“Lin-sanity.” “Lin-sational.” “Lin-ning.” A “Lin-derella Story.” Call it what you want, but right now, New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin is straight up bal-lin.
Sorry, couldn’t resist. But it’s true: the former Harvard basketball standout is tearing up the NBA to the tune of just under 27 points and just over eight assists in his last six games. That success has sparked a media frenzy in the mecca of professional basketball, Madison Square Garden, in one of the biggest sports markets in the world.
But beyond that, Lin has given Ivy League athletes a fresh, highly visible, and, in my opinion, representative face in the pros. Lin is doing what even the most successful professional former Ivy Leaguers haven’t been able to (see Bills’ QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, etc.): given Ivy League sports a visible figure who is not only talented, but also downright endearing.
It’s hard for Ivy League athletes to appeal to the masses. They come from schools with reputations for aloofness and elitism, schools associated in popular culture more with old money than with your everyday American dream. To come out of an Ivy League school is an honor, to be sure, but also labels athletes and nonathletes alike with certain stereotypes.
Lin doesn’t totally buck the trend: it’s not like his story is some rags-to-riches gut-wrencher. Lin grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., where he led his team to an upset win in the CIF Division II Championship as a senior and earned CIF Division II Player of the Year honors to bolster what could have been a tempting resume for Division I programs. The 6’3” Lin had even dodged genetics to gain the build of a Division I basketball player, but he earned no scholarship offers from his dream schools like Cal, Stanford or UCLA. With a 4.2 high school GPA bolstering his resume, he was guaranteed spots on Brown’s and Harvard’s squads — but no others. It’s not a knock on Ivy League athletics to say similar recruiting experiences are shared by a large number of Ancient Eight athletes: when doors to bigger schools were closed not by a lack of talent but by academic priorities, luck, or timing, strong academic qualifications opened the doors to Ivy League opportunities. Jeremy Lin’s basketball talent was overlooked and undervalued, so he used strong academic qualifications to find a Division I stage for his game.
And Lin made the most of it. A two-time First-Team All-Ivy selection, Lin became the first player in the history of the Ivy League to accumulate 1,450 points, 450 rebounds, 400 assists and 200 steals. With composure, versatility and decent size for a guard, Lin figured to gain NBA interest heading into the 2010 NBA draft.
He didn’t. As a top player in a league that rarely garners national attention, Lin’s successes were dismissed, and the Cantab went undrafted. A smart player who excels most completely in the team game, Lin lacked the flash that many of his major-conference competitors demonstrated in camps more suited to one-on-one skills and freakish athleticism. But by last season, Lin found himself on the Golden State Warriors’ roster after a big NBA Summer League performance … though at the end of the far end of the depth chart. He was waived on Dec. 9, picked up by Houston and waived again 12 days later. His career looked like another Ivy–to-pro dream to die in its infancy.
Then on Dec. 27, the New York Knicks picked him up and sent him to the D-league to develop his game while he waited for an unlikely chance at the team’s main roster. Again overlooked, again dismissed, but always opportunistic, Lin tallied a triple-double in a D-league game on Jan. 20. Three days later, he was in a Knicks jersey.
By Feb. 4, Carmelo Anthony himself was begging head coach Mike D’Antoni to give Lin more time. Jersey sales were through the roof, and even Kobe Bryant was expressing his surprise that such talent had been overlooked for so long.
Since that date, Lin has started five of six games and led his team to six straight wins despite the absence of, at times, both Knick superstars Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. And for those who wondered how he would react when he struggled, Lin answered many questions last night when he struggled early (a career-high 11 turnovers), but came on strong late to finish with 11 assists, 27 points (12 in a fourth-quarter comeback), and the game-winning three in the waning seconds. Doubted and even written off out of high school and college, Lin is re-proving himself night in and night out as he grows into — at least for this short, short stretch — an NBA star.
Such is the struggle against preconceived notions faced by all Ivy League pro hopefuls. Lin’s story is one familiar to Ivy League fans, even if its (so far) happy ending is uncommon. But Lin hasn’t drawn support solely from the Ivy League crowd. Rather, his appeal is widespread. Most Asian-Americans support the first American-born Chinese or Taiwanese representative in the NBA to date. Knicks fans are hoping he’s the missing cog in a run to the top of the Eastern Conference, and pretty much everyone else who watches pro basketball is loving his improbable swag. Everyone is falling in love with the atypical NBA’er: an Asian-American, Harvard alum exchanging chest bumps with ’Melo and inspiring hip hop tracks. Jeremy Lin is an embodiment of many standout Ivy Leaguers like him, and everyone loves him and his story. He’s making the struggle of the big talent from the overlooked Ivy League relatable, lovable, and a slightly revised version of the classic American sports success story of determination and self-belief.
Through Lin, the Ivy League athlete’s story is becoming a tale to which American sports fans can relate in a way they haven’t been able to before. Lin is the first Ivy Leaguer to hit the NBA hardwood since Yale’s own Chris Dudley in 2003. And with all due respect to Dudley, who is certainly due a great deal of it after playing 16 years with five different NBA teams, Lin may be the most visible face of Ivy Leaguers in the pros in the modern era.
Dudley simply never generated the support and interest in his career that Lin’s meteoric rise to NBA prominence has ignited in just two short weeks. Nor did other standouts, some of whom put up some pretty big numbers (see former Princeton center Geoff Petrie, who took home the 1971 Rookie of the Year award and tallied 21.8 points per game in six pro seasons).
No, Lin is something special, and a great face for Ivy League athletics. He brings to the foreground the work ethic and solid, fundamental game of the Ivy athlete. Further, the fact that Lin excels most not one-on-one or with flashy moments of brilliance, but rather as a consistent team player exemplifies the best qualities of a college athlete. Lin has generated a following bridging demographics, which makes him the perfect representative for what is an improving and emerging Ivy League athletic scene, slowly but surely shaking its rep of sacrifice to athletic prowess for academic esteem, and showing everyone that both can be combined into success — and swag — at the college level and beyond.