"I’ve never seen anything like it, and we’ve been in business 122 years," Mitch Modell told me breathlessly.
Modell is CEO of Modell’s Sporting Goods, a retail chain with 147 stores. He’s been in the sports-retail business for decades, so coming from him, the description means something.
He’s talking about the seemingly unquenchable thirst for anything Jeremy Lin. Ever since Feb. 4, when the virtual unknown, undrafted basketball player from Harvard stepped onto the floor at Madison Square Garden, the demand for his New York Knicks No. 17 jerseys and T-shirts has been like a gigantic wave sweeping across not just the eastern seabord — where Modell’s stores are concentrated — but all the way around the globe.
Modell told Fox Business about moment Lin hit his radar. Hanging out at his home in New Jersey on Feb. 4, he got "the call."
“I get a call from Drew Nieporente, who’s the owner of Nobu (restaurant) and he goes, ‘Are you at this Knicks game?’
"And I go, ‘No, I’m home,’ and he goes, ‘Turn it on, you have to see this Jeremy Lin guy.’
"I said, ‘Who’s Jeremy Lin?’ and he goes, ‘Please turn it on, you will go out of your mind.’
"I turn it on, the place is going electric. I’ve never seen the Garden so electric in all the years I’ve been attending, and that’s over 45 years.”
Modell, a vintage New York retail guy with a Jersey-meets-Manhattan accent and an in-your-face-with-a-huge-smile attitude to match, is the type you could just see on the phone yelling, "I don’t care how you get it, just GET it!"
He knew he had to move quickly, but Feb. 4 was a Saturday, too late to get an order in. Modell champed at the bit all Sunday, anxious to beat other Manhattan retailers to the punch.
“I have to be the first. Customers expect us to be the first,” said Modell.
He made a multi-million dollar bet, ordering up 658,000 pieces, from T-shirts to jerseys. But there were a few complicated hoops he had to jump through to make it happen.
He had to get Adidas and local printers on board fast, and then get it all approved by the NBA. Late-night phone calls ensued.
Plus, he faced a major challenge: He had just spent $10 million on 332,000 pieces of New York Giants gear, so royal blue fabric — the Knicks’ color, too — actually was in short supply east of the Mississippi, thanks to the team having just won the Super Bowl weeks before. Add to that the fact that the Rangers were suddenly doing well and voila, shortage.
“All of a sudden Jeremy Lin shows up and (the Knicks’ color) is royal. So basically we took every royal (blue) out of the marketplace and the rest was history.”
Modell tested the merchandise, which included a blue T-shirt emblazoned with the No. 17 and the word “Linsanity” on it, in just four stores. He gets hourly sales tallies but says the pieces sold out in “a minute.” He made the call to roll out the rest in all his east coast stores.
But having taken a pricey bet on an untested newbie like Lin, what happens if the hot streak goes cold? Thursday night, Lin was held to just a single basket against the Miami Heat. Friday morning, the notoriously tough New York Post sports page headline boomed, "Linept!"
Could Modell be left with a bunch of shmattas that suddenly end up in the markdown bin if Lin turns out to be just a flash Lin the pan?
“We watch the Knicks sales on an hourly basis, and so far it’s so strong, and even after a loss and even being away for the next week … for the All-Star break … it’s still on fire, there’s still a lot of buzz.
“The energy and feelings around New York, whether it be in bars or restaurants or by the water cooler — everyone’s talking about Jeremy Lin. He’s the talk of the nation. … We’ve been in business 122 years. This kid, underdog, two teams didn’t want to draft him, no one heard about him 17 days ago, (now) people are throwing their arms up him. — ‘Jeremy, marry me! Go out with me! Anything!’
"It’s hysterical,” said Modell.
Modell, whose company is privately held, still is spending up a storm on Lin. “Linept!” headlines be damned, he’s just put in a new order and says the truckloads will begin arriving again in four days. For now Modell is betting big on Lin.
“He’s like the ‘Rocky’ of the NBA,” he said.
Watch Liz Claman, 3 p.m. ET Monday-Friday, on Fox Business Network’s “Countdown to the Closing Bell” and “After the Bell.” Click here to find Fox Business on your cable system.