Posted Feb 17 2012 8:17PM - Updated Feb 21 2012 1:45AM
Eight games and two weeks into worldwide Linsanity, all everyone wants to talk about is how New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin could have been overlooked by so many people who make their living evaluating talent.
From coaches at about 340 NCAA Division I schools to a couple of NBA general managers who released him, to even his current employer, which had played him all of 55 minutes in his first 23 games before injuries forced his insertion into the starting lineup, it seems no one understood the power of Lin -- until he was given the big stage on which to perform.
But here's the real story: When all those D-I teams -- even Stanford, located across the street from where Lin played high school basketball -- took a pass on him in 2006, Lin caught the break of his life. Because the one school that believed his intangible strengths would one day trump his more obvious physical limitations was Harvard, which would eventually be coached by a former point guard.
Make that a great former point guard who saw in Lin the same potential to be special.
Lin played just one year for the coach who recruited him, Frank Sullivan, who was fired in 2007. His replacement was Tommy Amaker, who as a player at Duke became an All-American and helped coach Mike Krzyzewski start a dynasty.
Even former Stanford coach Trent Johnson, who in the last two weeks has patiently answered question after question from the media about why he didn't sign Lin, says Harvard was the best possible place for him.
In fairness to Johnson, now the head coach at LSU, it has to be pointed out that the five-man recruiting class he signed during Lin's senior season in high school included three players -- Brook and Robin Lopez and Landry Fields -- now playing in the NBA, and another point guard, Da'Veed Dildy. And it wasn't as though Johnson didn't see some sort of potential in Lin. Without another scholarship available, Johnson offered Lin, who at the time had the physical dimensions of a No. 2 pencil, a chance to walk on, build up his body and eventually earn a scholarship.
Cal and UCLA also asked Lin to walk on. But Lin and has family wanted a scholarship. When an offer never came, he wound up at Harvard, which plays in a conference, the Ivy League, that doesn't offer athletic scholarships.
"He could have come to Stanford -- and we did have a history of taking walk-ons and let them earn scholarships," Johnson said. "But if he'd have stayed at our place, I don't know if he'd have developed his game. I was throwing that thing inside at the time because of the size we had. So Jeremy ends up at Harvard, but he didn't knock the world out his freshman and sophomore seasons.
"The story should be how, after his sophomore year, Jeremy started to develop under Tommy Amaker's tuteledge."
Amaker would have never gotten the chance to work with Lin had it not been for a chance sighting by former Harvard assistant Bill Holden. In the summer of 2006, Holden was approached by Lin's coach at Palo Alto High School, Peter Diepenbrock, at an AAU tournament in Las Vegas and asked to give an honest evaluation.
"It was a very noncompetitive game I was seeing him in," Holden told radio station SN 590 The Fan in Toronto. "It wasn't a good evaluation game, unfortunately. Six years ago, Jeremy Lin was an inch and a half shorter and about 50, 60 pounds lighter. He didn't really pass the eye test back then."
Thus, Holden's snap judgment on Lin's potential wasn't what Diepenbrock wanted to hear. "I told him Jeremy should go play for a Division III school," Holden said.
A day later, Holden changed his mind when he saw Lin play again.
"For whatever reason -- the environment, the competition -- he was able to show his skill set, his ability to get to the rim, his ability to get into the lane and make some shots, and the ability to play some defense, which I didn't see him do the day before," Holden said. "Physically, you could tell he wasn't done growing. He hadn't hit his maturation peak yet.
"He still had a long way to go. He had shown some quickness, but physically, that was about it. But his basketball knowledge and instincts for the game is what drew me to him, and hopefully, the other things would kick in."
Consider Holden's second evaluation ground zero for Linsanity, for even though Lin led Palo Alto to the California Division II state championship over a nationally ranked Mater Dei team that had seven players 6-7 or taller, no mid-major schools offered him a scholarship.
"That, to me, is the amazing thing," Johnson said. "Where was everybody else? When I was the coach at Nevada, I'd have jumped all over him, because in terms of his build, he reminded me of Todd Okeson, the point guard we had at Nevada who helped us get to the Sweet 16 in 2004. The question I had with Todd [who weighed 165 pounds] was, physically, could he hold up? That's the one thing you can't predict when you're talking about a kid who's that skinny."
