(Eds: With AP Photos.)By TIM DAHLBERGAP Sports Columnist
The night before, Kobe Bryant had laughed off a question about whether he would be called on to defend Jeremy Lin in New York. He had no idea what kind of game Lin played, and didn’t understand the fuss about a player he could barely remember even playing against.
Now he knows. Linsanity waits for no one.
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”A great story,” Bryant said. ”It’s a testament to perseverance and hard work. A good example for kids everywhere.”
That it is. There’s a lot to be learned from Lin’s remarkable journey from nowhere to instant stardom at Madison Square Garden, where fans were so giddy Friday night that many were watching the game through masks bearing Lin’s likeness.
Not a bad example for NBA superstars, either. There’s something they can learn about the way Lin is handling his sudden turn in the often harsh glare of the New York media spotlight.
LeBron James said he wanted to be more humble this year? Take a cue from Lin, who deflects any praise about his play by either giving credit to his teammates or to God.
Bryant wants his less talented teammates to be more involved on the court? Look at what Lin has done in less than four full games to mold a ragtag group of wannabes and cast-offs into a team that believes in itself in the space of just a week.
”We are a team,” Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni said. ”His personality has rubbed off on the guys.”
If, by some odd chance, you don’t know Lin’s story by now, here’s the condensed version: Harvard graduate. First American-born NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent. Cut by two other teams.
And, until last Saturday when he came off the bench in New York to score 25 points, a fourth-string point guard so afraid of not getting a real contract for the season that he was sleeping on his brother’s couch.
A classic American underdog story with a few twists. A feel-good story that flies in the face of everything we might think we know about NBA basketball.
We don’t love Lin because he was able to carve his way through and around Bryant and the rest of the Lakers on his way to a career-high 38 points to keep him undefeated as the Knicks’ starting point guard. We don’t love him because he can both drive the lane to score and hit his teammates with expert passes when his route is blocked.
Kobe can do the same things, and so can LeBron. We respect their skills, talk about their greatness, but there’s no real attachment unless we happen to be a fan of their teams.
It’s different with Lin.
We love him because he’s every person who ever dreamed of greatness. We love him because he’s overcome adversity, and fought past ethnic stereotypes. We love him because he insists he’s not all that smart despite a high school GPA of 4.2 and the Harvard degree.
And, yes, we love him because he sleeps on his brother’s couch.
It may not last. Nothing ever does, and it’s been only a week since Lin exploded into the public consciousness. Teams will figure out ways to defend him, just as they did with Tim Tebow when he went on his own remarkable run. He may not be able to spread the ball as much when Carmelo Anthony comes back from injury and wants it himself.
And there’s always that chance – as much as newly enthused Knicks fans hate to contemplate it – that the whole week was an adrenaline-fueled aberration and that Lin is closer to the fourth-string point guards most NBA personnel types thought he was than the superstar in the making New Yorkers hope he is.
Whatever. He’s already probably saved D’Antoni his job, and workers in some factory somewhere are making a lot of overtime pay stitching together the No. 17 replica jerseys that were nowhere to be found Friday night at the Garden.
He could also make the Knicks a lot more money than the $788,872 he’s due this season if he becomes so must-see TV that Time Warner Cable acquiesces to demands and restores the team’s game to the 2 million New Yorkers who have been without it because of a money dispute with the MSG Network.
He’s made believers of players who didn’t have much to believe in before, made believers of fans who were desperate for someone to believe in.
”He has inspired us to play harder because he gives it his all every day,” Knicks forward Jared Jeffries said. ”There is nothing he doesn’t do on a daily basis.”
Indeed, about the only bad thing anyone can say about Lin is that there are way too many bad puns associated with his name.
A small price to pay, though, as Linsanity sweeps the nation.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist with The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg