St. John's coach Mike Jarvis was among those brought in, as was Longwood University coach Mike Gillian. Then came Amaker, the biggest name—if only because the 41-year-old coach had been unceremoniously canned by Michigan a few weeks earlier for failing to reach the NCAA tournament in his six-year run.
It was no contest. "Coach Amaker's interview with us was incredible," Lin recalls. "We clicked. Pretty much everybody said, 'We've got to get this guy.'"
A Mike Krzyzewski protégé as a Duke assistant from 1988 through '97, Amaker had led Seton Hall to the Sweet 16 in 2000 and won 109 games at Michigan. But most striking to the interviewers, he brought a freshman's intense, starry-eyed ambition for what he loves to call "the Harvard brand."
Amaker wanted a go-go offense that fed off a disciplined half-court defense and sparked highlight-caliber plays in the open court. The result has been efficient (Harvard ranked third in the country in two-point field goal percentage, at 56.9%) and exciting (see Lin's two-handed dunk in traffic against UConn in December). As a recruiter, he wanted to be working the same living rooms as Vanderbilt and Stanford.
But at first Amaker's grand vision attracted the wrong attention. In March 2008 The New York Times reported that Harvard had lowered admissions standards and "adopted aggressive recruiting tactics" that may have violated NCAA rules (possible improper contacts with recruits by Amaker and an assistant). Six months later the Ivy League exonerated him, announcing that its investigation found "no violations of NCAA or Ivy League rules" and that recruits' academic profiles—as per the Academic Index, a league formula that sets rules based on GPA and test scores—"complied with all relevant Ivy League obligations." (Also, a particular recruit cited by the Times as being academically unqualified to attend Harvard ultimately signed with Davidson.)
Otherwise, Amaker has been successful in persuading players who meet those Ivy League obligations to give the Crimson a close look. Consider first-year forward Kyle Casey of Medway, Mass., one of 14 freshmen or sophomores on the team: A 6'7" poetry lover with a 42-inch vertical who picked the Crimson over Stanford, Casey (averaging 17.2 points and 6.6 rebounds over the team's last five games) didn't think "for a second" that he'd go to Harvard before Amaker started showing interest in him. Neither, most likely, did the 12 schoolboys among Rivals.com's Top 150 for the class of 2011 who are now considering Harvard—do not adjust your monocle—along with such programs as Kansas and Kentucky.
"Harvard won't make sense for every kid," says Keith Easterwood, the AAU coach of one of those recruits, guard Andre Hollins of White Station High in Memphis. "But that staff has taken the blinders off. They're selling basketball and a hell of an education. With Andre, they're going to be in it with Memphis and Tennessee."
But for all of Amaker's moves to make the Harvard brand more enticing to recruits—switching team sponsors, from New Balance to Nike, bringing old pros Doc Rivers and Grant Hill to clinics ("Now they say they lectured at Harvard," Amaker jokes), highlighting the school's new financial-aid packages, revising the media guide to feature alums from John Adams to Barack Obama—the coach would discover that the key to his turnaround, not to mention his best athlete, was an unassuming holdover who had interviewed him for the job.
Jeremy Shu-How Lin was the only player in the nation last season ranked in the top 10 of every major statistical category in his conference, but this stat might be the most striking: According to the most recent NCAA Race and Ethnicity Report (released in 2009), there are only 18 Asian-American men's basketball players in Division I (0.4%). By contrast, there are 23 students at Harvard with the last name of Lin.
Which is to say that Jeremy's college choice, as stereotypes go, was not terribly novel. Lin's parents, Gie-Ming and Shirley, are 5'6" Taiwanese immigrants who came to the U.S. in the mid-1970s and studied computer engineering (dad) and computer science (mom) at Purdue. Neither ever played a second of organized hoops, but they did watch the NBA. Shirley adored Dr. J; three times a week Gie-Ming took their sons, Joshua, Jeremy and Joseph, to the YMCA and tried to help them mimic the skills they had seen on TV.