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 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 many of those who knew him during four formative years at Harvard, a time before his meteoric ascension over the past two weeks 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 typical college student -- albeit at America's most prestigious university.
"He says things where I sometimes question how the hell he would even say these types of things. And he has a great sense of humor."
Campus life, fear of needles
Lin's college life was multi-faceted, grounded in basketball, religion, academics and a tight-knit group of friends who spent three years together at Leverett House, which overlooks the Charles River.
All Harvard freshmen live in or adjacent to Harvard Yard, but after that students can choose to live with friends as part of the house system.
Lin and his group, including basketball and football friends, were assigned to Leverett, the largest.
As a senior, Lin finished No. 1 in the room selection lottery, making him extremely popular and securing for his group 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 it was "nice mix" of athletes, artists and others. He said several players took economics classes together, which helped with studying, especially on road trips.
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, which was more than could be said for many students taking a 9 a.m. class.
"I remember exactly where he sat, up in the balcony to my right," Foote said. "My impression is that he was not just thinking about basketball. He was trying to make the most of the advantages Harvard could give him."
Another resident and former teammate, Alek Blankenau, recalled the only time he has seen Lin flustered, on or off the court. They were freshmen and waiting receive flu shots. It turned out Lin's greatest fear is needles.
"Everyone was in line, real nonchalant and 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.' That was definitely the most flustered I've ever seen him.'"
Blankenau also recalled a Valentine's Day when Lin forgot to make a restaurant reservation for him 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.
"We went out together," Blankenau said. "He was definitely not a party animal, definitely on the lower end of all of our friends. 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." He added, laughing, "I'm usually a better dancer than he is so he'd learn to dance from me.
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. I never saw him push his beliefs on anyone."
Lin, now 23, was born in the United States to Taiwanese parents. Ho was born in Taiwan and moved to Georgia at age 13 after the death of his father. The two met through their commonality as athletes of Asian descent.
Ho, who was a running back for Harvard's football team, said he was only somewhat interested in religion before Lin invited him to join a study group, which usually ranged from six to eight people and lasted an hour or two.
"The way he thinks and believes is very consistent, and it is very contagious to be around him," Ho said. "I think it's a gift."
Miller said Lin always was happy to talk about religion if that was what someone wanted. "Or he would talk about Halo instead for 20 minutes if you wanted," Miller said, referring to a popular video game.
"We would talk about girls or girl problems or video games or classes or politics. He's a pretty smart guy."
Ho has been inundated with interview requests from two hemispheres but has turned down the vast majority. He has been in frequent contact with Lin during his two weeks of sudden fame.
"It's crazy; I never saw this coming, and he would say that, too," Ho said. "But he's the right guy. He worked very, very hard at it . . . He surrendered himself to God and whatever happens, let it happen. Since freshman year nothing has changed in the way he carries himself."
But he did see some of this coming early on. "People are starting to realize he is a lot more athletic than people assumed," Miller said. "He's stronger than he looked, and he's put in a lot of work over those four years."
Blankenau, who works in Dallas, said his productivity is down because of all the Knicks games he watches. "It still hasn't even set in for me," he said. "It still makes me smile every time I turn on SportsCenter and it's all Jeremy Lin. It's pretty funny and surreal. I can't wait to see what he does next. It should be a fun ride."
Ho said it is "absolutely killing me" to be on the wrong side of the globe during "Lin-sanity." But the mania in some way echoes what happened during Lin's stay at Harvard.
Legacy at Harvard
Although the Crimson did not win a league championship in his time, they became more competitive and popular, thanks in part to an initiative led by Ho called People of the Crimson that helped boost student attendance.
Martin Kessler, a junior, is in his third season as the Crimson's basketball beat writer. He grew up in Cambridge and well remembers the bad old days of Harvard basketball.
"By no means is it like the Cameron Crazies [at Duke] or anything, but compared to what it was it's come a long way," he said. "I used to go to games with my dad and the student section was maybe two rows of football players or something. Now you have to get student tickets in advance.''
Said Ho: "Now students are selling tickets on the free market on campus. That blows my mind.''
Kessler said even though Lin was a star of the team, he never was treated like one on campus, partly because of the nature of the school, partly because of his personality.
He recalled introducing himself as a freshman to Lin, then a senior. "It's hard to explain, but it seemed like he actually cared," he said. "He's just not what you would think of when you think of a star basketball player."
After covering that season, Kessler found himself at the Malkin Athletic Center, Harvard's student gym, to play pickup basketball. Jeremy Lin was there, too, and joined in.
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.
"He was able to establish not only helping us win, but an identity about our program, a style of play," he said. "We brought a style here that we thought fit him very well, a la what is happening in New York. We opened the floor. We want to transition the ball and be an attacking, offensive team up the floor, an early offense. That's Jeremy Lin to a T . . . We couldn't be more proud to have that kid be synonymous with the growth of Harvard basketball."
"He's a great guy off the court; that's why you see how his Knicks teammates are responding to his success," McNally said. "No one cares, because he's such a genuinely good person. People aren't going to get sick of him. He's not going to do anything stupid. He's a really good guy who's earned this. Not everybody gets an opportunity, but he was fortunate to get one and when he did he seized it as well as anyone could have."
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