ERIE, Pa. -- Before he was a household name, before he denied rumors he was dating socialite Kim Kardashian, before he had ascended to the big top of the circus formally known as the New York Knicks, Jeremy Lin's plane touched down a few miles from the shore of Lake Erie at Erie International Airport.
The day was Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012, and Lin and Knicks center Jerome Jordan had been assigned to play a couple of games with the Erie BayHawks of the NBA Development League. Lin was an anonymous point guard from Harvard when he hopped into Bayhawks president Matt Bresee's SUV that afternoon. Lin had played just nine minutes for the Knicks in January.
Bresee got the call the previous day that Lin and Jordan would be playing for the BayHawks, who are an affiliate of the Knicks. This was an opportunity for the franchise to put on a good face for players with NBA contracts, so Bresee was there to shuttle them around town. He checked them into their hotel, drove them to the mall for a couple of Subway sandwiches, then dropped them off at the team's practice facility.
Bresee had been in situations like this in the past with players who had been assigned to the D-league, and it was a mixed bag. Sometimes, they were excited for the opportunity to play extended minutes in a game. Other times, they seemed to view the trip to Erie as a demotion. It was clear from the time Lin got into the car that he had brought the right attitude from the Big Apple.
"We had a good conversation in the car," Bresee said. "Jeremy and I talked a little bit about where he was from, and he actually asked me about where I was from."
Lin also asked Bresee about the city of Erie -- even though Lin didn't plan on being there long. A return flight already was booked for him the next Monday. All he had to do was play well for the BayHawks that weekend in Portland, Maine, against the Maine Red Claws, and he'd reaffirm the Knicks' belief that he could eventually help them win.
Lin took that assignment seriously. He tore apart the Red Claws Jan. 20 for 28 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds -- one of the few triple-doubles in the BayHawks' four-year history.
"He was just happy he was getting to play again, and it showed," said BayHawks forward Kyle Goldcamp, a native of Pittsburgh. "He was just having a lot of fun out there."
And, just like that, Lin was gone.
Two weeks later, on Feb. 4, the Knicks put him into their rotation against the New Jersey Nets, and Lin delivered 25 points and 7 assists in a win. Suddenly, Lin was in the starting lineup, and the Knicks would win six more games -- one of them against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, when Lin poured in 38 points and proved that "Linsanity" was a real, breathing thing.
That night, back in Erie, the BayHawks were playing a home game against the Red Claws, and Bresee and his staff were keeping a close eye on what Lin was doing to the Lakers and marveling along with the rest of the world.
"It's funny, everyone looking for their Jeremy Lin claim to fame," Bresee said. "My 15-year-old daughter can brag to her friends that Jeremy Lin was in our car. We can say Jeremy Lin stepped foot in the food court of the Millcreek Mall, spent the night at the Sheraton here and practiced at the Lecom Wellness Center. We've got pictures."
Good thing the BayHawks have documented proof Lin was here. If they hadn't snapped pictures, would anybody have believed that Lin's star began to shimmer in this small, unassuming city of about 102,000 residents? Now, the BayHawks don't intend to let anybody forget.
It is not easy to forge a connection between a town and its NBDL franchise. Players on NBDL rosters are constantly changing -- more so than on a minor-league baseball team like the Erie Seawolves, the Tigers' Class AA affiliate. In the NBDL, players are signed by the league, not a particular franchise, so players rarely stay put long enough to develop a fan following. For instance, there are only three guys currently with the BayHawks who shared the court with Lin nearly six weeks ago.
Still, the BayHawks are doing everything they can to take advantage of Lin's newfound fame. The game Saturday against Sioux Falls has been advertised as "Linsanity Night" at the Erie Civic Center, and here are a few of the fun elements:
• If your name contains "Lin" anywhere in your first, middle or last name, your family gets free tickets.
"A lady came in this morning with the last name Collins," said Jason Vaughan, the BayHawks' manager of promotions and client services.
• If you're 17 years old, and you have proper identification, you get a free ticket because Lin wears a No. 17 jersey.
• If you are seated in section 17, you have a chance at special giveaways.
• If you graduated from Harvard or currently enrolled there, you get a free ticket.
The BayHawks will give out Lin posters that feature him playing with the BayHawks and Knicks to the first 1,000 fans. T-shirts with Lin's name and No. 17 are going for $22 at the team's online store, and more designs are expected to arrive by Saturday.
The biggest hint that Linsanity has hit the coast of Lake Erie? The BayHawks put his game-worn jersey for sale on eBay, and it grossed $13,800. Because of Lin's popularity among those who share his Asian descent, Vaughan said the winner of the auction could live anywhere from Erie to Taiwan.
Lin's game warm-up jersey went for $3,700, his practice jersey for $1,900. That's almost $20,000 that the BayHawks are planning to donate to local charities.
"This last three to four weeks has been unlike anything I've ever been a part of," Bresee said.
The Knicks are 10-3 with Lin a part of the lineup after starting 8-15 with him on the bench. In those 13 games, he has averaged 22.3 points and nine assists, and his former BayHawks teammates have been rooting him on the whole way. They remember the way he carried himself, the positive energy he brought to practice when he could have done the opposite. Goldcamp recalls that Lin paid for his dinner one night in Maine. BayHawks guard Kyle Spain appreciated how Lin pulled him aside during the game and told him to keep shooting after misses.
The BayHawks say they have taken Lin's story as an inspiration. But they also realize not everybody's story can end like Jeremy Lin's.
"He very easily could have pouted and not played well in Erie, and the Knicks could have decided he's not what we thought he was," BayHawks coach Jay Larranaga said. "But he didn't. He showed the player he is, and he turned out to be more than what they thought."
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published March 2, 2012 5:00 AM