- Anna Katherine Clemmons
- 0 Shares
March Madness, the season of underdog stories, began at the conclusion of college basketball's regular season, as teams around the country battled for conference titles.
On March 12, Harvard lost to Princeton on a last-second shot and missed out on a trip to the Big Dance. Still, the Crimson finished the regular season at 23-7 (a perfect 14-0 at home), earning a share of the Ivy League title for the first time in school history and their first-ever bid to the NIT Tournament.
Perhaps more surprising than their successful season was the fact that Harvard advanced without Jeremy Lin, who graduated last spring and himself became the NBA's Cinderella story of the offseason.
Lin, an undrafted, 6-foot-3 guard with an economics degree, outdueled the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, John Wall, during the summer league in Las Vegas.
Most spectators had never heard of Lin, who finished the game with 13 points and four rebounds and stifled Wall defensively. But soon the national media and Internet were buzzing about him.
Then came his fairytale kicker. Lin's hometown NBA team -- the Golden State Warriors, whose stars he hung posters of in his childhood bedroom (they're still there today) -- signed him to a partially guaranteed two-year deal.
He held a press conference in Oakland, Calif., following the signing, which made him the first Asian-American in the NBA since 1947 and the first Ivy League graduate to play in the league in almost a decade.
"It was surprising to see that we had almost a full-blown media day, with a bunch of national media here, for an undrafted rookie," Warriors coach Keith Smart said.
The attention didn't stop there. In the Warriors' first month of play, the Oracle Center crowd erupted every time it saw Lin removing his warm-ups and moving toward the scorer's table in what was usually garbage time.
"When he first came into games, it was a roar," Warriors point guard Stephen Curry said. "People love him."
His teammates agreed.
"I've never seen that kind of reception for a rookie," David Lee added. "In New York, I saw that kind of reaction maybe for Nate Robinson, but Jeremy has a cult following."
Local fans loved cheering their native son, who led Palo Alto High (Calif.) to a Division II state championship in 2006. And many Asian-American residents of Santa Clara County, 32 percent of the county's total population according to a 2009 Census, rallied around him.
On Oct. 29, 2010, Golden State hosted its annual Asian Heritage Night. While several NBA teams hold a similarly themed evening each season, the Warriors showcased Lin in several ways, including a postgame Q&A before the crowd of over 17,000.
Halfway through the fourth quarter, the crowd began chanting, "We want Lin!" He entered the game with just under three minutes to go, and the arena sounded like a home crowd cheering their All-Star during a playoff game.
But the frequent well-intentioned cheers pressured the rookie. While at Harvard, Lin rarely played in front of crowds of more than 1,000 fans. Now, he routinely saw close to 16,000 inside the "Roaracle," who often reserved their loudest cheers for him.
On Nov. 3, 2010, San Francisco Gate columnist Rusty Simmons wrote a piece entitled "Stop cheering for Jeremy Lin," arguing that the crowd's explosions worsened the rookie's game. Even Lin admitted, "When I'm on the road, I don't feel like the spotlight is on me."
Critics began questioning his value, wondering whether his signing was a strategic marketing ploy to draw more fans instead of an investment in the best basketball talent available.
But new owner Joe Lacob was quick to defend his signing. Having seen Lin play high school ball against his son, Kirk, who is the head of Warriors basketball operations, Lacob was familiar with Lin's game. He has particularly cited Lin's potential impact on the defensive end and that Lin is a developing asset.
Lin also acknowledges that he's a work in progress and that he needs to adapt to the NBA.
"I have the exact opposite role on this team that I had last year, and that's obviously a huge adjustment," Lin said. "I haven't been in this position very many times in my life, so that's something I have to embrace."
Lin worked hard, despite the lack of playing time early on, ensuring that he performed consistently in practice. His extreme focus was at times his downfall. Smart, while appreciating Lin's determination, noted early how the rookie tended to overanalyze.
"Sometimes he watches so much film that he becomes like a robot," Smart said. "The game is all about instincts."
Lin grew up in Palo Alto with his parents, who'd emigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan, and his two brothers. Lin's older brother, Josh, started playing basketball when Jeremy was five. Their mother, Shirley, tells stories of Jeremy begging to tag along to his older brother's practices.
