The stars were out Friday night at Madison Square Garden, but there's not a star in New York City shining brighter right now than Jeremy Lin.
On a night when four members of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants sat courtside, it was Lin's breathtaking 38-point performance that stole the show, and the Knicks' 92-85 win over the Los Angeles Lakers made the 6-foot-3 guard the most talked-about story in the NBA.
Once a little-known D-Leaguer, Lin is now the main attraction in the country's biggest market. The humble 23-year-old has taken the NBA by storm the past week, and in the process, he's given the New York Knicks something to believe in.
"What he's doing is amazing," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said after his team's fourth straight win. "He answered a lot of questions tonight."
It may have just been one game, but for a few hours Friday night, Jeremy Lin was legendary. He was Michael Jordan. He was LeBron James. He was Kobe Bryant.
Check that, he was better than Kobe Bryant.
Thursday night, Bryant said he didn't know who Jeremy Lin was. But after the ex-D-Leaguer outplayed him in Lin's third career start, it's probably safe to say he does now.
"Players don't usually come out of nowhere," Bryant, who scored 34 points on 11-of-29 shooting, said after the game. "If you go back and take a look, his skill level was probably there from the beginning, but no one ever noticed. ... It's a great story. It's a testament to perseverance and hard work. I am sure he has put in a great deal of work to always have that belief in himself, now he has the opportunity to show it."
Lin's journey has been an interesting one, and what he has accomplished so far is nothing short of remarkable. After going undrafted out of Harvard, Lin signed on with his hometown Golden State Warriors, where he played sparingly in a reserve role last season.
The Warriors waived him Dec. 9, and the Houston Rockets quickly scooped him up, but the Rockets let him go before the season even started.
The Knicks grabbed him off waivers Dec. 27, but after struggling to find a place for Lin in the rotation, the Knicks sent him down to the D-League. In his only game with the Erie BayHawks, Lin posted a triple-double, scoring 28 points to go with 12 assists and 11 rebounds -- certainly enough to warrant a recall to the NBA, but not yet enough to get him into the lineup.
Finally, last Saturday, he got his chance, and he made the most of it, scoring 25 points and dishing out seven assists in 36 minutes off the bench in a win over the Nets. His showing earned him his first NBA start Monday, and he responded with 28 points and eight assists in a win over Utah.
Tuesday night, Lin's contract became guaranteed and on Wednesday, Lin outplayed John Wall, scoring 23 points to go with 10 assists in a win over the Wizards. Then Friday was the ultimate validation for a player who wondered whether he'd ever make it at the game's highest level.
Lin's 38 points were the most in a game for a Knicks player since Carmelo Anthony's 39 points last March.
Now he's all but assured a permanent spot -- not only in New York's starting lineup, but also in the hearts of countless Knicks fans yearning for something to be excited about.
"The journey was very different," Lin said. "Getting waived twice, going to the D-League four times, just fighting for a spot in any rotation, and being basically a 15th guy on a roster, that's tough at times."
Bryant and the Lakers were supposed to give Lin his first true test, but none of their questions stumped him, and he passed it with flying colors -- which isn't altogether surprising for a Harvard grad.
Lin was in command from the opening tip. He scored nine of New York's first 13 points as the Knicks ran out to a 13-4 lead, and with each Lin basket, the Garden crowd grew louder, eventually reaching a fever pitch hasn't rung through the Garden's hallowed halls in years.
The Knicks led 22-15 after one quarter, largely behind Lin's 10 points, and in the second quarter, Bryant and the Lakers turned up the defensive pressure in an effort to disrupt Lin's flow. But if anything, it was Lin's headstrong response that threw the Lakers off, instead.
For two quarters, it seemed as though Lin was in Kobe's head -- inasmuch as one can be, at least -- and Kobe, at least for 24 minutes, wasn't able to respond. Bryant looked like he tried to upstage Lin every time he touched the ball, but the magic just wasn't there, and at the half, Bryant had 10 points on a woeful 1-of-6 shooting, while Lin was 7-of-12 from the floor with 18 points.
By the middle of the third quarter Bryant had turned it on, and there were MVP chants raining down in the Garden -- but they still weren't for Kobe. They were for Lin, who countered every Bryant blow with a punishing jab of his own.
Kobe did his best to keep the Lakers in it. His self-pass off the backboard drew oohs and ahhs from the crowd and set up a Pau Gasol jumper with 7:41 to play, and his impossible fall-away jumper from the corner with 6:35 to play cut the Knicks' lead to 79-71.
But Lin and the Knicks just couldn't be stopped. Not on this night.
Lin's pull-up jumper gave Knicks 81-71 lead and put the Garden back on its feet with 6:05 to go, and after a missed Kobe jumper on the ensuing possession, Lin blew the roof off the building with a 3-pointer in the corner.
"When I'm on the court, I try to play with all my emotion and all my heart," Lin said. "I don't really try to hold too much back. My friends laugh at me ... but I just love the game. I love playing with this team and I love playing for this coach. It's just a lot of fun right now."
It's that attitude that makes Lin so special -- and what makes him so different.
It's not all about him. In fact, it's not about him at all. He's the anti-Kobe. He takes what he's given and plays his role, and he does it magnificently. And that's just what a team full of superstars like the Knicks needs.
"He's a good guy, it's all about the team," D'Antoni said. "His defense is good, his energy is good, his personality rubs off on everybody. ... It's becoming a love fest. It's getting a little sappy. When you're good people and you play the game the right way and you play hard, you start to feel something in your heart. When you do that, anything's possible."
The way the Knicks are playing, it's almost easy to forget that they're playing without their two best players, in Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire. Anthony was out with a groin injury while Stoudemire was mourning the recent loss of his brother.
In fact, Lin's play and the team's chemistry in their absence have some wondering whether their return will throw off the delicate balance the Knicks have achieved.
But D'Antoni doesn't seem too concerned about what the future holds for his team, and he only expects Lin's emergence as a reliable point guard to help his team maintain its recent success.
"A lot of things got out of whack because we were trying to cover that position when we lost Chauncey (Billups)," D'Antoni said. "I'm excited about getting those two guys back and I'm excited about the possibilities and where we can go. We should only get better from here."
Lin has the Knicks rolling, and through it all -- through the whirlwind week that changed his life forever -- he remained humble. Too humble, really. After Friday's game -- after he one-upped Kobe, after he put the team on his back -- all Lin wanted to do was deflect praise to his coach and his teammates.
Thankfully, his teammates were more than willing to do the talking for him.
"As a team, he lifts us up," Knicks forward Jared Jeffries said. "It is weird for a guy to come in and be a team leader who has bounced around like he has. He has inspired us to play harder because he gives it his all every day."
Added center Tyson Chandler: "I think he's taken us all by surprise. Not only us, but the league right now. It's contagious. You have to love a kid like that."
That's unusually high praise for an overnight superstar who, two weeks ago, was making waves in the D-League. But then again, Lin isn't your everyday D-Leaguer.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing," D'Antoni said of his newest star's emergence. "I've never seen it. ... To go unnoticed for that long, that's hard to do."
Fortunately for Lin, his days of going unnoticed are over for good. Just ask Kobe.