NAM/Koream Magazine, News Feature, Young Rae Kim
It was Christmas Day, 2011, and Jeremy Lin was alone on a plane flying back home to Palo Alto, Calif. The second-year NBA player had just been placed on waivers again, this time by the Houston Rockets. Two days later, Lin learned that he had been picked up by the New York Knicks. But this was not necessarily cause for celebration. After being tossed around by teams and sent to the D-League numerous times, Lin, at this point, was frustrated, burnt out and unsure of his future in the NBA.
“I am literally going into the game tomorrow night, and I have no idea who my teammates are. I never played with them one time. I have no idea what plays we run, I don’t know a single play, and I haven’t even talked to the coach yet,” said Lin. “It’s going to be interesting.”
This frank, on-camera confessional is from a new documentary, Linsanity, which gives an intimate look into one of the greatest sports phenomena in history.
The film captures Lin’s journey from struggling rookie to overnight superstar, after his breakout series of games leading the Knicks onto an incredible winning streak.
What really makes this movie stand out is the surprising inside access into the normally very private Lin, long before he became a worldwide sensation.
Filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong had been fascinated with Lin, ever since the latter’s college days at Harvard, when he was already making smaller headlines for dunks and game winners. What particularly drew him to Lin was that he could relate to him in many ways.
“Both Jeremy and I were Asian American, grew up in the Bay Area, played basketball our whole lives, and had dreams of the NBA,” said Leong. “Obviously, I wasn’t good enough.”
Back then, there was talk about Lin potentially making it to the NBA, and that was the story Leong wanted to tell, initially in the form of a web series.
“If he made the NBA, it would have a great ending to our piece,” said Leong. “I thought that Jeremy represented something we haven’t seen, and this could inspire the next generation of our community.”
After a dozen unsuccessful attempts over the course of a year to convince Lin and his family to allow the cameras to film them, Leong and his producers finally got them to agree during the start of his rookie year with the Golden State Warriors.
But that was just the first hurdle Leong and his team had to clear. After Lin’s uneventful rookie season with the Warriors, the director was unsure about the project’s story arc. While an Asian American making it to the NBA was noteworthy in it of itself, he had hopes that there would be a bit more drama to this story.
But Leong kept filming, and then, of course, the unimaginable happened in New York in February of 2012. Lin, the last man on the Knicks’ roster at the time, came off the bench in Madison Square Garden on Feb. 4 and scored 25 points to lead the Knicks—largely lifeless until then—to a thrilling victory over the New Jersey Nets. He would continue to shock the world by outdueling the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, and later, made a game-winning buzzer beater in Toronto.
Leong, who enjoyed a front row seat to Linsanity, admits that he was just as surprised by the global excitement around Lin as the rest of us, but in hindsight, he also notes that it all made sense.“In Jeremy’s career, he has always had to prove that he can play,” said the filmmaker. “At every new basketball level, it takes a few years and some time to get to the level he wants to, but he always reaches it.”
The film also highlights some of the negative stereotypes against Asian Americans that Lin had to endure throughout his career. His mother recalls that, since middle school, teams had ignored her son, even when he was clearly the best player on the court.
Even after leading his high school to a state championship, Lin did not receive an offer from any Division I colleges, and instead went to Harvard.
Lin frankly states in the documentary that, if he had been African American, this would not have been the case. However, because he did not fit the mold of what a NBA basketball player should look like, he was overlooked.
Even during the height of Linsanity, American racism also reared its ugly head in subtle and overt ways. There was the memorable ESPN headline, “A Chink in the Armor,” after Lin turned the ball over nine times in a game that would end the Knicks’ winning streak.
However Leong believes that more good than bad was revealed through Linsanity. More importantly, Lin paved a way for Asian Americans to be taken seriously in the sports world.
“When we talk about what Jeremy did, we have to talk about stereotypes,” Leong said. “Jeremy broke a stereotype, and in that process, we got to see how people really think. But this moment changed things forever. I guarantee you that, next time there is an Asian American baller with the same kind of potential as Jeremy, people will give him a lot more credit.”
Throughout the documentary, Lin’s Christian faith serves as a primary character. The athlete talks a great deal about how his faith allowed him to persevere during the low points of his career. He also said that he believes God orchestrated Linsanity because of the way circumstances perfectly lined up in order for it to happen. “God did something supernatural to me,” says Lin, in a voiceover, during a climactic scene in the film. “Learning to fight to constantly live and play for God. And when I do that, I’ll walk on water.”
Once Lin blew up in February of 2012, the project changed directions from a web series and was reimagined as a full-length documentary. The film opened Oct. 4, and has been playing in select cities, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston. It is being distributed grassroots-style, and Leong is optimistic about its prospects, even though he does not have the marketing budget of mainstream movies.
It’s hard not to imagine that this film may have been embraced by big distribution companies had it been released at the height of Linsanity.
While Lin had a good season with the Houston Rockets last year, it is safe to say that it wasn’t the season that many people were hoping for.
“That’s safe to say,” acknowledged Leong. But he added, “The public’s perceptions, and even Jeremy’s expectations, were set at a really high bar that is hard to accomplish. In my opinion, he has a lot of potential still, and we haven’t even seen what he can do.
“We wanted to make a film about what led up to Linsanity. I wanted to make a legacy film,” Leong said. “No matter what he does after Linsanity, no one can ever take that away. When we pop this movie in the DVD player 20 years from now, no one will care what happened the next year.”
This article was published in the November 2013 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today!