MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — One point guard has practically been a household name since he started playing professionally at 14, a lottery pick who has made the two-year wait for his flashy passes well worth it.
The other went undrafted out of Harvard and unwanted in his first two stops in the NBA before a desperate team and a desperate coach gave him the chance he needed on the game’s biggest stage.
In their own different, yet equally dynamic ways, Ricky Rubio and Jeremy Lin have put their dormant franchises on their backs and given a jolt to the NBA’s long-standing mission of bringing the game to every corner of the world.
As the first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent, Lin is re-opening doors in Asia that some feared to be closing in the wake of Yao Ming’s retirement. He’s led the New York Knicks to five straight victories and has become an instant fan favorite at Madison Square Garden after Golden State and Houston both sent him packing.
Rubio is the Spanish sensation who has fans in Barcelona watching on Internet feeds in the wee hours of the morning. His infectious play has made him an instant rock star in the Twin Cities and has the Timberwolves gunning for the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Together, they give the NBA two fresh young faces to trumpet to hoops-hungry hotbeds in Asia and Western Europe.
“The world is changing,” Rubio said after his Wolves lost to Lin’s Knicks 100-98 on Saturday night. “It’s not only America, it’s not only Europe. The world is the world. It’s growing up. Everybody’s following the NBA and they love if they have some players from their cities.”
Star players from overseas or with international appeal are nothing new to the NBA, which has marketed itself globally better than the other three major American sports of football, baseball and hockey. Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki is a former MVP who won a title last year, Spain’s Pau and Marc Gasol are high-profile players and Yao helped shepherd the league into China.
But as point guards, Lin and Rubio have the ball in their hands and control of the game at all times. And while their games, backgrounds and upbringings have been nearly polar opposites, the electricity they provide serves as a tie that binds.
“Both fill up the stat sheet, both play extremely hard and both are just infectious not only in their play but their personality as well,” Timberwolves All-Star Kevin Love said. “People just seem to love both of them.
“Ricky was kind of a fairy tale before he came over here and has really blossomed into a tremendous player and is only going to get better. But Lin, he really came out of nowhere.”
Lin is the scorer, having poured in 109 points in his first four starts, including 38 in a victory over the Lakers on Friday night that pushed coverage of the Super Bowl champion Giants off the back pages of the Big Apple tabloids. That’s more than any player has had in his first four starts since the NBA-ABA merger, besting Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal.
“It’s been pretty surreal,” Lin said. “I’m just really trying to wake up every day and enjoy, soak it all in, but at the same time stay focused on what we’re doing, which is playing basketball games and trying to help the team win. Besides that, just really enjoying the whole experience.”
He’s become an Internet sensation, increasing his Twitter followers from fewer than 10,000 to nearly 200,000 in the week since he’s taken over the starting job. More people have mentioned him on Twitter than LeBron James and his No. 17 Knicks jersey is the league’s top seller over the last eight days.
Asian fans have flocked to watch him at viewing parties in China, at the Garden in New York and at Target Center on Saturday night, where the Lin-Rubio matchup drew the fourth-largest crowd in Timberwolves history. Lin received a loud cheer from the road crowd in pregame introductions, and Knicks center Tyson Chandler isn’t surprised.
“I think I would cheer for him if I was coming to a game,” Chandler said. “He’s the feel-good story. He gets the same thing from his teammates. You want to see a guy like him succeed.”
Most importantly, the Knicks have gone from 8-15 to 13-15 with Lin running the show, inspiring all kinds of nicknames, some more creative than others.
“Jeremy Lin is a role model!” Lakers forward Metta World Peace tweeted. “My son is black and Philippine. Asian American... He loves lincredible... Keep it up young fella!!!”
Rubio is the playmaker who is fifth in the league in assists and first in steals. With every no-look pass on the break or behind-the-back dime to Love, his popularity has grown.
Fans chant “Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole!” as an homage to his European roots and a team that fell completely off the Twin Cities sporting landscape after losing 132 games over the previous two seasons has suddenly made Target Center the place to be again.
The floppy-haired 21-year-old has been a fixture on the nightly highlight shows as well with his effortless lob passes that have lifted the Timberwolves (13-15) to their best start since 2006.
“It’s different. We have different teams. But he’s doing an amazing job,” Rubio said. “Everybody can see that nobody was talking about him in the beginning and now it seems like New York is all his. He’s doing a great job and I hope the best for him.”
The Big Apple can’t get enough of Linsanity. Rubio holds the Minny-Apple in the palm of his hand. And you get the feeling this is only the beginning.
Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/APKrawczynski.