"I had the same question about Jeremy, but we still wanted him to walk on at Stanford, maybe develop his body. Go back and look at all the guys who walked on for me and played. There was a history there. I liked his skill level and the fact that his teams won."
Stanford, or any other Division I school that offers scholarships, wasn't meant to be for Lin. But Harvard, a school that has produced twice as many U.S. presidents (eight) as NBA players (four), turned out to be the best place he could have gone. That became obvious when, after Lin's freshman season, Sullivan was fired after failing to lead the Crimson to a league title in 16 years.
The next phase of Linsanity began when Amaker took over the program.
Unlike Johnson, Amaker, who's trying to lead Harvard -- 21-3 and 7-1 in the Ivy League -- to a conference championship and the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1946, isn't answering questions from the media about Lin. But Will Wade, a VCU assistant who worked for Amaker during Lin's sophomore and junior seasons, shares Trent Johnson's belief that his former boss helped make Lin what he is today.
"Jeremy was a very, very driven kid," Wade said. "A kid who had a lot of layers to him. But what really spurred his growth was that coach Amaker took a vested interest in his development. Coach Amaker saw things in Jeremy that he probably didn't see in himself."
In Lin, Amaker found a willing pupil who wanted to get better.
"He was a tremendous worker," Wade said. "He was always wanting to learn, always asking questions. Sometimes, he would get frustrated with himself because he wasn't progressing at the rate he wanted to progress. For him, it was great having coach Amaker mentor him and guide him."
Lin averaged 4.8 points and 1.8 assists in 18.1 minutes a game as a freshman. In his first season playing for Amaker, he played 31.3 minutes a game and averaged 12.6 points and 3.6 assists. Lin's glaring weakness was 3-point shooting (28.1 and 27.9 percent his first two seasons), but at Amaker's behest, Lin turned himself into a threat from behind the arc.
"He wasn't a great shooter," Wade said. "He was pretty good in the mid range, but he didn't have range to 3. People would back off and play him as a driver, so he'd force shots and not get as many clean looks. Jeremy worked hard on expanding his range. That made his pull-up jumper almost deadly, and when he was able to be a consistent threat from 3, it opened up the whole floor for him.
"That's why, in Jeremy's junior year, it was his team. Coach Amaker basically gave him the keys to the bus and said, 'Let's go.' "
With Lin taking charge, Harvard went from 8-22 in Amaker's first season to 14-14 his second. Lin averaged 17.7 points, 4.2 assists and 2.4 steals, but more importantly, he shot 40 percent from 3. Lin's numbers were down slightly the next year, because Harvard had better players, and he didn't have to do quite so much. But the Crimson finished 21-7 and advanced to the College Basketball Invitational.
It wouldn't be long before the Legend of Lin became a worldwide phenomenon. But Lin had no idea what was ahead.
His ambition was to become a youth minister.
"That's what he told me the last year I was at Harvard," Wade said. "You have no idea how good of a person he is. Just a great, great person. A quiet leader that people are naturally drawn to. I'm sure he would have been a great youth minister."
And that's what Lin might have become, if not for Amaker's belief that Lin had next-level talent. That was confirmed when Lin was a junior and he scored 25 points in a win over a Boston College team that included future NBA player Reggie Jackson and was coming off an upset of North Carolina.
After that season, during which Lin became the only player in the country to be ranked among the top 10 in every major statistical category in his conference, he still wasn't sure he could play basketball beyond college, let alone in the NBA. Amaker thought Lin was capable, but knew he had to get even better.
"The thing Jeremy knows, and we have talked about this since the end of last season, is that he needs to make others better," Amaker told Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook in 2009. "Can he become a better leader? You look at his numbers; it's tough to say he needs to improve here or there. He's a throwback, a complete player with a great deal of energy and competitiveness.
"[But] it's no longer good enough to drive himself. Now, it's time to bring others along with him. Can he be a special player who makes an impact on others?"
Eight games and two weeks into Linsanity, that question has been answered -- and then some.
Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.
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