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New York Knicks fans in Taiwan? Yes, thanks to Jeremy Lin. (+video)

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Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/AP

(Read caption) New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin (17) drives past Toronto Raptors guard Jose Calderon during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Toronto on Tuesday. Knicks fans spread to Taiwan thanks to Jeremy Lin.

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At the unlikely hour of 8 a.m. on Wednesday, dozens pack a downtown Taipei bar to bellow cheers as the big screen broadcast a live New York Knicks basketball game.

They took the morning off to watch Knicks star Jeremy Lin, born in the United States to Taiwanese parents, further his rise to unusual celebrity status in the NBA after a tough career start in the league.

The player’s fame, dubbed “Linsanity” in the sports media, has spread quickly to Taiwan as he brings a rare splash of sporting limelight to the island of his roots. His rise, and the sudden affinity in Taiwan for the New York Knicks, is nothing short of sensational, putting him in a league with two other Taiwanese world sporting celebs: Major League Baseball pitcher Wang Chien-ming and No. 1 ranked LPGA golfer Yani Tseng.

“Why is he a hero? It’s because he made the impossible become possible,” says George Hou, mass media lecturer at I-Shou University in Taiwan.

Taiwan raises relatively few sports heroes as students on the newly industrialized island focus more on conventional careers. Taiwan’s political archrival China, with more economic clout and diplomatic support, also asks that world sports bodies limit Taiwan’s profile.

“Even though his parents moved to the United States, we take him as one of our own,” says Michal Lee, deputy secretary general of Taiwan’s Republic of China Basketball Association. “A lot of people here dream of getting into the NBA, but it’s not easy. You need to work at it. For Asians to be of such tall stature and get in, that’s all pretty rare. So now we’re happy to see that Jeremy Lin has done so well.”

High threshold aside, Mr. Lin’s performance is likely to add points to basketball’s popularity among Taiwanese. Baseball leads other sports in Taiwan, both in the field and on television, but one in four Taiwanese follows basketball, Lee says. That means more than 5 million fans.

Taiwan has a seven-team men’s professional league, while NBA games dominate sports channels in the baseball off-season. The NBA has held marketing events in Taipei to boost the fan base. Men, about two-thirds of those fans, can be found shooting hoops on any Taiwanese school campus with a court.

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The 23-year-old, 6-ft. 3-in. point guard helped the Knicks to five straight victories this month. He has averaged more than 20 points per game since starting for the team this month, chalking up 38 in one against the Los Angeles Lakers.

It wasn’t easy to get there. The NBA’s first Taiwanese-American player had joined the team at Harvard University without a scholarship and missed the 2010 draft before signing with the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors kicked Lin down to a minor league team three times before he earned a foothold. He was barely hanging on with the Knicks as well until getting a key chance to play during an otherwise poor game on Feb. 3.

The sports bar crowd got what it was looking for on Wednesday. The center of attention won a close game for his team with a three-point play, putting the Knicks up 90-87 over the Toronto Raptors.

“I think Jeremy Lin is a really good point guard because he can make the team sure of having the basketball and he can pass the ball to some handler who has a great chance to get the point inside,” says Steve Wu, a high school senior who plays the sport for fun. “I think that whatever, ethnic Chinese or American, he’s a really a good NBA player.”

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