Gary Tsai emerged from Madison Square Garden late Friday night filled with swagger. Wearing perhaps the city’s most in-demand clothing item, a blue number 17 Knicks jersey, the Taiwanese-American student strutted outside the arena as if he were Jeremy Lin himself.
“He’s my hero,” said Tsai,23, referring to Lin, the New York Knicks point guard and the NBA’s first-ever Asian-American, who has stunned the basketball world with MVP-like averages of 27 points and 8.5 assists during six straight Knicks wins. “I wish I was him.”
Just a few weeks ago, Lin’s story would’ve seemed far-fetched had it been pitched as a Disney script: an undrafted and overlooked Harvard graduate, cut by two NBA teams and then picked up by the struggling Knicks.
‘Lin-sanity’, as the craze surrounding the 6-foot 3 guard has become known, has swept through New York City like an unexpected but glorious winter storm, and nowhere has its effect been as deeply felt as among many Asian-Americans, who have witnessed Lin’s rise to international stardom with particular pride.
To Tsai, a student and East Village resident, Lin is a pioneer who “gives Asian Americans hope.” He’s not alone in his sentiments.
In Chinatown, everybody has been paying very close attention to the Lin phenomenon, according to Mark Hokoda, an editor at Time Magazine and a neighborhood resident.
“It’s certainly getting attention, because how many sports heroes have [Asian-Americans] had?” said Hokoda, 55. “Like zero basically.”
At Yello, a quiet, modern bar on a sleepy, dimly lit Chinatown street, Lin’s remarkable 38-point performance against Kobe Bryant’s Lakers suddenly injected the space with the atmosphere of a rowdy sports tavern.
“This place was going nuts,” said Hokoda, a regular customer of the bar. “It was quite a scene.”
A night later, about two blocks away at Winnie’s Bar, a spirited crowd gathered around a big screen TV normally used for karaoke. Patrons cheered when Lin sunk a late game free throw to lead the Knicks past the Minnesota Timberwolves, as bartender Tommy Chen looked on.
“Usually it’s only me and one or two guys [watching basketball], that’s about it,” said Chen, 24.
But lately, he said, everyone from the neighborhood seemed to be dropping in to watch the Knicks.
Lin’s mystique – highlights of the quick, athletic guard scoring at will against some of the world’s best players – has also reached the Far East.
Lin, whose parents emigrated to the West Coast from Taiwan in the 1970s, has become “must see TV in Asia,” according to the Taipei Times, an English newspaper in Taiwan.
“This guy is crazy in China right now,” said Wayne Qin, 24, a Columbia University student from outside of Beijing, who chats regularly via social media with friends back home. “They think he is a hero.”
Qin and some fellow Chinese classmates were unable to snag tickets to the Lakers-Knicks game Friday night, so they instead caught the contest on a monitor just outside the main gate, where about 100 people had gathered. Lin is a hero among Chinese hoops fans, Qin said, because he undermines the stereotype that the only talented Asian basketball players are giant center types.
“It shows that we can play point guard,” said Qin, moments after the monitor showed a lightning-quick Lin zig-zag through the lane and convert on an acrobatic layup attempt. “We all love him.”
Lin’s ancestry, however, isn’t of primary importance to many Knicks fans – at least when compared to another, more significant matter.
“We needed a good point guard like this,” said Mike Paperz, 31, a hip-hop artist from the Bronx. “Now we’re definitely getting to the playoffs. He’s bringing New York back.”