One of the most surreal weeks in NBA history started with an eviction. It was Feb. 3, an overcast Friday in New York City, and Joshua Lin, an NYU dental student, had sadly informed his little brother Jeremy that he needed to find another place to crash for the night. Jeremy, an undrafted reserve with the Knicks, had been signed shortly before the New Year; for the last several days, since being recalled from the organization's Developmental League team in Erie, Pa., the 23-year-old point guard had been crashing on the brown couch in Josh's one-bedroom on the Lower East Side. For plenty of Harvard economics majors, living on a sofa would have already proved demoralizing. For one who had already lost two jobs in a 15-day span this winter—the Warriors waived him on Dec. 9, and the Rockets did the same late on Christmas Eve—it was significantly worse.
Jeremy Lin's arrangement with his brother had provided a certain symmetry, though. The two had always been close: Josh, 26, the eldest of the three Lin children, was the person Jeremy measured himself against, trailing him as a kid in Palo Alto like a lost puppy. (Joseph, the youngest Lin, is now a 5'11" freshman guard at Division III Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.) When Josh played junior varsity hoops, there was Jeremy, thrilled to volunteer as scorekeeper. When Josh's Gunn High team completed conditioning drills, there was Jeremy again, sprinting and keeping pace on the sideline. Long after the middle child went on to star for the Crimson, finally growing bigger than any Lin in memory—"When he was a baby, Jeremy ate twice as much as his two brothers," their 5'6" father, Gie-Ming, likes to say—5'9" Josh still knew, better than any defender in college basketball, how to nullify 6'3" Jeremy's best moves.
But now came the weekend, and Josh and his wife, Patricia, had friends coming over. "So my couch," Jeremy recalls, "was occupied for the night." Clinging to his league-minimum contract, which was not yet guaranteed, he found harbor on a sofa in another living room, this one belonging to Knicks teammate Landry Fields. No one imagined that by the next evening, when an exhausted Jeremy returned from a win over the Nets to resume his tenancy on Josh's furniture, his world would be upside down.
Madison Square Garden turned 44 last Saturday, and up until seven days before, any Knicks fans worth their salt would have sworn that they'd seen everything. A villain scoring eight points in 11 seconds in the postseason? Reggie Miller, 1995. A coach clinging to the opposing center's leg in the middle of an all-out brawl, as if he were some kind of koala? Jeff Van Gundy, '98. A four-point play to seal a playoff victory? Larry Johnson, '99. And that was just the mid-to-late '90s.
But this? Nothing, anywhere, has ever resembled the ascendance of Jeremy Shu-How Lin, a legend seemingly pulled from the imagination of a goosefleshed David Stern, if not Disney's most hyperbolic global marketing exec. Five games, five wins for the foundering Knicks—a stretch during which they lost their two best players, Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire—all thanks to a Taiwanese-American Ivy Leaguer whose previous New York hoops experience mostly involved pickup games at an NYU dorm in Union Square last spring. "The whole thing has been overwhelming for me and my family," says Lin, who before last weekend was regularly asked by stadium security if he was a team trainer. "There are lots of times when we have to pinch ourselves and ask, Is this really happening?"
Yes, it is. Really. Lin's original free-agent signing by Golden State in 2010 may have been laughed off as a marketing stunt, and he may be making less than 1/20th of the salary of either Anthony ($18.5 million per year) or Stoudemire ($18.2 million). But there was Lin—whose alleged lack of athleticism had caused him to bungee off 2010 draft boards—outclassing a series of point guards who had been top five picks. First he came off the bench and crossed over the Nets' Deron Williams (No. 3 pick in '05), cleaving a double team and finishing at the rim—and one, en route to 25 points. That performance earned him his first career start two nights later, when he dropped 28 on the Jazz's Devin Harris (No. 5 in '04), perhaps the league's fastest player, while playing all but three minutes and eight seconds. (New York coach Mike D'Antoni said he rode Lin like "friggin' Secretariat.") And in Lin's first road start the Wizards' John Wall (No. 1 in '10) fell victim to a 23-point, 10-assist outburst, highlighted by a sequence in which Lin blew by him on a crossover and dunked, one-handed, sending the Verizon Center into whoops.
The undermanned Knicks were riding a wave of energy from the unlikeliest source. By last Friday—a nationally televised game against the Lakers—the surreality spilled up and out of the World's Most Famous Arena, taking over Planet Earth. Yes, that was Lin, taking on a dismissive Kobe Bryant. (Asked about Linsanity in Boston the night before, Bryant had scoffed to reporters, "I have no idea what you guys are talking about.") Yes, that was Lin, directing the attack, draining threes and outdueling Derek Fisher, turning a five-time champion into a Dartmouth freshman. Yes, that was Lin, facing down Bryant and grinning, with his 38 points (to Kobe's mere 34), winning that many ovations from a mob of 19,763 who might as well have been standing 122 blocks north, at Harlem's Rucker Park. Twenty-four hours after that 92--88 victory, when Lin sank a game-winning free-throw with 4.9 left in a gutty 100--98 defeat of the Timberwolves and Ricky Rubio (No. 5 in '09), it almost felt like a letdown.
Occasionally a young, twice-cast-off NBA player will catch on with a team, maybe carve out a place in the rotation, even use that foothold to slowly build a career. Not Lin. When finally given a spot in the starting lineup, after playing all of 375 career minutes, he instantly put up numbers worthy of an All-Star. His 109 total points surpassed Allen Iverson's 101 for the most by any player in his first four starts since the 1976 NBA-ABA merger. And without either Anthony (out with a strained right groin) or Stoudemire (with his family after the death of his brother on Feb. 6), Lin became the first to have at least 20 points and seven assists in each of those initial starts. The last time he'd achieved such perfection was as a ninth-grader, when he aced the SAT II Math IIC. "It's indescribable," says Fields, a Stanford grad who once held Lin scoreless in college. "I've never seen anything like it."
As Twitter lit up with worldwide hosannas (@SteveNash: "If you love sports you have to love what Jeremy Lin is doing. Getting an opportunity and exploding!!"), the explosion of Lin's popularity caught even his employers unaware. On the Knicks' website the nine best-selling souvenirs became Lin items—all on preorder. Last Thursday, Garden employees had to iron number 17 onto jerseys just to have something on shelves for the Lakers game. "You came too late," one team store employee told Brian Land and his young son, Eli, who had come to the Garden from Jericho, N.Y., and were seeking any sort of Lin memorabilia. At that point it was already halftime, and the crowd—stippled with homemade Lin masks and poster-board signs not seen since he starred at Harvard (SI, Feb. 1, 2010)—had long been chanting M-V-P.
In recent, less cohesive times—notably, when D'Antoni was still pinning his hopes on the return of veteran point guard Baron Davis, who has yet to play this season because of a herniated disk—the players had been shown clip after clip of center Tyson Chandler running into the lane off pick-and-rolls and never receiving a pass. Lin promptly solved that issue. And now, despite a rotation reliant on low profiles (Jared Jeffries, Steve Novak, Bill Walker), the Knicks, who had lost 11 of 13 before Lin's breakout against the Nets, have rallied to a 13--15 record through Sunday, good for eighth in the Eastern Conference. "We have a rhythm," says Jeffries. "And we're riding this kid's coattails to the top."