All three played high school basketball, but the middle child stood out. "Even as a 5'3", 125-pound freshman, Jeremy lived and breathed basketball," says Peter Diepenbrock, Lin's coach at Palo Alto High. "And more than that, he knew he was the best on any court we stepped on." As a 6'1" senior, Lin led Palo Alto to the state Division II championship, shocking nationally ranked Mater Dei and showing flashes of the primary strengths of his game: fearlessness in the paint, unselfishness in the open floor (he takes only 19.7% of Harvard's shots) and an overhead, catapultlike jumper that is lethal from inside the arc (61.3% this season).
The Kansases and Kentuckys, however, didn't exactly knock down Lin's door. He sent his CV (4.2 GPA, perfect score on his SAT II Math 2C in the ninth grade) and a DVD of highlights—edited by a friend of a friend from church—to all eight Ivies, Stanford, Cal and his dream school, UCLA. Only four schools responded. Out of the Pac-10, Lin recalls, UCLA "wasn't interested," Stanford was "fake interested," and during a visit to Cal a staffer "called me 'Ron.'"
"In hindsight," Santa Clara coach and former Bruins assistant Kerry Keating told the San Francisco Chronicle, "he'd probably be starting for UCLA at point guard."
He hit a 40-footer at the buzzer to beat William & Mary in triple-overtime in November, scored a total of 52 points in two wins over Boston College in the last two years and had 30 points, nine rebounds and two nasty slams in a six-point loss to then No. 14--ranked UConn. Said Huskies coach Jim Calhoun, "I can't think of a team that he wouldn't play for." (There might be one, technically: the Chinese Olympic team. Lin says he would decline a tryout invitation if renouncing his U.S. citizenship would be a requirement for making the team.)
And yet Lin, whose demeanor on the court matches his role as coleader of a campus Bible study group, encounters racism at virtually every game on the road, whether it's fans yelling "Chinese" gibberish (Lin is not fluent in Mandarin, for the record) or opponents using the most vile epithets that can be directed at Asians.
"I really saw it affect Jeremy last year," Harvard guard Oliver McNally says of how Lin would stew in private. "But now? He lets his game speak for itself. They can call him whatever they want."
Once a month, at the Cambridge restaurant Henrietta's Table, Amaker has breakfast with a group of noted African-American scholars and businessmen led by Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree. Lately they have discussed politics, the dueling philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, and, in Ogletree's words, "the whole new world" that has enveloped Harvard basketball.
And at 84-year-old Lavietes Pavilion, the Crimson's home crowd has become a blend of screaming academics, new fans from poor black neighborhoods in East Cambridge, well-heeled alums and a small army of Asian-American diehards. "There's a real sense of optimism, excitement, even a sense of family," says Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education and a Harvard forward in the mid-1980s. "All that's been missing for a while."
Notably, one fan was on the bandwagon before any signs or microphones or pro scouts appeared. "I think this team is going to surprise everyone," Gie-Ming Lin wrote in an e-mail to Amaker early last fall. "I know it is not easy. But in high school they called my son 'Mr. Improbable.'"
Cue the usual shaking of Jeremy's head, that sheepish exhale of disbelief. For Mr. Improbable, of course, the best part about this surprising season is that nothing seems improbable anymore.