Basketball: Linsanity! Unfancied Harvard graduate is talk of NBA

Will Dean witnesses the birth of a star

Jeremy Lin is a 6ft 3in NBA superstar. While at high school he captained his Palo Alto side to a state championship before heading on to a famous university and NBA fame. His could be the story of any high-flying, US basketball hero. But Lin's ascent has been one of the most unlikely in sport. On Tuesday, Lin helped his team, the New York Knicks, beat the Toronto Raptors with 27 points, 11 assists and a last-second, game-winning three-pointer.

After just five starts – the Knicks have won all five – Lin has become a phenomenon. Before the Raptors game, he had scored 20 plus points in four and a half games including a comic-book hero 38-point showing against the Lakers.

The Taiwanese-American has scored more points in his first five starts than any player in the modern game. On Tuesday he bounced on to the cover of Sports Illustrated. But the reason Lin is a star isn't because of his talent but because his story is one of perseverance against the odds.

The phenomenon has been dubbed – and marketed by the Knicks as – "Linsanity". But it hasn't been easy. Despite having captained his high school to a state championship Lin was snubbed for a scholarship by the top athletic universities. Instead, he headed to Harvard to study economics. While there, Lin set scoring and defensive records, was twice named to the Ivy League team of the year and led the Crimson to a record number of wins.

Still the basketball world wasn't convinced and Lin was left out of the draft system which feeds the top college players into the professional leagues.

After a brief spell at Golden State Warriors Lin was picked up by New York as a back-up in December. His standing was such that just over a week ago, he was sleeping on his dentistry student brother's couch in Manhattan.

Last Monday, by sheer fluke, I went to my first NBA game – the Knicks hosting Utah Jazz at Madison Square Garden. This was the beginning of Linsanity – the player's first NBA start. Even as basketball ingénue it was easy to appreciate his talents. Lin was exceptional at feeding his team mates and – if he couldn't – dribbling through to score. His presence was electric. I assumed Lin had starred all season. It wasn't until I failed to buy a Lin T-shirt because they hadn't actually made any that it was explained to me how unknown he was.

They've got shirts now. And the Knicks' management aren't the only ones taking advantage. For a league damaged by 2011's strike, Linsanity is a dream opportunity to open the sport up to new demographics.

After the retirement of Chinese NBA star Yao Ming, Lin could be the perfect opportunity for the NBA to maintain a presence in basketball-mad China. Yesterday, The New York Times reported that a Communist official – hoping to gazump Taiwan – had traced Lin's family back to the city of Jiaxing. The importance of his roots has been debated by fans and pundits alike. Was Lin passed over because of his ethnicity?

Another talking point is his religiosity. It's led to comparisons with the NFL's Tim Tebow, the Denver quarterback who's kneeling to God celebration has made him a hero to US Christians. Like Tebow, Lin has remained humble and stressed the importance of the team. After sinking the Raptors, he told reporters: "It's not because of me, it's because we're coming together as a team." It's perhaps Lin's ordinariness that has made him a hero – but his comic- book style exploits are anything but.

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