What’s important to Jeremy Lin? He’ll tell you. In fact, he’ll even rank it. What are the 25-year-old NBA point guard’s favorite cartoon blankets? No. 1: The Lion King. No. 2: Garfield. No. 3: Sesame Street. What about his priorities in life? No. 1: God. No. 2: School. No. 3: Basketball.
Surprised that Lin ranks Christ above the court? You won’t be after 15 minutes of Evan Jackson Leong’s Linsanity—if you’re observant, you’ll catch on as soon as the title flashes onscreen, the “t” in Linsanity proudly transformed into a cross. Leong, the director of the upcoming documentary 1040: Christianity in the New Asia, stops short of showing us Lin crucified under a basketball net. But if Leong isn’t quite arguing that Lin is the Messiah, he at least presents the six-foot-three athlete as the NBA’s Job, framing Lin with a digital background of thunder and lightning, and tracking the trials and tribulations he endured on his path to a three-year, $25 million contract with the Houston Rockets.
Success came hard. It wasn’t for lack of talent—Lin was always good at basketball—and it wasn’t for lack of support by his Taiwanese immigrant parents. His mother, Shirley, cheered at every game and his father, Gie-Ming, rhapsodizes in his native tongue about the sky-hook of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They only allowed television during the NBA playoffs. During commercial breaks, eight-year-old Jeremy would sprint outside with his two brothers to mimic the stars’ moves. Ten years later, he’d lead his Palo Alto high school to a Division II state championship over an Orange Country private Catholic school that the documentary rather uncharitably calls “Goliath.” Yet despite proving himself the best in his youth league, and then his high school, and then the state of California, this hard-playing point guard who could dunk and shoot threes was paid no attention by the scouts. As Shirley sighs, even when Jeremy beat the top guys, crowds didn’t applaud his talent—they just downgraded his opponents.
“I know God orchestrated this whole thing,” says Lin of the tough times before his career-changing Two Weeks of Great Success with the New York Knicks. “Nothing in my life will happen that’s not according to his plan.” When Stanford, Lin’s top college pick, declined to make the hometown hero an offer for racial reasons that Leong insinuates but doesn’t investigate, God decided Jeremy should move east. “God made it very clear he wanted me to go to Harvard,” Lin says, which raises the question: How? A burning bush that talks like Matt Damon? But Leong doesn’t ask questions—he’s here to proselytize, and he sees Lin as the perfect parable of faith, humility, and sweat.
Granted, Lin isn’t an eloquent interviewee, even for a professional athlete, a breed known for speaking only in facts (“I’m just out there having fun and playing the game”) and intangibles (“That’s all I dream about is hitting the game-winner”). Here’s Jeremy on being signed to the Golden State Warriors: “I was like, ‘Aaaaah!'” Here’s Jeremy on being cut from the Golden State Warriors: “They were like, ‘We wish you the best of luck.’ I was like, ‘Thanks.'” On camera, Lin is so dully positive that his most startling quote is, “I have to learn how to control my emotions.” Even when tempted to trash-talk Kobe Bryant after trouncing the Lakers, Lin literally asks himself what Jesus would do. Jesus tells him to mumble something generic about Bryant helping pick him up when he got knocked to the floor. Yawn.
Yet despite Leong’s sanctimony, I still suspect Lin is secretly interesting. The only place he feels fully flesh and blood is on the court. When he swishes a three, he spins and swaggers, wagging his tongue like Miley Cyrus. When scored on, he resolves to score back—an eye for an eye and a dunk for a dunk. He’s a wilder, bolder, competitive creature, and openly admits it, likening game time to an out-of-body experience where “God does something supernatural.” (Ask the 13th-ranked Houston Rockets: That’s great—but can God cut down on turnovers?)
Linsanity doesn’t—and shouldn’t—hide its star’s religious beliefs. But the doc should have the courage to explore them. What it’s like to be the guy who sleeps with a Lion King blanket while your teammates sleep with models and pop stars? How does it feel that Tim Tebow doesn’t follow you back on Twitter? Is it hard being hoisted up as a role model when the one time you hit the clubs, after getting knocked out of the 2012 playoffs, made headlines in the New York Post?
Instead, Leong poses one big question that neither he nor Lin dares answer: Is Lin most valuable as a mascot? As the first Asian-American NBA star in a generation, he’s popularizing basketball abroad and selling jerseys at home. And if he is a better figurehead than point guard, is that so wrong? Even Leong himself is less interested in who Lin is than what he represents. He wants—and gets—a cardboard hero. Forget the title. This straight-arrow athlete isn’t Linsane. He’s just woodenly Linspirational.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 2, 2013