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From New York to Asia, Lin is an NBA sensation

  • ASSOCIATED PRESSFans hold up New York Knicks' Jeremy Lin photos to distract a Sacramento Kings player during a free throw attempt during the second half of an NBA basketball game on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Fans hold up New York Knicks' Jeremy Lin photos to distract a Sacramento Kings player during a free throw attempt during the second half of an NBA basketball game on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
  • ASSOCIATED PRESSNew York Knicks' Jeremy Lin, center, talks with teammates Carmelo Anthony, left, and Amare Stoudemire, right, during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012, in New York. LIn had 10 points and 13 assists as the Knicks won the game 100-85. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    New York Knicks' Jeremy Lin, center, talks with teammates Carmelo Anthony, left, and Amare Stoudemire, right, during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012, in New York. LIn had 10 points and 13 assists as the Knicks won the game 100-85. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
  • ASSOCIATED PRESSNew York Knicks' Jeremy Lin items are on sale before an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    New York Knicks' Jeremy Lin items are on sale before an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

NEW YORK >> Comparisons to the likes Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James are one thing, but nothing reflects Jeremy Lin’s amazing impact on the NBA this season better than the fact that the New York Knicks are now being talked about as championship contenders.

Before Lin’s extraordinary first week as a starter, the Knicks were 40-1 with bookmakers and being booed by their notoriously demanding fans. Five games later, they’re 18-1 with Bovada.lv and the hype-o-meter is into the red zone, mostly thanks to the Taiwanese-American.

The undrafted player from Harvard made a 3-pointer with half a second left Tuesday to give the Knicks a 90-87 victory at Toronto. The Knicks returned home Wednesday and beat Sacramento, notching a seventh straight victory to even their wins and losses after an 8-15 start.

Lin joined the rotation only then, starting the last five games, so comparisons with Michael Jordan, Shaq or LeBron are more than a touch premature. But the Knicks have seen enough to believe this ride may last a while longer.

“I don’t know when there’s an ending. Maybe there won’t,” coach Mike D’Antoni said.

Lin’s story has blown straight past the New York sports pages and all their cute headlines like “Va-Lin-tine’s Day,” all the way to the other side of the world, where he’s been “kind of like the great Asian hope,” said Orin Starn, professor and chair of Cultural Anthropology at Duke.

Lin has done wonders for shares of Madison Square Garden Inc., the company that owns the Knicks, the Garden and the namesake sports network. The stock has surged 9 percent since Lin began his heroics Feb. 4, reaching an all-time high of $33.18 earlier this week before retreating slightly to close at $31.91 Wednesday.

“Rangers and Knicks fans do tend to buy the stock when the teams are doing well,” said Miller Tabak analyst David Joyce.

And Linsanity has reached America’s most powerful basketball fan, with President Barack Obama talking about Lin’s winner Wednesday.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Lin was “just a great story, and the president was saying as much this morning.”

Lin arrived in New York in December with no guarantee he would last more than a few weeks. Already cut by Golden State and Houston this season, he was so hesitant to get comfortable in his new home that he refused to even get his own.

Instead, he slept at his brother’s place in the city, and crashed on teammate Landry Fields’ couch the night before his breakout game against New Jersey on Feb. 4.

Even an Ivy League education couldn’t help Lin explain what’s happened since — scoring the most points (136) in any player’s first five games as a starter since the NBA merged with the ABA in 1976, and a contract that’s guaranteed for the rest of the season.

“No, but I believe in an all-powerful and all-knowing God who does miracles,” Lin said.

If that Christian sentiment sounds familiar, yes, Lin has been frequently compared to Denver quarterback Tim Tebow. Both relied on their faith as much as their previously overlooked skills to guide them through hot streaks that made them sensations even beyond their sports.

Tebow carried the Broncos right into the playoffs, and now there are some who believe Lin can do the same with the Knicks.

“A guy like this is great for the game and has drawn a lot of interest from bettors on the Knicks games also,” Kevin Bradley, the Bovada.lv sports book’s manager said. “I am having visions of how the public was treating the Giants going into the Super Bowl being the hottest team in the NFL and costing us a mint, and right now the Knicks are by far the biggest loser for the book.”

Not everybody is convinced. Boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. played down Lin mania on Twitter, saying that Lin is just doing what plenty of black players do but is getting more attention because of his Asian heritage.

And Lin is certain to cool off. It’s one thing to beat struggling teams such as New Jersey and Washington when they’ve barely had time to learn your name. It’s another when NBA defenses are prepared to stop you.

“He’s a marked man now. He’s not going to sneak up on anybody, and every night’s going to be tough,” D’Antoni said.

Then again, Kobe Bryant had said he wasn’t familiar with Lin’s game and would have to study up on him. The next night, Lin burned the Lakers for 38 points in a nationally televised victory.

That was a huge moment in Taiwan, which Lin’s parents left in the 1970s. Asia lost its biggest basketball star when Yao Ming retired last summer, but ratings are up in China, and TV stations around the continent have rushed to add Knicks games to their broadcasts.

“I like Jeremy Lin (more than Yao Ming) because Yao Ming was already famous” when he started playing in NBA, said Taiwanese university student Zhang Gan-yu. “For Lin, it’s like nobody had heard of him before. Kobe gave an interview saying he did not know who Lin was. So this is truly a rising star.”

Lin has been gaining followers on social media and had the NBA’s top-selling jersey online in the first week it was available. With Knicks games blacked out to many New Yorkers because of a local cable dispute, the Knicks held their first viewing party in Chinatown on Wednesday night.

Lin is the NBA’s first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent. Starn called his emergence sort of a “coming-out party for Asian-Americans.”

“It is appealing to a lot of Americans when somebody comes along that seems to break out of this set of stereotypes — and in this case, an Asian-American from the heart of the Silicon Valley,” Starn said. “Jeremy Lin has this special kind of attraction because he seems to capture this visibility of Asian-Americans.”

But Lin will have to have lasting success to be more than just a short-term phenomenon. Yao was beloved because he proved to be a star player here. Yi Jianlian, drafted in 2007 and now with his fourth NBA team, has seen his popularity wane because he isn’t a star.

Not to worry, D’Antoni says. Lin’s the real thing.

“He’s going to be a good player,” D’Antoni said.

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AP Business Writer Dave Carpenter in Chicago contributed to this story.

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