Super Bowl weekend provided sporting moments worthy of its hype. But as good as Eli Manning's game-winning drive was, the weekend's most sparkling moments played out well beyond the reach of the umpteen thousand television cameras that blanketed Indianapolis. Two young men on opposite sides of the country delivered the kind of improbable athletic performances that move past mere thrill to inspiration.
In New York, unheralded guard Jeremy Lin roused a Madison Square Garden crowd to heights not seen since the days of Patrick Ewing. And out west at the Phoenix Open, Kyle Stanley surged to a victory that stands among the gutsiest comebacks in golf history.
Lin, the first American-born NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent, came off the bench on Feb. 4 to score 25 points and dish out seven assists in a 99-92 Knicks win over the Nets. The totals represented career highs for the 23-year-old Harvard grad, who had seen little game action to that point.
The Nets defenders appeared stunned at times as the deceptively quick Lin repeatedly drove through the lane for easy baskets. By the fourth quarter, a crowd longing for some spark in what had been a lifeless Knicks season began chanting "Jeremy!" with each successive score. When Lin wove his way to the hoop for a dazzling reverse layup with less than five minutes to play, even he could not help but smile.
Occasions for levity have proved rare over the past year and a half of Lin's life. Undrafted out of college, he proved his skills in the NBA summer league and landed a two-year contract with the Golden State Warriors. But over the season, he received little playing time and was often demoted to the team's D-League squad. Heading into this season, the Warriors waived Lin on the first day of training camp. The Houston Rockets claimed him but waived him 12 days later. The Knicks picked him up but soon relegated him to their D-League team.
Then events began to turn. On Jan. 20, Lin piled up 28 points, 12 assists, and 11 rebounds in D-League play and was promptly recalled to the Knicks. Two weeks later, he would deliver the breakout game of his career.
At every level, Lin has outperformed expectations. His methodical style of play tends to leave scouts unimpressed.
He is without the speed, vertical leap, or overall athleticism typical among professional point guards. Yet, his basketball savvy produced record-setting stat totals at Harvard and is proving worthy of the NBA game. Two days after his breakout performance-with the Super Bowl champion Giants in attendance-Lin outdid himself with a 28-point, 8-assist effort that led the Knicks to a second consecutive victory.
"The last year and a half, up until three days ago, was pretty rough for me, just struggling to find a spot in this league," Lin said after the game. "I'm just very thankful to Jesus Christ, my lord and savior, for just giving me this opportunity. I can't tell you how many different things had to happen for me to be here. I'm just overwhelmed."
Kyle Stanley can relate. The second-year PGA Tour pro turned in an unthinkable collapse in late January at the Farmers Insurance Open. Leading the tournament by three shots heading into the final hole, he appeared to have his first tour victory in hand until an 80-yard sand wedge spun backwards off the green into the water. Stanley took a drop and then three-putted for a triple bogey that erased his lead and forced a tournament playoff. He lost on the second playoff hole.
Distraught and speechless, the talented up-and-comer could hardly face reporters. Commentators wondered if such an experience might haunt Stanley's nerves for years to come.
But one week later, Stanley shot 65 on Super Bowl Sunday to come from eight shots back and win the Phoenix Open. The magnitude of his collapse, the size of his comeback, and the remarkably short span between the two render the turnaround among the most amazing ever in sports.
"It makes this one a lot sweeter, just being able to bounce back," he said. "It's unbelievable-unbelievable turnaround."
Even a super Super Bowl couldn't compete with that.