#Linsanity should be no surpriseFebruary 10, 2012: 1:35 PM ET
At 6-foot-3, with a Harvard economics degree -- and tons of buzz -- Jeremy Lin is the talk of New York and sports fans nationwide.
By Alex Konrad, reporter
FORTUNE -- Jeremy Lin is the talk of New York and sports fans nationwide. The 6-foot-3 Asian-American Knicks starter and assist-maker with a Harvard economics degree is leading the Knicks, a team in desperate free-fall until he took over six days ago. Lin has become a story as much about his distinct background as his play. Moreover, Lin is not just a perplexing curio of the moment: he is bringing the Knicks real dollars and precious victories.
But the truth is #Linsanity, as the Twitterati have ecstatically dubbed his ascent, is not a new phenomenon to anyone who went to school with him. Before he graduated in 2010, Lin was already something of a celebrity on campus at Harvard. When Harvard announced its game with Cornell in February 2010 would sell out – something I'd rarely witnessed as a student – I was skeptical, even though Cornell was a force that year and would make a run in the national tournament. Hours later, the Lavietes Pavilion, with its 2,000 or so seats, was indeed sold out. (Barred entry, I peered in from an open door, craning around to half-see some of Lin's 24 points as he almost pulled off the upset.)
Now, Lin's driving ticket sales again -- on a much bigger stage. Knicks tickets have been the top-searched and best selling each day this week on StubHub, the world's largest ticket reseller. The company says that page views for tonight's showdown with the Lakers have shot up to over 100,000 daily since Lin's midweek performance against the Washington Wizards. Vendors are desperate to get their hands on Lin jerseys, and the Knicks -- along with the NBA -- are scrambling to make the most of a surprise marketing opportunity.
That game against the Wizards featured Lin taking it to former number one draft pick John Wall for the second time, a player Harvard's coaching staff compared Lin to as the top two playmakers in the country in 2010. (Not many others went that far.) But Kenny Blakeney, who was an assistant coach for Lin's last three years and now runs Sportin' Scarves, a company that sells NBA-themed scarves, saw plenty of eventual pros while playing for Duke and said it took him just one month on the job to see that Lin would also be NBA-bound.
Many people see Lin's background, however, and see someone more suited to a job on Wall Street than in Madison Square Garden. With his contract guaranteed this week, Lin's now set to make an estimated $800,000 through the rest of the season. That's not much by pro sports standards, but it's miles ahead the typical second-year banking analyst. He'd be making about 15% of that at JPMorgan (JPM). Not that the economics degree was ever intended for such, friends say. Lin's faith is well documented, and Cheng Ho, his roommate for three years, says that as of a couple days ago at least, Lin still plans to become a pastor after his playing days run out. Comparisons to Tim Tebow will be inevitable. Ho says Lin ran a bible group at school (Blakeney notes the team would work around those meetings, knowing how important they were to Lin) and says Lin hopes to help the underprivileged through education and basketball. Lin already has a foundation to his name.
Lin may not be a banker type, but he impressed Chris Foote, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston who teaches Harvard's "Ec 1010b," a second-year economics course mandatory to concentrators (Harvard's name for a major). Foote says that he wondered about the tall student regularly making it to his 9AM lectures, which aren't exactly well attended. He didn't put two and two together until he went to see William & Mary play Harvard, a game in which Lin took it to his alma mater.
Lin's roommate Ho laughs at the thought that his old friend made it to every single class. Lin's co-captain Douglas Miller notes that with regular 7am practices, a 9am class wasn't so bad (maybe just for future reporters). Lin was there when it counted, but found time for a range of pursuits, and could be found playing Halo and Defense of the Ancients in his suite in Leverett House. But when Blakeney says that he was particularly impressed by Harvard athletes' always keeping a long-term plan for themselves, he's thinking of Lin's long hours in the gym as he worked himself into a professional baller. And Ho himself is another example, a former Harvard running back who now works for the National Football League in China. One of several Harvard alums shown repeatedly on the telecast of the last Knicks home game because of their leg up on Lin-themed gear, Ho's now back in China, watching #Linsanity catch on with people of all nationalities in the region. (Lin is Taiwanese.)
Here in the States, however, Lin faces inevitable stereotypes. During his last game, Lin dunked the ball, to the surprise of the announcers and teammates — though Miller says Lin did so every day in practice while usually "winning" practices with his personal stats. On the national scene, though, even with a starting quarterback in the NFL and a nationally ranked basketball team this year, Harvard athletes will always get ribbed for their education, says Andre Akpan, a fellow 2010 graduate and a professional soccer player for the Colorado Rapids. "People questioned me a little bit, and from teammates I get the Harvard joke at every opportunity," Akpan says. Akpan interviewed Lin for health and wellness blog Greatist.com during Akpan's offseason when Lin had just landed with the Rockets and his future was much more in doubt – but even then Akpan says Lin just kept up the same quiet confidence that's gotten him into the spotlight.
As I watch Lin continue to play -- and tonight brings the spectacle of Kobe Bryant and the Lakers -- the novelty of the stereotype breaking might wear off, as I increasingly expect him to succeed even on the highest level. But those who know Lin say this is just who he is. With a career in his back pocket and a lifetime of confidence, he is well positioned to make it a little easier for the next Asian-American ballplayer or alum of a non-powerhouse school. In the meantime, Lin can have a bit of fun with those expectations. Just check out his mock bows to teammate Carmelo Anthony, or his book-reading, glasses-removing new handshake with teammate and Stanford grad Landry Fields. "He's just a goofball," Miller laughs. One who can handle our doubts and now, growing expectations, on his quick strides to the hoop.