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Crimson Rising

Friday, January 29, 2010

By: Pablo Torre for Sports Illustrated

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.

To read the read of Pablo Torre's piece on Harvard hoops, as found in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, please click here.