“I don’t even know what he’s done. I don’t know anything about him.” Asked what he thought about Jeremy Lin back in February 2012, Kobe Bryant famously demurred. The ever-eager NBA press corps came up with a contest of opposites, Lakers versus Knicks, revered versus upstart, old versus new. All they had to do was get the kid to respond to such disrespect like an upstart. And so they scurried to ask him, at the post-game presser, after Lin had done all right and the Knicks had beaten the Lakers. “Do you think Kobe knows who you are now?”
We might only imagine how reporters were feeling when Lin answered, respectfully and sensibly, that they’d need to ask Kobe. We know now what Lin was feeling, or at least what he says he was feeling. He considered the snarky answer, he says in the new documentary, Linsanity, the one where he’d ask back, “Kobe who?” But then, he adds, “I prayed on it and thought, Jesus wouldn’t have said that.”
However likely this may seem, it’s also just as likely that Jesus would never have had to think about what to say in this situation, the one where Jeremy Lin found himself, so briefly and vividly, last year. During Linsanity, the film proposes, he faced any number of sudden changes and expectations, and he handled all with admirable grace and faith, the same aspects of his character that have, apparently, brought him to this place. Evan Jackson Long’s movie offers up bits of Lin’s childhood in Palo Alto, interviews with his parents (both born in Taiwan) and a couple of his brothers along with pictures of him playing the piano, playing a shepherd in a school play, and playing basketball.
So far, so regular. Most every sports biography tells this sort of story, where the star’s talent is visible early (“He rang in three pointers!”), where the family is encouraging (his father, who taught himself to shoot like Kareem, says, “I knew, when I had kids, they’d play”), and where an early setback leads to reassessment. In this case, it’s a fractured ankle during a pickup game, just when Lin’s high school team needs him most. Looking back, Lin calls it a “serious tragedy, the worst thing that had ever happened to me,” until it is the best, which is to say, he recognizes what it is. “God took what I really cared about at that time,” he says now, which helped him to see that “I can’t accomplish what I want to accomplish without Him.”
What he goes on to accomplish is considerable, as the film reminds you. This despite the fact that “colleges weren’t clamoring for him, he just didn’t fit the mold,” and despite the racist abuse he hears when he is accepted by and plays for Harvard. The film doesn’t show much of Lin’s own reaction to these affronts (“Take your ass back to China!” or again, “Hey chink, can’t you see the scoreboard?”), but it does suggest that these are only more virulent versions of what he’s heard for much of his life as a basketball player, that being Chinese American, he can’t play, that he’s different, that he’s unwelcome. It’s a condition of his aspiration, the film doesn’t quite state outright, more testing of his faith that he must accept and overcome.
That Lin finds a way to overcome is certainly to his credit. Pre-breakout, enduring the D League and the bench-riding, he remains determined to improve his game: even during the lockout in 2011, he says, he “secretly” hoped for more time before the shortened season began, so he might “get better” before he actually played for Golden State and then Houston, the two teams that both ended up waiving him within two weeks, even though they said they “still wanted me.” When at last he gets to New York, he waits some more. “He was just there in case one of these guys gets hurt,” says Coach D’Antoni.
When several of these guys get hurt—including Baron Davis, whose back injury takes longer than expected to get right, and Iman Shumpert, who sprains his knee—D’Antoni puts Lin into a game against the Celtics, and then again against the Nets. And with that, a game in which Lin is sensational, the film celebrates. The soundtrack turns propulsive, the footage thrilling. Says narrator Daniel Dae Kim, “The Knicks desperately need a leader and Jeremy would answer the call.” Linsanity builds, the local headlines are ecstatic, and the Knicks sell tickets and merchandise. “I know God orchestrated the whole thing. There’s just too much out of my control.,” Lin offers. “It was just miraculous.”
It’s an astounding turn of events, from Lin’s just right match with D’Antoni’s system and his consequent terrific play (save for the lingering tendency to miss shots and turn the ball over) to the big-wattage stardom and the almost instant media rumination on same. Linsanity is a perfectly named phenomenon, all crazy excitement and accelerated acclamation, and yes, the identification of a new hero by and for New York’s Asian communities. As Michael Wilbon says, “It’s not often you see something you thought you couldn’t possibly see in the NBA.” The film Linsanity is more tempered than the phenomenon. It leaves out questions about what all this might mean, for a game and a culture with unresolved histories of racism, that exploit and wear out resources and sometimes take steps forward too. Instead, it keeps its own kind of faith.