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Sports Illustrated: Harvard School of Basketball

-Courtesy Pablo S. Torre, Sports Illustrated
Appeared in Feb. 1 print issue of SPorts Illustrated, Volume 112, Issue 4; on newsstands Jan. 27

What's most surprising? The possibility that he might become the first Asian-American draft pick in NBA history? The bigoted jeers he regularly hears at games (everything from "wonton soup" to "Open your eyes!")? The number of microphones and cameras of Chinese and Taiwanese outlets—five covered Harvard-Dartmouth on Jan. 9—that broadcast Crimson highlight packages, including interviews with his coach, Tommy Amaker?

Or is it the hysterically proud new fans, the ones filling gyms from Cambridge, Mass., to Santa Clara, Calif., toting signs and wearing customized T-shirts (WE LOVE YOU JEREMY!) more befitting a Jonas brother than a Taiwanese-American Ivy League point guard?

"The most surprising part," Jeremy Lin concludes, shaking his head and exhaling, "is pretty much everything."

It's a mid-January afternoon, and the senior econ major driving the unlikeliest revival in college basketball sits in his fourth-floor dorm room overlooking a frozen Charles River. He's surrounded by photos of family and friends back in Palo Alto, Calif., a poster of Warriors-era Chris Webber and an Xbox in disrepair. Nothing suggests Lin's status as the first finalist in more than a decade for the Wooden award and first for the Cousy award (nation's top point guard) to come from the scholarship-devoid Ivies.

"I never could have predicted any of this," says Lin. "To have people talk about you like that? I'm not really used to it."

Neither is Harvard (13--3, 2--0 in the Ivy League). An institution whose academic prestige is in inverse proportion to its hoops futility, the Crimson has never won even a conference title. But now, 64 years after making its sole NCAA appearance, the oldest university in America has a big-name coach, a player of the year candidate and its best start since 1945. "I always wondered, Why can't the basketball team be great?" says Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, a booster who kept stats for the team as an undergrad in the 1970s. "Finally, things are building."

So it is that when Harvard visits two-time defending Ivy champ Cornell (16--3, 2--0) this Saturday, it will be the most anticipated conference game in decades—the NCAA selection committee's midseason bracket projects the Crimson as a No. 11 seed and the Big Red as a 12, which would give the Ivies their first at-large tournament bid—and the spotlight will fall not only on high-scoring Cornell forward Ryan Wittman but also on two point guards.
The first one is the curiously under-recruited Lin, a 6'3", 200-pound dynamo who was averaging 17.1 points, 4.8 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 2.9 steals and 1.3 blocks at week's end. "I've been around a lot of good players in my life," says Amaker, the 1987 national defensive player of the year at Duke, "and Jeremy's up there. He's sensational."

The other is Tommy Amaker.

Three years ago, in early April, Harvard's redbrick Murr athletics building was the site of a rare process in college sports. Following the bitter firing of longtime coach Frank Sullivan that March, athletic director Bob Scalise convened a search committee made up of administration officials and prominent alums to find the man who might implement a wholesale, "private-equity-like" turnaround of one of the worst programs in Division I. In an unusual step the committee asked the team's nonseniors to interview the finalists as well.

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.

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.

Ivy Pros
If he goes on to play in the NBA, Harvard senior guard Jeremy Lin (right) would become the first Ivy Leaguer in the pros since Yale's Chris Dudley retired after the 2002--03 season. Lin would also be the first Crimson athlete to play in the league since Ed Smith scored 28 points in 11 games for the Knicks in 1953--54. Of the eight Ivy schools, Harvard has accounted for the fewest NBA games played by alumni.