News Column

Linsanity: Knicks Guard Moves From Obscurity to Stardom

Feb. 16, 2012

Bob Cohn

As Victor Cruz was shaking off confetti from the New York Giants' victory parade, what would come to be known as Linsanity was taking shape. Nobody knew it then, but it soon would shake the Big Apple to its core.

The past few weeks have been very good for overachievers. But athletes who emerge from obscurity headlong into full-blown, media-sensation stardom are rare. Explaining to reporters recently the overwhelming interest in Jeremy Lin, New York Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said, "It's because he really came out of nowhere, and that's not normal."

Yet it has occurred twice, almost simultaneously, in the nation's No. 1 media market: Cruz, the receiver of Puerto Rican heritage from the University of Massachusetts -- hardly a football power -- who went undrafted and played a minor role before stepping up to help the Giants reach and win the Super Bowl. And then, more vividly, Lin, the Asian-American point guard from Harvard -- hardly a basketball power -- who went undrafted and played a minor role before stepping up to defy rational belief.

Cut by two teams and a last resort with the Knicks because of injuries, Lin averaged 26.8 points and 8.5 assists over his past six games, five of them starts and all of them victories, prior to Wednesday night's game in New York. On Tuesday in Toronto, amid raging hype and attention, he nailed a 3-pointer with less than a second remaining to beat the Raptors.

This is not just storybook stuff. Think bigger.

"Depending on how it plays out, I gotta think screenwriters are developing this," Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, said before Lin's game-winner. "How it ends will determine how sweet the story will be. ... But even the idea of a few hours in paradise is very appealing."

Also appealing is the rarity of such things. In the NBA, Lin is new territory. In other sports, sudden, unexpected bursts of glory are few and mostly fleeting. But some resonate. Tom Brady was an anonymous, sixth-round draft pick by New England. After sitting on the bench for a year, he was a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. After winning two more Super Bowls, he is a Hall of Fame lock.

More unlikely was the overnight rise of Kurt Warner from supermarket shelf-stocker, Arena Leaguer and undrafted NFL quarterback to Super Bowl winner and league MVP with St. Louis.

Baseball has contributed a few stories that measure up to Lin's, but not recently. "Fernandomania" arrived during the strike-interrupted 1981 season when Fernando Valenzuela, a pudgy, little-known, 20-year-old Mexican left-hander who pitched in 10 games the year before, commanded as much attention that could be squeezed from an Internet-free, cable-limited world while helping the Dodgers go all the way.

By May 14, he was 8-0 with a 0.50 earned run average.

"Fernando, nobody knew the (heck) who he was," former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda said. "It came so quickly, and, all of a sudden, we were right in the middle of it. He could draw people. It was amazing. I couldn't believe something like that was happening, but by golly it did."

Lasorda and the Dodgers experienced something similar in 1995, although to a lesser extent, when rookie right-hander Hideo Nomo excelled as the majors' first Japanese native in more than 30 years.

"I'll never forget it," Lasorda said. "When he walked out on the field in San Francisco, you could see the flash of all the people taking pictures. It was a sight to behold."

Mark Fidrych pitched for two years in the Detroit farm system before coming north with the Tigers out of spring training in 1976 and becoming an instant sensation. Tall and gangly, topped by a curly mop, the 21-year-old was called "The Bird" after Big Bird on "Sesame Street." Fidrych was quirky. He talked to the baseball, got on his hands and knees to smooth the mound and displayed a refreshing, innocent candor.

He also went 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games, both league bests. But injuries ruined what appeared to be a promising career.

"I was there," said ESPN basketball analyst Dick Vitale, the University of Detroit basketball coach at the time. "Everyone got caught up in Bird-mania. It was off the charts. The buzz, every day, people couldn't wait to see him pitch."

With Fidrych, there was no immediacy or scope of the Internet and social media and endless cable channels.

However, "It was the same mania (as with Lin)," Vitale said.

Linsanity, meanwhile, "is an instant story," Thompson said. "It's a really good story in an era where stories are told instantaneously."

Source: (c) 2012 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

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