In the summer of 2007, guard Dan McGeary was a sophomore transfer to Harvard from New Hampshire, and he had one prediction when it came to Lin: I'm going to punk this dude. A year earlier, on a foggy night in Durham, N.H., McGeary had helped limit Lin to two field goals and four assists in 26 minutes. But in retrospect McGeary admits that he was confident for another reason. "All I could remember was this Asian kid," McGeary says. "The Asian thing captivates everyone."
Evaluators of basketball talent, in particular, failed to see the whole picture. At Palo Alto High, Lin had sent out copies of his résumé and a DVD with five minutes of highlights and additional game film, all of which yielded precisely zero scholarship offers. Later he visited Stanford and Cal—not even bothering to push UCLA, his dream program—and got snubbed in person. Lin had led Palo Alto to the state's Division II title as a senior, but even former Harvard assistant Bill Holden, who recruited him, concedes that at first Lin seemed "like an ordinary Division III player." It was only later, Holden says, when he saw Lin at an AAU tournament in Vegas, that "Jeremy looked totally different. He was on a team with a lot of good athletes, D-I players."
McGeary's punking never came to pass. The year before, Lin says, the Crimson's strength coach had informed him that he was "the weakest Harvard basketball player that he or the program had ever seen," so he began lifting weights for the first time in his life. In fact, despite some healthy competition, he and McGeary ultimately became good friends. Lin would brush off racist jeers from opposing fans ("Sweet and sour pork!") and Ivy League opponents (he was called "Ch---" on the court) to average 16.4 points, 4.5 assists and 2.4 steals as a senior. (In high school taunts directed him to orchestra practice, volleyball, the math team—anywhere but basketball.) Last year, when McGeary worked an entry-level job in the Cavaliers' front office, he tried to convince co-workers that his buddy was more than just a novelty act. "There were not a lot of believers," McGeary says. "People couldn't wrap their minds around him."
Today, of course, millions of Asian-Americans are hoping that Lin's arrival sparks the obliteration of so much cognitive dissonance. There have been other Asians in the NBA, most notably Yao Ming. "But we've never had any skill players," says David Chang, a Korean-American hoops junkie and the owner-chef of New York City's renowned Momofuku restaurants. "And being Asian in America, you grow up with the notion that you're not as athletically talented as everyone else. This is all about changing expectations, and all these ridiculous notions of what an Asian should be."
That is the emotion driving the comments sections of every YouTube video posted about Lin. It's the primary engine behind the discussions on Twitter, where he's been a fixture as a worldwide trending topic, not to mention the hundreds of incoming text messages assaulting his phone after every game. Lin's agent, Roger Montgomery, says he's barely slept since Feb. 4. His e-mail server has collapsed, his voice mail is full, and he's hiring staffers simply to handle the volume of messages—inquiries from China, Taiwan and all across the U.S. Then there's Lin's ex-teammate's friend's sister, who works for a morning show. And Lin's friend's brother's friend, who works at a modeling agency and has clients who want to introduce themselves. And the 50 media requests for Lin-related interviews that have flooded Harvard, which last had an NBA player in 1954. "Jeremy is one of very few people who can be a game changer, who can make a difference," says Crimson coach Tommy Amaker. "I don't know what could be more powerful than that."
Think of the singular demographic alloy at play. Lin, who's worked endlessly on his strength and his jump shot in the past year, is a normal-sized, Christian, first-generation Asian-American. He's excelled academically, faced racism on the court, been cut twice and sent to the D-league four times. Now he's an NBA sensation amid the cultural diversity of hoops-starved New York. Opponents aside, who wouldn't be a fan?
Regression is coming, eventually. It must. The rhythm of these Knicks, who often resemble a college team—witness Fields's and Lin's handshake, in which they mime putting glasses into pocket protectors—will shift again. "Lin benefits from the New York philosophy on both ends of the floor. He's good in the pick-and-roll at reading defenses but not a good defender," says an Eastern Conference scout. "Once Melo and Amar'e are there to take the ball out of his hands and he goes through teams for the second time, we will see what he really is."
No matter what happens, though, a more personal point has been made. "We should have kept @jlin7," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted on Twitter last Thursday. Warriors owner Joe Lacob, who'd led the push to sign Lin after he turned heads in the 2010 Summer League, lamented, "Son of a b----."
Lin, on the other hand, will choose to keep pinching himself. It was not so long ago, after all, that he was a sophomore at Palo Alto, dunking for the first time. ("He came to tell me, 'Daddy, I can dunk!'" Gie-Ming says. "I said, 'Are you sure?'") Even his old Crimson teammates marvel at how vocal Lin has been with vets such as Chandler, grabbing jerseys and yelling across the court. While they're familiar with his humble postgame deflections of attention, this assertive brand of leader isn't the Jeremy they knew. "He's been more dominant in the NBA than he ever was in college," says Harvard guard Oliver McNally, a friend and former teammate. "His confidence is through the roof."
Speaking of roofs, Lin should shortly have one of his own, now that his NBA contract was guaranteed for the minimum $788,872 on Feb. 7. He will end his recent days of largely agoraphobic Lower East Side living. (He hasn't dared risk a riot, much less Josh's privacy, by venturing out for anything more than the occasional bite downstairs.) He'll surrender his spot on the now-mythic couch and pick out an apartment. He'll at last sleep on a mattress. But as recent events in New York have made very clear, those qualify as minor adjustments. Jeremy Lin is here, and he's already home.