As roars shook Madison Square Garden on Monday night during Jeremy Lin’s first career NBA start, a few fans knew his moment was a long time coming. They sported black T-shirts that read “The Jeremy Lin Show” on the front.
Printed on the back? “We Believe.”
After he led the Knicks to victory over the Utah Jazz, the rest of the league now understands what those fans knew: The unheralded, unknown, undrafted Lin has been waiting for this chance.
The first American-born NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent, Lin attended Harvard, which is far from an NBA feeder program. And while pro coaches loved his potential, Lin bounced around the league with stops at Golden State and Houston before New York snatched him off waivers in December.
With head coach Mike D’Antoni looking to galvanize his struggling squad — and with his job hanging in the balance — he turned to Lin, who spent nearly a week earlier this season in the NBA Development League.
The second-year point guard responded by leading the Knicks to a win over the Nets on Saturday with 25 points and seven assists.
Even without Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, who left early with an injured groin on Monday, Lin put up 28 points and had eight assists against the Jazz as the Garden chanted “MVP! MVP!”
“Definitely did not imagine that (would happen),” Lin said of the roars that rained down from the rafters. “But it’s special.”
Lin followed that with 23 points and a career-high 10 assists in Wednesday’s win at Washington. D’Antoni, meanwhile, has tried to contain himself and the hype.
“I don’t want to get too far ahead, but I am excited,” he said Monday. “He does give us a semblance of a team that can move the ball and get good shots.”
Lin spent the past three games running D’Antoni’s pick-and-roll offense and directing traffic with surprising ease.
“It’s more of his tempo,” Knicks forward Jared Jeffries said. “He definitely has a high basketball IQ, but the pace he plays at is hard to teach.”
Also tough to teach is his ability to drive to the rack. More than once, the 6-foot-3 guard split Jazz defenders near the 3-point line and headed right at Utah’s forwards, including 6-foot-10 Al Jefferson, for layups and scoops.
“A lot of it is just me and my brothers,” Lin said of his siblings Josh and Joseph, who plays for Hamilton College. “We loved playing on 8-foot rims when we were young. We loved doing creative finishes. I guess it turns out to help a little bit.”
Lin can credit his family for his vocation. His father, Taiwanese immigrant Gie-Ming, fell in love with professional hoops and taught his kids the game.
That carried Lin all the way to a state title with Palo Alto High School in 2006, but he didn’t receive a Division I scholarship offer and ended up at Harvard, where he helped the Crimson beat Boston College and nearly upset UConn in 2009.
“It’s one thing to be good enough, but it’s another thing when you have one opportunity,” said Peter Diepenbrock, Lin’s high school coach. “When the lights are biggest, that’s where he performs at his best.”
Diepenbrock thinks Lin’s confidence is what gives him the ability to persevere. Aside from his struggle to stay on an NBA roster, he also has dealt with the racism and stereotypes thrown at him throughout his career.
“He just blocks it out; he’s so strong mentally,” Diepenbrock said.
Lin will need every bit of that strength as he tries to continue his out-of-nowhere play — especially with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers coming to town.
When asked about keeping Lin in for 45 minutes Monday after playing him for 36 two nights ago, D’Antoni laughed after his answer. But he might not be kidding.
“I’m riding him like freakin’ Secretariat,” he said.