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Friends recall Lin's Harvard days

Dec. 6, 2009Lin scored 30 points and pulled

Dec. 6, 2009
Lin scored 30 points and pulled down nine rebounds in Harvard’s nationally televised 79-73 loss to the No. 12 University of Connecticut Huskies. Credit: AP

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The menu was College 101: onion rings, french fries, pizza. The conversation often was more substantial: sensitive matters that ranged from personal to academic to athletic.

And through it all, there was no question who was setting the tone. It was the point guard. Jeremy Lin, naturally.

"He was the leader of the group, organized and prepared everything," said Cheng Ho, a close friend of the Knicks' new backcourt sensation who participated in his weekly Bible study group at Harvard.

"We would go through verses he would print out for each of us, review it and talk about what the meaning is and how it applies to our life."

Ho caught himself and added something that he thought was equally important. "But we always had a lot of fun, not being all that serious a lot of times."

Such is the depiction of Lin painted by those who knew him during four formative years at Harvard, a time before his meteoric ascension as an athletic and cultural phenomenon who has revived the Knicks on the court and generated worldwide interest.

It was a time when the religious faith and leadership skills that have helped carry Lin to this point already were in evidence, and his basketball skills were emerging. But he also was determined to be a fairly typical college student.

"He's just a regular guy; he's a goofball," Ho said from Beijing, where he works for the NFL to help grow a fan base for the sport in China.

Campus life, fear of needles

Lin's college life from 2006-10 was multifaceted, grounded in basketball, religion, academics and a tight-knit group of friends who spent three years together at Leverett House, a graceful building that overlooks the Charles River on the fringe of the campus, currently celebrating its 375th anniversary.

All Harvard freshmen live in or adjacent to historic Harvard Yard, but after that, students can choose to live with friends. Lin's group was assigned to Leverett, the largest house.

As a senior, Lin finished No. 1 in the room selection lottery, securing a desirable eight-man suite with a common area for studying and socializing.

Doug Miller, a basketball co-captain with Lin as a senior, said the unit was a "nice mix" of athletes, artists and others.

Lin majored in economics, a popular choice at the school. As a sophomore, he took Christopher Foote's intermediate macro course, and Foote was struck not only by Lin's attentiveness but by his excellent attendance at the thrice-weekly lectures. That was more than could be said for many students taking a 9 a.m. class.

Another resident and former teammate, Alek Blankenau, recalled the only time he has seen Lin flustered, on or off the court. They were waiting to receive flu shots. It turned out that Lin's greatest fear is needles.

"I look back and he was extremely distressed, not like you've seen the last few weeks, where he always seems calm, cool and collected," Blankenau said. "He said, 'We should just leave, get out of line.' I said, 'Are you serious? We're grown men. You need to get it together.' "

Blankenau also recalled a Valentine's Day when Lin forgot to make a restaurant reservation for himself and his then-girlfriend. "He's not much of a guy to cook things, so his roommates helped out and put a pretty nice meal together by the time it was all done," Blankenau said.

Lin eventually broke up with that girlfriend, but there always was time for socializing, within limits.

"He was definitely not a party animal," Blankenau said. "He was very focused on basketball."

Said Ho, "We still obviously go to parties, talk to girls and meet people. We do everything a typical college student would do, just don't take it to the next level."

Elite universities such as Harvard are perceived as bastions of religious skepticism, but friends say Lin stayed true to his faith without imposing it on others.

"I've been to church with him a few times," Blankenau said. "He'd always encourage you, 'You want to come along?' But if I said no, it was totally fine."

Miller said Lin was happy to talk about religion, but also academics, politics and women. "Or he would talk about 'Halo' instead for 20 minutes if you wanted," Miller said, referring to a popular video game.

Lin, now 23, was born in the United States to Taiwanese parents. Ho was born in Taiwan, moved to Georgia at 13, learned football there and became a running back at Harvard.

They bonded over their shared background and later the study group, which usually ranged from six to eight people and lasted an hour or two. Ho has been in frequent contact with Lin during his two weeks of sudden fame.

"It's crazy," Ho said. "But he's the right guy . . . He surrendered himself to God, and whatever happens, let it happen. Since freshman year, nothing has changed in the way he carries himself."

Legacy at Harvard

The Linsanity echoes what happened at Harvard. Although the Crimson did not win a championship in Lin's time, they became more competitive and popular.

Lin's legacy was in evidence on campus this past week, nowhere more so than at Lavietes Pavilion, an 86-year-old barn where the Crimson played to another full house Friday and blew out Brown to remain in first place.

In the lobby, replicas of his No. 4 Harvard jerseys were available for $100, with proceeds in part benefiting his charitable foundation. In the stands, some fans monitored the Knicks' game against the New Orleans Hornets.

Afterward, coach Tommy Amaker stood in a lounge overlooking the court and said Lin was "directly responsible" for setting the current tone of the program. "We couldn't be more proud to have that kid be synonymous with the growth of Harvard basketball,'' he said.

Senior guard Oliver McNally, who said he "pretty much lived'' at Leverett as a sophomore when Lin and his pals were there, predicts Lin will not wear out his welcome with Knicks teammates. "People aren't going to get sick of him,'' he said.

As always, McNally said, Lin will find a way to fit in, flourishing in the Garden just as he did in the Ivy. "He was not a nerd; he experienced everything here,'' McNally said. "Basketball-wise, socially, academically, he just did it all well.''

Jeremy Lin, the Crimson

He attended Harvard from 2006-2010

He majored in economics and minored in sociology

His grade-point average was 3.1

His favorite restaurants are John Harvard's Brew House and Subway

He was a star for Leverett House in the intramural flag football league

Enjoys playing "Halo," a popular video game

He was involved in a Bible study group run by the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Christian Fellowship

Scored 1,483 points, fifth in school history

Had 406 assists, also fifth in school history

Won the Raymond P. Lavietes '36 MVP Award, as voted by teammates, in 2008, 2009 and 2010


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