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Jeremy Lin: From Harvard to NBA stardom

Former Ivy standout suddenly a global sensation

Jeremy Lin has become an NBA sensation while helping lead the Knicks to seven straight wins.

Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Jeremy Lin has become an NBA sensation while helping lead the Knicks to seven straight wins.

NEW YORK - Boston will not get a true taste of Linsanity until March 4, when the New York Knicks come to town, but Leverett Wing, a Celtics fan with season tickets, is already getting calls from his female friends. They want to accompany him to the Garden when Jeremy Lin plays on Causeway Street for the first time since becoming a star in the basketball world.

“They all say he’s the perfect boyfriend,’’ said Wing, an Asian-American political advocate. “He’s Chinese-American, he comes from a great family, he went to Harvard.’’

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Lin is only 23 years old. The Knicks point guard was undrafted and unknown coming out of Harvard two years ago, despite being the best player in the Ivy League and helping spark the program’s resurgence. Now he is an overnight idol.

BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS

Lin’s No. 17 Knicks jerseys have been flying off the shelves in New York sporting good stores the last two weeks.

“It’s pretty neat to see how he’s become sort of a global figure and a global star,’’ said Harvard basketball coach Tommy Amaker. “On a limited basis, he was kind of that here. We went on the road, he had a following.

“He was somewhat of a cult figure here in the Ivy League when we went to play. Obviously, it’s gone to a whole different stratosphere, but we’ve seen glimpses of what everyone’s seeing now, including that.’’

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It’s all been a blur. A month ago, Lin was in the Development League, the NBA’s minor league. Just weeks ago, he was sleeping on his brother’s couch in an apartment in Manhattan, his close-to-$800,000 contract wasn’t guaranteed, and he was trying not to think about the very real possibility that he would be cut for the third time since December.

He has played just nine games this season, but his start has been explosive, including scoring 38 points in a win against the Lakers and hitting a game-winning 3-point shot at the buzzer against Toronto. He also set a modern record by scoring the most points for a player making his first four starts in the NBA (109 points).

Yesterday, Lin was added to the roster of players for the Rising Stars Challenge game Feb. 24 during the NBA All-Star Weekend in Orlando.

Lin isn’t the first Asian-American to play in the NBA, but he’s the first to make this kind of impact.

“There have been others, but this is different,’’ Wing said. “We can relate to Jeremy Lin more than we can relate to [former Houston Rockets star] Yao Ming. He was born here, he grew up here, he looks and acts just like one of my cousins.’’

Lin’s ascension has been so rapid that even Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni still is not completely sure what to do with the lightning he has managed to bottle.

“This is pretty new for me, too,’’ D’Antoni said.

When Bill Holden was an assistant coach at Harvard on the hunt for recruits, he acknowledged he did not come across many Asian-American players.

“It’s the only time it’s ever grabbed my attention,’’ he said. Holden went to California to see Lin play. He was unimpressed. But then he saw Lin again at an AAU tournament in Las Vegas.

“He was playing a very highly competitive game against a lot of Division 1 type prospects, and Jeremy was taking his game to that next level, going head-to-head with these kids and competing on a level that showed he had Division 1 potential,’’ he said.

For Harvard, it is the perfect storm. The Crimson, nationally ranked just a week ago, are peaking just as the program’s biggest star enters the national spotlight. Amaker makes it clear the school is indebted to Lin.

“He helped elevate our program to wherever we are now,’’ he said. “I mean that kid is directly responsible for this thing moving in this direction.’’

Greg M. Cooper

Lin came out of Harvard undrafted despite being the Ivy League’s best player.

Lin’s former teammates are reaping other benefits as well. Keith Wright admitted he has seen his Twitter following jump since Lin’s surge.

If he is out in his Harvard gear, he says, “I’m hearing a lot. Everywhere I go it’s like, ‘Hey, did you play with Jeremy? Have you talked to Jeremy?’ Stuff like that.’’

Lin’s name is a buzzword beyond borders. It became the most searched term on Baidu, China’s equivalent to Google.

Ronn Torossian, chief executive and president of 5W Public Relations, says Lin is a gift-wrapped package.

“In today’s multicultural world, he’s somebody who opens up the biggest market in the world even more to the NBA,’’ Torossian said. “I don’t think that Jeremy Lin - if he succeeds - is the face of the New York Knicks. I think he’s the face of the NBA. He’s even the face of professional sports.’’

In a year when a lockout blew a hole in the league’s image, Lin’s feel-good-story has drawn an international demographic the NBA had been seeking for years.

Janice Jiney, 19, from Nassau County, whose family came to America from China, came to Madison Square Garden on Wednesday with her mother Ruth and sister Joyce. It was just their second NBA game (the first was the Lakers game).

She bought a Lin jersey that night and said he was her favorite player.

“I think he just caught the opportunity and he did great,’’ she said. “He had that capability when he came in, and it’s like god gave him the opportunity, and he caught it. Now, I’m in love with basketball.’’

Wally Santana/AP

Fans cheered Lin and the Knicks at a sports bar in Taipei on Thursday.

Rich Yao, 29, a Brooklynite whose family came from Taiwan like Lin, said he spent two hours at Henry’s Barbershop in Long Island getting Lin’s name and the Knicks logo shaved into his head.

“Hair grows back,’’ he said. “It’s not like it’s a tattoo.’’

He had a Lin jersey-shirt and a mixed bag of signs, one of which read “Asian Linvasion.’’

“He’s everything that America is all about,’’ Yao said. “Fight for your dream, keep on playing when people tell you you can’t do it. He proves that.’’

With every game-winner, Lin breaks a stereotype.

“For an Asian guy, we’ve heard all the stereotypes,’’ Wing said. “We’re not tall enough. We’re not sexy. A lot of those stereotypes are still around today. It makes you cringe. Then you see Jeremy Lin. I guess that’s the great thing is he makes people think about these stereotypes.’’

As for Wing’s tickets, of course, they could not be hotter.

Three weeks ago, they would have sold for $59, said Jim Holzman, president of Ace Tickets. Now, they’re going for $129.

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Breaking down Jeremy Lin’s numbers

Harvard career

* 1,483 points

* 406 assists

* 12.9 PPG and 3.5 APG in 115 games (87 starts)

NBA career (prior to first start on Feb. 6)

* 133 points(76 in 29 games with Golden State, 57 in 10 games with New York)

* 66 assists(42 with Golden State, 24 with New York)

* 3.4 PPG and 1.7 APG in 39 game

In six NBA starts

* 146 points

* 57 assists

* 24.3 PPG and 9.5 APG

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.
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