If you haven’t heard of New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin by now, welcome back from Pluto. Like Tim Tebow but with clear talent, Linsanity is the best story in the NBA right now. Undrafted and released by two other teams before landing on his brother’s couch in New York, the Asian(-American) sensation was thrown into the lineup early this month. All he did was make the Knickerbockers relevant again. They have gone 8-1 behind Lin’s dynamic offensive game and crept back in the playoff picture after an atrocious start. But he’s hardly first star to come out of nowhere. We’re serving up Shao-Lin’s story along with those of nine other recent and current pros who defied odds to reach the highest heights. Looking for inspiration? Grab a big ol’ plate of it here.
Kurt Warner: You know the story by now. Warner went undrafted out of Northern Iowa in 1994, then started stocking shelves in a grocery store and playing in the Arena Football League. In 1998 he signed with the St. Louis Rams. In 1999, starting quarterback Trent Green tore his ACL in the preseason, and the rest is history. Two NFL MVPs, a Super Bowl MVP, 32,000-plus passing yards and one Dancing With The Stars run later, Warner has a certifiable case for the Hall of Fame.
Mike Piazza: It’s almost a joke that Piazza played beyond college to begin with. His father, a childhood friend of Tommy Lasorda, asked Lasorda to draft Mike as a favor. The Dodgers selected him in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft. He then switched from first base to catcher at Lasorda’s urging. Over 16 seasons, Piazza became one of the best-hitting catchers ever, was a 12-time All-Star and holds the career record for most homers by a catcher. And to top it all off, he married a Playboy Playmate.
Ed Belfour: Despite helping North Dakota win an NCAA title in 1987, Eddie the Eagle didn’t much impress NHL talent evaluators. He went undrafted and signed with Chicago in 1988, spending time with the Saginaw Hawks and Canadian national team before getting the call up. After posting a 4-2 record in the 1990 playoffs, he became the Blackhawks full-time starting goalie at the beginning of the 1990-’91 season. Seventeen seasons and 484 wins later, he’s a Hall of Famer.
Jay DeMerit: DeMerit didn’t get a look from the MLS (the MLS!) after college, going undrafted, so he packed his bags and the last of his savings and headed across the pond. Beginning his post-college career with Southall, a ninth-tier (ninth-tier!) team in English football, DeMerit worked his way up to Championship side Watford and helped elevate them to the English Premier League. He then started for the USA in the 2010 World Cup (the World Cup!) and now, finally, plays for the Vancouver Whitecaps of the MLS (the MLS!).
Ben Wallace: Wallace may be one-dimensional, but he was one of the best in the league at that one thing—grabbing boards—for some time. Wallace was undrafted coming out of Virginia Union and didn’t become a full-time starter until his fourth season. His career finally took off in Detroit—his third team in five years—where he became a four-time defensive player of the year, four-time All-Star, and led the league in rebounding twice and blocks once. He’s hung around longer than he should have, but a 15-year career isn’t bad for a guy nobody wanted.
James Harrison: Harrison went undrafted out of Kent State and was cut four times before finally sticking with the Steelers for good in 2004. He wasn’t a full-time starter until 2007, but he’s rewarded Pittsburgh’s patience with 8.5, 16, 10, 10.5 and 9 sacks in the seasons since then. He’s now a five-time Pro Bowler, the 2008 defensive player of the year… and the king of unapologetically illegal devastating hits on opposing players.
José Bautista: A 20th-round pick by Pittsburgh in 2000, Bautista was scooped up by Baltimore in the 2004 Rule 5 draft. He bounced around five different rosters that season (a major league record), eventually landing back with the Pirates. Bautista was traded to Toronto in 2008, started 2009 on the bench and hit .235. But in the two seasons since, he’s hit 54 and 43 home runs, respectively. Those totals led the American League, and Bautista was an All-Star both seasons. Bonus: he has yet to be busted for performance-enhancing drugs!
Dan Boyle: Coming out of Miami of Ohio, the 5'11", 190-pound defenseman was deemed too small for the NHL and went undrafted. He spent two seasons in Florida’s farm system before making his NHL debut during the 2000-01 season. The Panthers shipped him to Tampa Bay in 2002, and the Lightning traded him to the San Jose Sharks in 2008. Since then, Boyle has only become one of the league’s best defensemen. He’s now a two-time All-Star who won a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics. So to paraphrase Billy Madison, Boyle rules!
Arian Foster: Foster ran for only 566 yards during his senior season at Tennessee, which cost him on draft day. He went undrafted in 2009 and spent most of his rookie season on the Texans’ practice squad before seeing limited action in the team’s final six games. That audition, and a solid preseason, elevated Foster to the team’s No. 1 back in 2010. He opened the season with 231 yards and three touchdowns and hasn’t looked back, totaling 3,097 yards in three seasons. Also known as 1,192 more than Knowshon Moreno, the first running back drafted in ’09.
Jeremy Lin: He may or may not keep it up, but Lin has taken the NBA by storm since the Knicks handed him the ball two weeks ago. He didn’t get any scholarship offers out of high school, he went undrafted after college at Harvard, and he was cut by both Golden State and Houston before landing in New York. He played in the D-League in January and might have been cut by the Knicks if not for some injuries. Now, he’s the greatest thing since pork balls, having averaged 24 points and 10 assists per game since getting his first career start on February 6th. And rumor has it he might even be moving off his brother’s couch!