans eager to prove they witnessed the show in person. Celebrities such as Spike Lee, Whoopi Goldberg, Mike Tyson, Mary J. Blige and Al Gore — who were all on hand at the Garden on Wednesday — are simply ticket holders in awe.
After Lin hit the game-winning shot at Toronto earlier this week, a reporter asked, “Can you believe this is happening to you?” The player slowly bobbed his head from side to side, letting the question bounce around a bit.
“No,” he finally said. “But I believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing God who does miracles.”
Like Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, a polarizing football player with a similar underdog tale, Lin is eager to share his faith and his fan base is broader because of it.
“My identity is in Christ and not in basketball,” Lin said this week. “I love playing basketball, and it's my job. But at the same time, I still recognize I’m a sinner and that’s not going to change regardless of how well I play on the court.”
Lin says he wants “to be the same person before and after,” this wave of attention. Though he’s inescapable on ESPN and featured prominently each day in the New York tabloids, Lin’s teammates say he hasn’t changed, even if the world around him has.
Late Wednesday night, Lin slipped in and out of the Knicks’ locker room while reporters had one of his teammates cornered by microphones. As Lin discretely exited, a friend called out, “Hey Jeremy!” and Lin quickly apologized for an unintentional snub.
“I don’t look at anybody nowadays,” he explained. “I'm like — ” and the player playfully covered his eyes and continued walking.
As if that could possibly shield him from all the excitement that he’s generated.