To measure the immediate sociological impact of Jeremy Lin the electric New York Knicks point guard who has jolted the NBA start on the weekend-warrior basketball floor. In a gym near New York City's Chinatown two days after Lin torched the Los Angeles Lakers for 38 points, a group of African-American players prepped for a rec-league game. Most of the competition was Asian American. The message: Ditch the stereotype of the Asian dudes as pesky players who nevertheless won't be hard to beat. "We've got to play these guys," one of the men barked to his teammates. "They might have a team full of Jeremy Lins." The pep talk fell short. The Asian Americans won by a bucket.
If you've played a minute of pickup basketball, especially in the U.S., admit it: you may have racially profiled. The NBA's demographics make it difficult not to 83% of players on this year's NBA All-Star roster are black. Face a team of black guys and you think, We might be in trouble. White guys: We'll take them, but watch the jump shooters. Asian players: No sweat. They're physics grad students, right? "You do stereotype," Shavar Stewart, a hospital tech from uptown in the Bronx, tells TIME in the Chinatown gym after losing to the Asian Americans. "You do profile. But I think Jeremy Lin will start changing stereotypes. He already has."
With his sudden rise from NBA benchwarmer to must-see TV, Lin, 23, has crushed all kinds of conventions like the one that said he was a nice Ivy League player but would never thrive in the NBA. How many Harvard grads and how many Asian Americans were in the current NBA before he arrived? Zero and zero. Harvard has produced more U.S. Presidents (eight) than NBA players (four, and until Lin, none since the 1950s). Lin's bottom-feeding team, the Knicks, began this lockout-shortened season in shambles, done in by ugly point-guard play. After the desperate head coach, Mike D'Antoni, finally gave the ball to Lin, all Lin did was go out and score more points in his first five starts 136 than any other player since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. "I can't explain it," Lin, limping slightly from exhaustion, told a Knicks official in a Madison Square Garden hallway after he outdueled the Lakers' Kobe Bryant on national television. "If I could, I would."
He doesn't have to for Asian Americans, especially the subset who proudly call themselves ballers but have never seen one of their own in the NBA. "You know when you believe in something?" says David Liu, 25, an avid Taiwanese-American pickup player who has followed Lin since his Harvard days and had told everyone within earshot Asian American and otherwise that Lin was destined for the NBA. "And people challenge you about it and mock you for it? And then you see it all pay off? That's an amazing feeling." Lin has lifted the psyches of Liu and others both on and off the basketball court. "Whenever I see him do any of his moves, my heart is just pounding," says Bryan Peng, a computer tech and rec-league junkie who grew up playing in Chinatown. "He's like our Obama."
The Global Baller
Lin initially demurs when asked about that sort of reaction. But he then flashes what's becoming a familiar grin. He has plenty to smile about. "I'm just thankful to them," Lin says of his fervent supporters after a Knicks practice. "I'm humbled, really. I still feel like I have a long way to go and a lot more to do. But if I can inspire people along the way, you know, I'd love to do that."
Linsanity has global reach. His No. 17 jersey is now the top online seller in the NBA. The NBA's television partners in China, Taiwan and the Philippines rushed to add Knicks games. Lin's name was the third most searched term on Baidu.com, China's leading search engine. For some in China, Lin's Taiwanese background is causing discomfort. "Is he representing the China team? Why is everyone rushing to support him?" one user on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, wrote in a post. (Beijing still considers Taiwan a renegade province). For the most part, however, China's media have embraced the point guard and are completely caught up in Linfengkuang Linsanity.
Lin has navigated the China-Taiwan divide with caution. He clearly considers himself American but has said he's proud to be identified with both China and Taiwan. He is close to the recently retired Chinese NBA star Yao Ming and says he speaks to Yao after every game. In an interview with a website before the 2010 NBA draft, Lin said he speaks Mandarin and can "read and write a little," and he took classes at Harvard to improve.