By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - 'Linsanity' slammed into hockey-mad Canada with the force of a winter storm on Tuesday as Jeremy Lin, the National Basketball Association's (NBA) newest sensation, set hearts aflutter with a Valentine's Day visit to the league's most northern outpost.
A game between two losing teams would not normally qualify as a must-see event but Lin, the anonymous benchwarmer turned NBA superstar in a week, made the New York Knicks' visit to the Toronto Raptors the hottest ticket in town.
Part of Lin's immense appeal is his made-for-Hollywood back story of sleeping on a team mate's couch one day and living the American dream the next.
But it is a story still without an ending and, on a day dedicated to love, some began to wonder if Lin was involved in yet another basketball one-night stand or had finally settled into a long-term relationship.
The first Taiwanese-American to play in the NBA, Lin's rise from obscurity to toast of the Big Apple is an extraordinary tale that is hard to resist.
The point guard from Harvard, a college better known as a springboard to the U.S. presidency than the NBA, went undrafted and was cut by Golden State and Houston before finding a place at the end of the Knicks bench in December.
Given his chance, Lin seized the NBA spotlight with both hands, helping the Knicks to five straight wins with a string of stunning performances.
As the first ripples of "Linsanity" hit Asia, marketing men rubbed their hands with glee as they contemplated a potential candidate to fill the very large shoes left by last year's retirement of Yao Ming.
But nowhere has the fascination been greater than New York, where Lin's No. 17 jersey is the NBA's top seller and shares of Madison Square Garden Co, owner of the Knicks, shot to record highs.
Some experts say Lin has the potential to be bigger than any current athlete in terms of marketing as long as 'Linsanity' does not prove to be a passing fad.
"He is Tiger Woods before the scandal, I think he has everything going for him," Ronn Torossian, chief executive of 5W Public Relations, told Reuters. "If he can continue to deliver on the court his possibilities off the court are limitless.
"I don't think he needs to put up MVP numbers but I do think when you look at marketing greatness over the last few years, whether it is David Beckham, Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, let's not forget they were all winners.
"Before anything else he has to be a winner. If he is, I can't tell you if we have ever seen anything like this."
'IT'S A MIRACLE'
Certainly Raptors fans are not accustomed to seeing anything like it in Toronto, where such lavish attention is reserved for the NBA's elite.
The Raptors have fielded more media credential than for any other regular season game and Tuesday's contest marked just the second sellout of the season.
Coaches, team mates, fans and even Lin himself are at a loss to explain the sequence of events that took him from anonymity to the face of the NBA.
But you do not need to be a Harvard graduate to figure out that opposing defenses are also getting acquainted with Lin and searching for a cure for 'Linsanity.'
"I've been able to get away with some stuff but defenses are going to start locking in so I'm going to have to improve," said Lin, who averaged 26.8 points, 8 assists and 4.2 rebounds in over his first five games. "If you look back at my story ... there are a lot of things that had to happen that I just couldn't control.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue)