Feb 9, 2012, 6:08 PM EST
Now it can be told: I was one of Jeremy Lin’s first basketball coaches … for about a week.
Before lighting a fire under the New York Knicks, before the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets, before even Harvard, Lin was a JLS Panther. That’s Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School, a couple of Andrew Luck deep routes from the Stanford University campus (it’s named for Leland Stanford’s wife), in Palo Alto, Calif. That’s where Lin first drew notice as a fierce competitor on the basketball court. And I had him pegged as a power forward. Oops.
Everyone shut up! He was one of the tallest kids on the team then. Fortunately I was actually coaching another team at JLS that year (the 2001-02 season), so Lin ended up playing point guard. But I was running tryouts for all the seventh- and eighth-graders that year as we prepared to split up the teams before the regular season.
“So there’s this kid Jeremy Lin, and you’re not going to have to watch him very much,” said the school’s athletic director, Mike Ferolino. “He’s about the best player we’ve ever had here; he’s going right to the A team.”
But at the very first Lin didn’t make much of an impression. I don’t think he said a single word during the week of tryouts: but with Jeremy, being reticent should never be mistaken for being timid. Eventually his game came into focus, and he was doing things that eighth graders aren’t supposed to be able to do. Lin saw everything two moves ahead — something so rare for middle schoolers, who by nature live in the moment in everything (25-foot shot goes up as teammate stands wide open under hoop). But Lin and his teammates, who had been playing with him for two years by then, seemed to communicate by sonar, like whales or bats.
Toward the end of the first day, when Lin whipped a behind-the-back pass toward open air — only to have a teammate appear at the last second to catch it and take two steps in for a layin — I had seen enough. My recommendation: seal this kid in Bubble Wrap and store him in a cool, dry place until his freshman year of high school. No sense scuffing him up at this level.
Fun fact: Lin wasn’t even considered by many as the best player on that team. Cooper Miller, a lanky center, was the big star. They went on to win the league title, and then it was on to high school, where Lin really started to shine. He played for Palo Alto (the same high school where Jim Harbaugh played quarterback) under Peter Diepenbrock, a meticulous, defense-minded coach who took Lin under his wing and polished him to maximum brilliance. In his junior and senior seasons, Lin’s Paly teams went a combined 64-3, including a CIF Division II State title upset of nationally-ranked Mater Dei of Los Angeles in the 2006 finals.
And now Lin is The Next Big Thing — the NBA’s (forgive me) version of Tebowmania, although as someone commented on Twitter earlier this week: @BrianPickett: Comparing Jeremy Lin to Tim Tebow is really insulting to Lin’s passing ability.
On Wednesday night Diepenbrock watched on TV as Lin had 23 points, 10 assists and four rebounds in the Knicks’ 107-93 win over Washington. Since cracking the starting lineup on Monday, Lin is averaging 25.3 points per game, including a high of 28 against the Jazz. But just as in middle school, it’s the intangibles that are wowing the crowd: the screens, the passes, the knowledge of the game … the sheer intelligence. For a week in 2001 his only new fan was me. In 2012, it’s just about every NBA fan with a TV.
“I talk with Jeremy just about every day — text messaging makes it easy these days — and he’s very excited,” Diepenbrock said. “He’s got an opportunity here and he knows it. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer kid.”
Coaches throw around that term a lot, but in this case it perfectly applies. Consider this: Lin still works at Diepenbrock’s youth basketball camp in Palo Alto during the summer, working with grade-school kids on defensive slides and ballhandling drills.
“You want to know what kind of a person he is?” Diepenbrock asks. “He played in the Las Vegas Summer League last year, and he was afraid that he was going to miss the first day of my camp. So his last summer league game ends, and he drives all night from Vegas to the Bay Area in a van with his family so that he can get here in time for camp. Here’s a guy who played for the Golden State Warriors, and he’s doing that.”
Indeed, Lin is as down-to-earth as it gets. He lives in an apartment with his brother in New York City, sleeping on the sofa. We assume that changes when his contract is finalized, but still — who scores 28 in an NBA game and goes home to sleep on their brother’s couch? In his Harvard bio under personal information, it includes: Enjoys attending church. And that’s not a PR exaggeration.
“Religion is and has been a big part of my life,” Lin told me last summer during a break at the Palo Alto camp. His parents, both 5-foot-7 engineers, emigrated from Taiwan in the 1970s and are devout Christians. And Jeremy wears his faith on his sleeve … at least in conversation with those he knows. You’re not going to see him Tebowing anytime soon.
“I kind of feel that it’s important to give back to the community: that’s something I learned growing up,” Lin said. His brother, Joseph, who plays basketball for Dickinson College, also works with him at the Palo Alto camp.
Another little-known fact: Lin is a pretty good dancer.
Although he always believed in him, little did Diepenbrock suspect that one day, this would be happening:
@darrenrovell Darren Rovell
Knicks tell me they’ll have Jeremy Lin #17 T-shirts for Friday’s game.
“I’m watching him tonight, and Jeremy is telling this player to move so that he can pass the ball,” Diepenbrock said. “The stuff he does, you can’t teach that. (Coach Mike) D’Antoni gets it. That’s one of the reasons Jeremy is thriving.”
Much of this acclaim admittedly is due to his Asian heritage: many view Lin as a novelty. And many Asian-American fans are celebrating the arrival of one of their own in the NBA who isn’t named Yao Ming. Ironically, this was a problem when Lin was at Harvard — instead of being embraced for his heritage, he endured some racist taunting on the road. There were also rumors that some universities didn’t recruit him because they didn’t think an Asian-American player would be any good.
But Lin downplays all that. He said the racial taunts just made him stronger, and he doesn’t believe the recruiting rumors. “I think that (college coaches) just didn’t see enough of me,” he told me. “I don’t have the type of game that’s going to ‘wow’ anyone. I’m not that athletic.”
But Lin is proving even himself wrong. The folks at Madison Square Garden looked pretty wowed on Wednesday night. And despite all the hoopla, Lin has already said that he’ll be back at Diepenbrock’s basketball camp this coming summer.
“It’s unreal, a real fun time,” Diepenbrock said. “I’m so happy for Jeremy. I know he’s not my son, but sometimes it sure feels like it.”
Photos (top to bottom): Getty Images, Rick Chandler, Getty Images.
Rick’s Cafe Americain appears on Thursday. Contact: Rickchand@gmail.com.
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