Jeremy Lin's journey from NBA scrub to pop culture phenom is crazier than any movie script

By Keith Staskiewicz
February 24, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

From miraculous ice hockey teams to sabermetric general managers and even Jamaican bobsledders, pop culture loves a sports underdog. So it’s no surprise that the meteoric rise of Jeremy Lin — the 23-year-old Harvard graduate who led the New York Knicks on an improbable winning streak — has so intensely captured the public’s attention: It’s like Rocky, if Rocky didn’t really lose.

At the beginning of February, Lin was a third-string point guard, spending his days on the bench and his nights on his brother’s couch. But since then he’s outscored Kobe Bryant (Feb. 10), drained a game-winning three (Feb. 14), and helped the injury-plagued Knicks break .500, in the process becoming the NBA’s first Asian-American star. (He’s even been invited to the league’s All-Star Weekend, as part of the Rising Stars Challenge.) All that’s needed to complete this Cinderella tale is a glass sneaker.

”The story line is something that people can really grab ahold of,” says actress Edie Falco, a longtime Knicks devotee. ”As a fan, I’m losing my mind.” So are the nation’s headline writers, who have run through every possible Lin-based pun since his ascent. The effects of ”Linsanity” have been easy to spot: His No. 17 Knicks jersey is the league’s best-seller, he’s heavily featured on the NBA’s website, and stars — including Spike Lee, Woody Allen, and Seth Meyers — flocked to Madison Square Garden to watch their latest hometown hero conquer the defending champion Dallas Mavericks on Feb. 19.

While Lin is reportedly making around $610,000 now — less than 1/20th of the league’s top salaries — he could cash in soon. ”Companies love this kind of story,” says sports-marketing expert Bob Dorfman. ”It’s jumped off the sports pages. It’s on SNL, it’s in Time. In terms of endorsements, I could see him making at least $3 to 5 million in the next year.”

For now, at least, it’s all about what he’s selling on the court. ”It’s almost impossible not to watch,” says Falco. ”I mean, how can you not love this guy?”