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The Citizen

In a League of His Own: The Meteoric Rise of Jeremy Lin

By Alexander Remington, Culture Writer, MPP ‘13

Our lives changed on February 4. That’s the day we discovered Jeremy Lin. Oh, sure, we weren’t the first to discover him – much like Columbus and North America, there were plenty of other people who had laid eyes on Jeremy Lin before the white Anglo-Europeans first figured out he was marketable. But on February 4, Lin made his presence known.

He entered the game with 3:34 to go in the first quarter. At that point he was an obscure second-year player who had averaged 9.6 minutes and 3.4 points per game in a grand total of 34 career games, after graduating from Harvard in May 2010. But after he came in that day, he played nearly every minute of the rest of the game, scoring 25 points and becoming the newest hero of New York. Then he kept winning. Eli Manning, who won the Super Bowl the very next day, barely received a day’s worth of adulation.

Lin was off to the races after that, as you probably know. After winning on the 4th, the Knicks gave Lin the first start of his career, and he rewarded them with another 28 points and a win. He has now made ten starts in a row, and the Knicks have gone 8-3 while Lin has averaged 22.4 points a game as a starter. That leads the team.

But he has gone global. According to Forbes, he might be the sixth-most valuable athlete brand in the world. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice in a row, the first athlete to do so since Dirk Nowitzki in last year’s finals, and the first-ever New York athlete to do so. He inspired Spike Lee to wear a Harvard jersey. He’s the best basketball Ivy Leaguer since fellow Knick Bill Bradley. Perhaps most miraculous of all, he has inspired people to view the Knicks, who haven’t won a championship since Bradley’s team won it all in 1973, as a possible contender.

However, it’s impossible to talk about Lin and keep the conversation strictly about his on-court play. The fact is, he nearly washed out of the league; the Knicks nearly waived him a couple weeks before giving him his first start. He’s a Harvard man and a Chinese-American in a league without many examples of either.

But people come out of nowhere in sports all the time, of course. New York Giants star Victor Cruz went undrafted before blossoming into the best receiver on the Super Bowl-winning team this year. The Toronto Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista was a 29-year old journeyman who made an adjustment to his swing and became the best hitter in baseball in 2010 and 2011.

So Lin’s success isn’t unprecedented. He’s an Asian-American succeeding prominently in a sport in which Asian-Americans are not already prominent, and his monosyllabic last name tends to lead to puns. (I hope you’re proud of me for having avoided them in this column.)

Lin isn’t the first Chinese star in the NBA: that would be Yao Ming, who himself was preceded by Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer. He’s not the first player from an academically oriented school to succeed in the NBA: look at Shane Battier, who graduated from Duke with a 4.0 GPA and quickly established himself as one of the smartest players in the league, inspiring a Michael Lewis essay about his ability to impact a game without scoring.

Basically, Lin is the first Ivy League Asian-American to star in the league, which is to say: he’s a hyphenate in a league full of them. So why does Jeremy Lin matter? He matters because the Knicks matter. America’s largest city has seven professional sports teams and its basketball team is arguably the worst of the lot. Since 1973, New York City has won 17 championships: seven by the Yankees, four by the football Giants, four by the Islanders, one by the Mets, and one by the Rangers. Only the Jets have joined the Knicks in going winless, but at least the Jets won their division two years in a row, 2009-10.

Jeremy Lin made the Knicks relevant again. The kid is a killer point guard in a city that has idolized its old school point guards since Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. He couldn’t have picked a better place to win. Now all he has to do is keep it up.