And so they chanted his name into the emptying Verizon Center, all the newly sold, drawn to an instant sensation that can be made only in this electronic world. Feet pounded. Hands clapped. A roar spilled over the court as the man, unknown until five days ago, ducked his head, 23 points behind him, and ran from the din.
How fast does a phenomenon grow in these days of hashtags and trending topics? Five days ago, Jeremy Lin was a forgotten backup point guard mired to the bench of the New York Knicks, famous only because he is the first player of Taiwanese descent in the NBA and because he played at Harvard. On a Knicks team that is both parts underachieving and dysfunctional, his presence barely drew a ripple. He got a start, basically because the Knicks were so desperate at the point guard position. Then came the injury to Carmelo Anthony and the death of Amar'e Stoudemire's brother that has taken the center from the team, and the Knicks needed something. All they had was Lin.
So out on the floor he went last Saturday night, driving and shooting for 25 points, then throwing up 28 more two nights later as the fans in Madison Square Garden cried to the world that he was now MVP.
This is all it takes to make a sensation these days, 53 points in a place they call The World's Most Famous Arena.
And this is what it takes to feed a sensation these days. Alex Wu, a Taiwanese man recently graduated from the University of Virginia, woke up Sunday to a Facebook page exploding with news of a man much like himself who tore apart the New Jersey Nets the night before. And he wondered: Just who was this Jeremy Lin?
Which is how he and his UVA friends Shane Gao and Peter Chen found themselves as part of a group of five walking into the Verizon Center on Wednesday night wearing Knicks blue T-shirts with pieces of Lin's last name and his No. 17 spelled on the shirts in orange tape.
"I'm actually Chinese," Gao said. "But he's like a brother so it's all good."
Like Wu, Gao had heard of Lin only this past weekend as had Sean Tong from Springfield, Va., who draped himself in the Taiwan flag on Wednesday. Like Wu, his friends had mocked him on Facebook and Twitter. What do you mean you don't know about Jeremy Lin? And so he came to find out for himself.
"That's my boy!" Tong shouted.
And just how long has he been your boy?
"Well, not long."
But how could he know? How could any of them know, those extra thousands who came Wednesday night hauling signs like "#Lining," or "J Lin 4-da win"? How could the Knicks know? Three weeks ago they sent Lin down to their D-League team in Erie, Pa. Had he not played well on Saturday, the guaranteed part of his contract might not have been picked up this week. He would have been out of the NBA. Now people are making signs, taping T-shirts and writing rap songs with his name.
As with many sensations, there is no making sense of all this. The Knicks were through with Lin just like the Golden State Warriors were through with him after last season. The NBA does not draft Taiwanese point guards from Harvard, and Lin certainly didn't fit what the Warriors wanted. They sent him to the D-League. When the Knicks put him on a plane to Erie in late January, Lin was terrified that last year was happening again, that his NBA dream was gone, that he was destined to be an interesting footnote in a long list of international firsts the league loves to tout as it lumbers toward world domination.
Maybe he found himself during the one game he played in Erie, where the coach there, Jay Larranaga, runs the same guard-driven offense as Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, and Lin had a triple-double. "I think he was anxious to run the Knicks offense and test it out," Larranaga said. "He made the most of it." And then there he was on Wednesday, leaping in the air, dunking on the Wizards. When he came back down to the floor, a broken bandage dangled off his chin. He had turned into something he possibly didn't even recognize.
So after Wednesday's game, when he finally emerged from the New York locker room clad in warmups, a backpack slung across his shoulder, he gazed into a wall of cameras and journalists who never gave him a glance until last weekend, and said: "I wouldn't have imagined this. At the same time, it's just a blessing from God."
He is a Christian, vocal in his belief. And because of this and because he is a flawed player proving the experts wrong, people are comparing him to Tim Tebow. And everything was swirling out of control in the Verizon Center: Fans holding signs with Bible verses; fans calling his name; the son of Wizards coach Randy Wittman, a former player at Cornell, texting his father to say his Cornell teammates did a better job of guarding Lin at Harvard than Washington's millionaire NBA players.
Lin might have been anonymous a week ago, but at least he had a firm grasp of his name. Now because of three basketball games it has been tossed into the swirling sea of public consumption.
"Part of me is worried about the Tebow comparison," said Lin's college friend and former Bible Study partner, Eddie Lee, who stood outside the Knicks locker room as a crowd swelled in the hallway. "I hope the media doesn't take that and turn it into something."
It's probably too late for that. Sensations feed on themselves, devouring bits of fact until they get bigger and bigger. D'Antoni, whose season had gone so poorly until now he might have lost his job had Lin not come from nowhere, tossed food to the burgeoning beast by saying Lin is making this all look too easy, that Lin is getting the other Knicks players in the right position to succeed, that he thinks this "is for real" and that Lin "has the ability to do it every night."
Yet what choice does D'Antoni have? Jeremy Lin might well have saved D'Antoni's job. Jeremy Lin might well have saved his own job. Who knows where this started, where it came from, because it doesn't seem like the two men most involved -- player and coach -- had a thought it was possible. And now he is suddenly Michael Jordan, scoring more than 20 points, driving past hapless Washington defenders who either couldn't stop him or didn't even try.
Still almost dazed, Lin stared at his news conference and said, "It hasn't even been a week yet."
Not far away, his friend Lee smiled.
"To see him sitting on the bench getting garbage minutes one day and then to see him on highlights the next, that's a Cinderella story to the core," Lee said. "But he's a humble person to the core, too. I think he's prepared for it. He's gone through the ups and downs throughout his life. He's got a good head on his shoulders. That's a testament to his faith."
The questions were flying at Lin. How surprised is he? What does he think of Tebow? How long can this last? Lin couldn't even get to most of them. His appearance after the game was brief. The Knicks bus was waiting, the team's public-relations man growled. Not that any of the players sitting on that idling motor coach should care. The Knicks have been searching for years for the point guard that will lead the franchise, and suddenly there he was, on the end of their bench, rescued temporarily from the D-League.
"God must have had a different plan," Lin said.
After going from oblivion to sensation that seemed as good an explanation as any other.
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