NEW YORK >> Jeremy Lin came with an intriguing story even before he escaped the New York Knicks’ bench.
First American-born NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent.
Nomad who crashed on a teammate’s couch when his brother’s place wasn’t available.
In just one week, Lin’s proven he’s so much more.
Turns out, he’s a terrific basketball player.
"The level he is playing at right now, I have never seen it," Knicks forward Jared Jeffries said. "It is weird for a guy to come in and be a team leader who has bounced around like he has. He has inspired us to play harder because he gives it his all every day. There is nothing he doesn’t do on a daily basis."
Lin scored a career-high 38 points Friday night to lead the Knicks to a 92-85 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. After scoring 28 and 23 in his first two NBA starts, he outplayed Kobe Bryant in front of a national TV audience, leaving delirious fans without their voices and his coach without the words to describe it.
"I don’t know what to tell you," Mike D’Antoni said. "I have never seen this. It’s not often that a guy is going to play four games, the best you are going to see, and nobody knows who he is. That is hard to do."
Lin is drawing comparisons to Denver quarterback Tim Tebow, with the way he impacts his teammates during games and talks about his faith afterward.
Forget Tebowing. Linsanity is the new sports sensation.
Saturday night, he’s taking his show on the road to Minneapolis, where the Knicks will try to win their fifth consecutive game.
Lin was perhaps on his last chance, and maybe a last resort, when D’Antoni put him in last Saturday against New Jersey. The Knicks had lost on the previous two nights to fall to 8-15, and another defeat that night would have dropped them behind the Nets in the standings and might have made the cries to fire D’Antoni even harder for team management to ignore.
Lin had slept on teammate Landry Fields’ couch the night before, still refusing to get his own place as he headed into the week the Knicks would have to decide whether to cut him or guarantee his contract for the rest of the season.
Lin scored 25 points that night, and D’Antoni promoted him to the starting lineup for the next game.
A sensation was born.
The Knicks haven’t looked back, even while playing without leading scorers Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. They’ll be back soon, and if Lin gets them to play at their potential, watch out.
"I think it’ll be fun for the city obviously," Bryant said.
There was nothing fun about the Knicks before Lin, as fans blamed D’Antoni, Anthony and team management for the disappointing start. But as they screamed for Lin throughout Friday’s game, especially after a clutch 3-pointer in the fourth quarter that was perhaps the biggest shot of the game, Madison Square Garden was again the place to be in the NBA.
"I thought that the Garden was rocking, and it was a great atmosphere," said the Lakers’ Metta World Peace, who grew up in New York as Ron Artest.
Too bad the fun is being missed by so many in the city. A dispute between MSG and Time Warner cable is keeping Knicks games off that system for now, even as Asian networks line up to add Knicks games to their broadcast schedules.
The Knicks began selling Lin merchandise Friday, and one souvenir stand on the concourse level ran out before the game even started. The NBA says Lin has been the top selling jersey online since last Saturday, and the Knicks are the top-selling team this week.
All-Star Kevin Durant and Memphis’ Rudy Gay were among the players tweeting about Lin afterward, and most of the questions Bryant faced were about a player whose game he’d said he wasn’t familiar with only 24 hours earlier.
The only one who isn’t talking about Lin is the point guard himself, a spiritual and humble person who gives credit to God, D’Antoni and his teammates.
"When I’m on the court, I try to play with all my emotion and heart," Lin said. "I just love the game, playing with this team and coach."
His heartfelt sentiments and enthusiasm on the court also captured the attention of Lakers Hall of Famer Magic Johnson.
"The excitement he has caused in the Garden, man, I hadn’t seen that in a long time," Johnson told The Associated Press earlier this week after watching Lin’s first two games. "When you get a spark a like this, especially in a season like this, this could carry them for a long time because they needed something to happen positive. Everything has been really negative."
Lin was waived by Golden State in December after splitting last season between the Warriors and the NBA Development League. Houston picked him up for a couple of weeks before cutting him, and the Knicks decided to give him a look.
New York had just waived its point guard, Chauncey Billups to free up money to sign center Tyson Chandler. Three point guards couldn’t run D’Antoni’s offense, so the Knicks were stuck waiting on Baron Davis to recover from a herniated disk in his back. There was no indication D’Antoni would try out a fourth point guard, let alone Lin.
Now there’s no rush for Davis. Not with Lin running D’Antoni’s offense better than anyone.
"In D’Antoni’s offense, he is looking a lot like (Steve) Nash, except a little bit more aggressive in going to the basket and scoring," Lakers center Andrew Bynum said.
D’Antoni has mentioned Nash, too, in his excitement to talk about Lin. And the Phoenix point guard is a fan as well.
"If you love sports you have to love what Jeremy Lin is doing," Nash wrote on Twitter this week. "Getting an opportunity and exploding!!"
And creating a whole new vocabulary.
At the Garden, it’s Words with Lin instead of Words with Friends: Linderella; Lincredible; Super Lintendo; and of course, Linsanity, the Twitter trending word of choice.
Expect more puns as he continues to prove himself as a bona fide NBA player.
"He’s not a fluke," Chandler said. "Just the confidence he plays with, the pace, the understanding of the game. You can tell when a guy isn’t really that skilled but is just having a good stretch. This guy is skilled."