During his brief but wondrous stretch of national superstardom, Jeremy Lin has given us only glimpses of himself, through his on-court conduct and humble postgame comments. Naturally, we want to know more. Hurried by the potentially short-lived apex of Linsanity, GQ contacted old friends, guys he'd studied, played, and lived with, to get the truth about the 23-year-old Harvard grad-turned-Knicks savior during his formative years. The result? Jeremy Lin is, by most accounts, a spotless athlete with a compelling story, a consistent winning record, and a deep commitment to the Christian faith. Kind of reminds you of someone, doesn't it?
For such an underestimated athlete—Lin famously mailed highlight DVDs of himself to college coaches and still failed to acquire an athletic scholarship to play basketball—it isn't surprising that things weren't any easier for Lin upon his arrival at Harvard in 2006 from California's Palo Alto High School. Patrick Magnarelli, a college teammate of Lin's, recalls the difficulty that freshman class had adjusting to life in the college ranks. "We all thought we were going to come in there and be the Fab Five," Magnarelli says. But between upperclassman incumbency and adapting to the college game, Lin played a paltry 18 minutes a game (still more than any other freshman) despite a physique that was a far cry from his current 6'3 and 200 lbs. frame.
"He was by far the weakest person on the team," says Alek Blankenau, a fellow freshman recruit who, like Lin, experienced bouts of discouragement and homesickness that first year. It wasn't until their sophomore season, when Lin was named a starter by new head coach Tommy Amaker, that Harvard basketball began their slow crawl into the spotlight.
So what were those years like in the run-up to Harvard's tournament-qualifying run in 2009-10? One can imagine any number of juicy subplots. After all, isn't it pretty much the job of talented young athletes to behave recklessly, aggravate local police, and disgrace the NCAA? Asked about the innocuous nature of this portrait of Lin, Blankenau was at a loss for dirt to dish: "I hate to say it, but he's kind of a wholesome guy."
Some facts about the Real J. Lin:
• He is the consummate teammate, and then some. Magnarelli was often injured, missing their entire junior season with an ailing knee. "[Jeremy] went and asked the team nutritionist what foods I should be eating, to recover better," he says.
• Lin is indeed a devout Christian—he held a regular Bible study group in the dorms he shared with Magnarelli, Blankenau, and others—but is more open-armed inclusionary rather than evangelical browbeater, the type who invites you to church, and, should you not be interested, shrugs it off with a smiling "No sweat, dude."
• He is, of all things, deathly afraid of needles. "We had to get flu shots," remembers Blankenau, "and he was like, 'I can't do this.' I had to convince him not to duck out a side door. That's the most uncollected I've ever seen him."
• Lin had a similarly devout girlfriend in college, and they parted on amicable terms. "Jeremy forgot to make reservations on Valentine's Day once, and had to save the day with some homemade chicken parm," says Blankenau.
Eric Lee, a fellow economics major who lived with Lin, could have promised a different perspective, to no avail. Asked to identify Lin's demons, or so much as a class in which he struggled, Lee instead told of a time at an In-N-Out Burger in San Francisco, while he was a member of the Golden State Warriors. "We walk past this homeless guy, and I would've just ignored him," Lee says. "But [Jeremy] goes up to him and asks, 'Hey man, what do you want?' And he gets him a double-double and an order of fries."
What about his party habits? "He'd always manage to surprise me on my birthday," Lee says. "Every year, he'd just always find a way." Then, when pressed about whether Lin has ever had a drink, Lee gave a reluctant admission: "I mean...to say he never has would be...lying."
Until: "Honestly...I hate to say it, but he's a lot like Tim Tebow," Lee concluded.
The comparison between two Christian athletes overcoming setbacks and defying critics has been made often, and isn't at all cursory. In December, when Lin was riding the pine for the Knicks while surfing his brother's couch, an old friend tried to make the connection real. Cheng Ho, a former running back for Harvard's football team and member of Lin's bible study group, now working to promote the NFL's overseas efforts in China, tried to pull some strings to introduce Lin to the Broncos QB. The fateful meeting never panned out, but Ho was forthcoming about the racial stereotyping he and Lin faced: "I'm fortunate that I wear a helmet, so people don't see me." Ho and Lin often discussed resisting the pitfalls of higher education. "With college life being about drinking and talking to girls, we talked a lot about controlling our temptations, how to be godly, and what to do not to fall into that vicious cycle."
Tim Tebow was a high-school All-American and top college recruit, then a Heisman winner, national champion, and thanks to the inscrutable mind of then-coach Josh McDaniels, a first-round NFL draft pick. Even if the Broncos hadn't pulled the trigger on Tebow several rounds too early, he might still have gotten his shot at NFL quarterbacking. Lin has had to fight tooth-and-nail to gain entry to the next level—and, arguably, has played better and needed considerably less luck to win at it. What's more, Lin has the opportunity to be a socio-cultural phenomenon in ways Tebow cannot.
Lakers guard Derek Fisher, after being demolished in last week's Knicks-Lakers game, said Lin is "carrying the hopes of an entire continent." That might overestimate the power of a Taiwanese kid from Palo Alto, but there is a reason thousands turned out to see him play in his rookie season with the Golden State Warriors before he'd ever scored a point. It's the same reason my mother e-mails me articles about Lin when she doesn't know what the "Knicks" are. As Ho says, "Basketball has always been a platform for him to find comfort and confidence, to be a good example and make a difference." But can it last? And can Lin really be this squeaky-clean? Nobody knows, but at this moment, he's already done more than enough to make a difference for Ho and countless others. "People have their own biases and expectations, and he's just shattering them right now," he says. "Shattering them. And I'm loving it. I'm absolutely loving it."