As a teenager, Jeremy Lin focused on AAU basketball teams, rather than participating in the Bay Area's Asian-American leagues. But those involved in the Asian-American hoops circuit have been following his career.
"He's the first Asian kid to make it," said Darren Yamashita, of the Northern California Nisei Athletic Union Basketball League. "It shows the Asian-American kids here that they can do it; they can compete at the highest level."
"We have fans who love him," said Rich Twu, who founded the Dream League, an amateur basketball league for men and women in the Bay Area and New York. "But you also have the Asian-Americans who want to blend in as an American and say, 'He's not playing well, so what's the big fuss.'"
On Dec. 28, 2010, after appearing in 17 games in which he averaged 1.9 points and 1.1 steals in 8.5 minutes per game, Lin was assigned to Golden State's D-league affiliate, the Reno Bighorns.
At Reno, Lin demonstrated why the Warriors had signed him. He played almost 18 minutes in his first game and scored 10 points. Two nights later, in 21 minutes of play, he finished with 20 points. Lin appeared in two more games, averaging 18 points per game, before Golden State called him back up. But Lin was declared inactive for three games before being sent back to Reno.
"The first time was really tough for me because I felt like it was a demotion, even though I tried not to view it like that," Lin said of playing at Reno. "Then, as I got to play more, I was able to be myself on the court again."
On Jan. 15, Lin was named to the NBA D-League Showcase first team. He found his rhythm and went on to start eight of 12 games while averaging 17.9 points (leading the team), 5.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists in 32 minutes per game.
Bighorns teammate Patrick Ewing Jr. said the guard had exceeded expectations.
"I went to a major D-I school, so I was wondering what a kid from Harvard can do, but he's definitely proven himself," Ewing said. "He's got a lot of talent and he's only going to get better."
Ewing was also impressed by Lin's character. While flying to away games, Lin often offered his first class seat (NBA signees receive first-class treatment) to a teammate.
"We've had other signees down here before, and they've never done that, and that makes me respect him even more," Ewing said.
On Feb. 5, the Warriors recalled Lin again. After rejoining the team, Lin tweeted, "i'm as glad to be back with the team as my teammates were that I got a haircut. learned a lot from the dleague!" But life on the court since has been a mirror image of his earlier NBA days. Through March 16, Lin is averaging 1.9 points, 1.1 assists and 1.1 steals in just over eight minutes of play per game.
The fans' initial excitement over Lin has waned, says Scott Muranishi, a 27-year-old Asian-American who regularly attends Golden State games.
"He needs more minutes to do something significant, even if it's just one play, to really bring the hype back," Muranishi said.
Yet Lin's presence still resonates, not just within the Asian-American community, but amongst Crimson alumni as well.
"He is the pride and joy of Harvard people everywhere," says 28-year-old Los Angeles resident Zach Puchtel, a former Harvard JV basketball player. "I don't know him but I love him to death because he's a Harvard guy, and Harvard people aren't usually known for their athletic prowess. He made it to the bigs. I love what he's done."
Harvard may have lost to Oklahoma State, 71-54, on Tuesday night in the NIT's first round, but the Crimson carved their imprints on college basketball's national stage. Their next test will be working consistently to stay there. Just like their former star.
"I wasn't surprised that he would get a look (in the NBA)," Princeton head coach Sydney Johnson said of Lin. "Now he's got to work his tail off to make sure he can stick in the league with the best players in the world."
When asked about the pressure Lin might feel from the collective love affair with his story, Smart said he discussed it with Lin one afternoon early in the season. Smart asked Lin how he might handle the attention.
"He said, 'I don't really want all that stuff,'" Smart remembered. "I said, 'Understand that you need to embrace it. Because this is the time you're in. Ten, 20 years from now, you won't have that moment again, so embrace it and understand that that gives you a bigger purpose of playing.'"
Lin, a devout Christian, has taken those words to heart. He said his strong faith in God has sustained him through the tumultuous past eight months.
"This is a blessing in disguise from God," Lin said. "This is an eye-opening experience that's humbled me and taught me to be more thankful and about surrendering my will to God's will."
Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.