Knicks guard Jeremy Lin: Why we love his 'Lin-derella' story

Jeremy Lin is humble. He's religious. His style recalls an earlier era. And the Knicks guard's path to the NBA was unconventional, which gives us hope for our own lives.

Mike Segar/Reuters
New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin drives into Sacramento Kings Isaiah Thomas during the third quarter of their NBA basketball game in New York's Madison Square Garden, Wednesday.

The tabloids are calling it a “Lin-derella” story.

Jeremy Lin, a humble Chinese-American Harvard grad and basketball player trying to make his way in the NBA, is picked up off waivers by the underperforming New York Knicks, where he is a deep bench player. Summoned to play in place of an injured starter, he leads the team to victory after victory, creating an overnight global sensation: Linsanity.

A curious and basketball-savvy President Obama watches Mr. Lin’s highlights – such as a buzzer-beating three-pointer against Toronto Tuesday night, or outscoring LA Laker superstar Kobe Bryant on Feb. 10.

Wednesday night, former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore showed up to cheer him on as the Knicks defeated the Sacramento Kings for their seventh straight, a game in which Lin racked up a career-best 13 assists despite sitting out the fourth quarter (for rest).

Lin, the first American-born NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent, has 355,985 followers on Twitter and 630,312 “Likes” on Facebook. YouTube is filled with Lin clips, some attracting hundreds of thousands of hits. The Chinese media is flooded with his basketball highlights, even though his family’s roots are in Taiwan.

And all this in under two weeks.

Sports experts say the Lin story seems to have resonated for a number of reasons. First is the underdog element: even though he was a star player in high school, no college basketball power thought he could play at a higher level. He faced the same attitude from professional scouts.

Secondly, Lin has taken an unconventional path to the National Basketball Association. “He was not a McDonald’s All-American, then a player at Kentucky, and then a first round draft pick,” says Herb Sendek, head coach at Arizona State University. “When people make it on an unconventional path, it gives people hope, they can apply it to their own lives.”

Lin also seems to have attracted followers because so far the 6-foot, 3-inch point guard appears almost to be a throwback to an earlier era when basketball was less star-oriented. Although many of Lin’s shots are almost acrobatic, as he often challenges seven-footers, he also hits ordinary lay-ups that just graze the backboard before dropping through the rim. He seems very adept at lofting “alley-oop” passes toward the rim for a teammate to jam it through.

“His character quotient is reflected in his play,” says Mr. Sendek of ASU. “He shoots when he is supposed to shoot, he passes when he is supposed to pass. He is very team-centered.”

The Knicks’ color commentator, former Knick guard Walt “Clyde” Frazier, a seven-time All Star, said of Lin during the Kings game, “He’s always looking for the opening, he’s always attacking.”

Lin is also far from perfect, as he is the first to admit. In his post-game press conference after the King’s game, he talked about his “sky high” turnovers – six of them in that game.

His self-deprecation appeals to many in the Chinese-American community.

“He has been very humble, he believes in team work,” says Howard Lee, a Chinese-American lawyer in New York and Lin fan. He says his son, Michael, in Los Angeles, and his daughter, Alice, in New Jersey, are equally enthusiastic about Lin.

But, Mr. Lee says Lin also has attracted followers because like the football player Tim Tebow, he is quick to give credit to God for his success. “He always mentions it is an All-Knowing God that makes a miracle happen,” he says, noting that Lin has indicated if he is not successful on the court, he might become a pastor.

Some New York basketball fans are just glad to have something – almost anything – to cheer about. “For the last twenty years, the Knicks have spent so much money on players and basically flushed it down the toilet,” says Ed Butkowsky, a Knicks fan who lives in Dallas and manages money for professional athletes.

For example, the current Knick team has such stars as Carmelo Anthony ($18.5 million annual salary according to Spotrac) and Amar’e Stoudemire ($18.2 million). But, even with both players on the court, the Knicks were losing lots of basketball games until Lin with his $788,872 (NBA minimum wage) arrived.

“All of a sudden we have a happy story in New York,” says Mr. Butkowsky.

How that happened is also unusual. Lin, who had been playing in the NBA’s developmental league, was waived by both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets early in the season. But, the Knicks’ starting point guard, Baron Davis ($2.5 million) got hurt, so the Knicks claimed Lin off waivers.

The Knicks, playing bad basketball, had lost 11 of 13 games when Coach Mike D’Antoni put Lin in a game against the New Jersey Nets Feb. 4. Lin scored 25 points and the Knicks won.

The next game, on Feb. 6, Mr. D’Antoni decided to start him against the Utah Jazz. He scored 28 points and had 8 assists. “Lin-Sanity” was born.

For some New York retailers, the Lin craze smells like money. At lunch hour on Thursday, Modell’s, the sporting goods store, was filled with people buying Knick’s T-shirts with “Linsanity” on the back. “This is crazy,” says Mitchell Modell, the CEO, as he watched the frenzy. “We’re getting in six extra shipments a day, plus our regular deliveries,” he says.

One of those people buying two of the T-shirts is George Starks of Salt Lake City, Utah. Mr. Starks, in New York for a conference, says he has enjoyed watching people get into the excitement. But, even more importantly, he says Lin and his teammates appeared to be having fun.

“It wasn’t something that was packaged by the NBA and sold to us,” he says. “Who knows how long it will last?”

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