The Making of the Jeremy Lin Show

No third-string NBA point guard has ever had a night like the one Jeremy Lin had against the New Jersey Nets Saturday night.

It’s not so much the 25 points, 5 rebounds and 7 assists. It’s the delirious sense that the 6-3 Harvard grad that the New York Knicks picked up just over a month ago after he was waived by Golden State and Houston is finally ready to rewrite the book on what can be expected of an Asian American athlete.

When the Jeremy Lin movie is made the screenwriters will have a superabundance of underdog stereotype dramas to draw from. Lin led Palo Alto to an upset win over perennial CIF Division 2 champ Mater Dei but received no athletic scholarship offers. He sent resumes and highlight DVDs to Cal, Stanford, UCLA and all the Ivy League schools. The only ones that offered him a spot on their teams were Harvard and Brown, neither of whom could offer athletic scholarships under Ivy League rules.

Lin has said publicly that stereotyping was probably at work in his failure to get an athletic scholarship offer from a Division 1 university. He has also pretended at other times that he has never entertained such dark thoughts.

At Harvard Lin quickly established himself as the team leader. He also provided clear early indications that he could shine against the best by scoring 27 points in an upset win over 17th-ranked Boston College in his junior year and 30 points against illustrious University of Connecticut in his senior year. He ended his Harvard career as the first player in the history of the Ivy League to record at least 1,450 points (1,483), 450 rebounds (487), 400 assists (406) and 200 steals (225) — then went undrafted when he graduated in 2010.

A summer league invite from the Dallas Mavericks gave Lin a chance to mix it up with the NBA’s top rookies. In a game in Las Vegas he won over the crowd by outplaying John Wall, the season’s top overall NBA draft pick. That performance opened a few eyes. Lin received contract offers from the Mavericks, Lakers and another Eastern Division team. None were compelling enough to make him jump. A late offer from the Golden State Warriors, his sentimental favorite, was the one he took.

What looked to most like the reward at the end of a long road was really just the beginning of the toughest test of all — holding onto self-belief in the face of repeated assessments by the team he grew up idolizing that he wasn’t good enough for the NBA. He spent most of his first two seasons down in the development league playing for Reno. Then on December 9 of last year Lin got cut so the Warriors could clear his modest $800,000 salary to make a little more room under the NBA’s salary cap for a $43-million bid for center DeAndre Jordan.

If that didn’t dim Lin’s view of his NBA prospects, he must certainly have been shaken when he was picked up by the Rockets on December 12, then waived 12 days later. Only an injury to New York guard Iman Shumpert spared Lin from ending the year unemployed. On December 27 the Knicks picked Lin up off waivers. Lin expressed the grimness of his predicament, saying that he was “competing for a backup spot, and people see me as the 12th to 15th guy on the roster. It’s a numbers game.”

On January 17 Lin probably felt he was trapped in a nightmare deja vu loop when he was sent down to the D-League’s Erie BayHawks. In that dark night of the soul Lin shone once again by digging in and pulling out a triple-double against the Maine Red Claws with 28 points, 11 rebounds, and 12 assists in a 122–113 win on January 20. Three days later he was back with the Knicks, racking up a some nice late-game minutes.

Lin’s February 4 dream game was no fluke. It was Lin’s iron will sparking what may turn out to be the opportunity of his NBA career. Knicks’ coach Mike D’Antoni desperately needed a point guard to take over a team entering the game near the very bottom of the NBA with an 8-15 record. He had nothing to lose by letting Lin have some early minutes. Knowing that he was only a long-shot bet by a gambler with few chips left, Lin stepped up as he has always done with an opportunity, sparking the recently moribund Knicks with his prescient feeds, wicked steals, blinding drives to the basket and all-around inspired court generalship.

By the time that game was over not only his teammates but the entire arena was eating out of Lin’s hands.

Only Lin knows the kind of frustration and suppressed anger he has had to overcome to eke out that opportunity to ignite into pure glory. But I suspect many Asian Americans can imagine how much self-belief it took for him to stay in the game until finally getting that opportunity to unleash his potential.