To measure the immediate sociological impact of Jeremy Lin--the electric New York Knicks point guard who has jolted the NBA--start on the weekend-warrior basketball floor. In a gym near New York City's Chinatown two days after Lin torched the Los Angeles Lakers for 38 points and a day after the Knicks won their fifth consecutive game with Lin running the show, a group of African-American players prepped for a rec-league game. Most of the competition was Asian American. The message: Ditch the stereotypes of the Asian dudes as pesky players who nevertheless won't be hard to beat. "We've got to play these guys," one of the men barked to his teammates. "They might have a team full of Jeremy Lins." The pep talk fell short. The Asian Americans won by a bucket.
If you've played a minute of pickup or rec-league basketball, admit it: You've racially profiled. I'll convict myself, a native New York gym rat, guilty as charged. The NBA's demographics make it difficult not to--83% of this year's NBA All-Star roster consists of black players. Face a team of black guys and you think, We might be in trouble. White guys: We'll take them, but watch the jump shooters. Asian players: No sweat. They're physics grad students, right? "You do stereotype," Shavar Stewart, a hospital tech from uptown in the Bronx, tells TIME in the Chinatown gym after losing to the Asian Americans. "You do profile. But I think Jeremy Lin will start changing stereotypes. He already has."
With his sudden rise from NBA benchwarmer to must-see TV, Lin, 23, has crushed all kinds of conventions--like the one that said he was a nice Ivy League player but would never thrive in the NBA. How many Harvard grads and how many Asian Americans were in the current NBA before he arrived? Zero and zero. Harvard has produced more U.S. Presidents (eight) than NBA players (four, and until Lin, none since the 1950s). Lin's bottom-feeding team, the Knicks, began this lockout-shortened season in shambles, done in by ugly point-guard play. The desperate head coach, Mike D'Antoni, finally gave the ball to Lin--apparently the Coke vendor wasn't available--because of injuries to key players and the inability of anyone else to dribble and pass the ball. So all Lin did was go out and score more points in his first five starts--136--than any other player since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. "I can't explain it," Lin, limping slightly from exhaustion, told a Knicks official in a Madison Square Garden hallway after he outdueled the Lakers' Kobe Bryant on national television. "If I could, I would."
He doesn't have to for Asian Americans, especially the subset who proudly call themselves ballers but have never seen one of their own in the NBA. "You know when you believe in something?" says David Liu, 25, an avid Taiwanese-American pickup player who has followed Lin since his Harvard days and had told everyone within earshot--Asian American and otherwise--that Lin was destined for the NBA. "And people challenge you about it and mock you for it? And then you see it all pay off? That's an amazing feeling." Lin has lifted the psyche of Liu and others both on and off the basketball court. "Whenever I see him do any of his moves, my heart is just pounding," says Bryan Peng, a computer tech and rec-league junkie who grew up playing in Chinatown. "He's like our Obama."
The Global Baller