On the day he became an international sensation, Jeremy Lin feared for his NBA livelihood. Has irony ever been so thick?
But then, who could blame him? The previous night hadn’t gone well. In the New York Knicks’ 91-89 loss to Boston on Feb. 3, 2012, the point guard’s statistical line was wholly non-descript: two points, two rebounds, one assist, one turnover and two personal fouls in 6 minutes, 36 seconds of floor time.
This was nothing new. Since signing with the Knicks as a free agent on Dec. 27, 2011, Lin had totaled 32 total points in nine games. Nothing about him was very inspiring for a team that desperately needed inspiration. New York, despite bringing in mega-stars Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire a season earlier, was floundering at 8-15, and coach Mike D’Antoni was swimming in hot-seat rumors.
At that point, Lin’s chances of NBA survival, let alone stardom, were small. He didn’t need his Harvard economics degree to figure that out.
“I remember thinking this could be my last game in the league,” he says. “I wasn’t sure I was going to play. I heard [rumors] they were going to cut me soon. I was pretty stressed.”
Unless you’ve been living among a secret society of underground cave dwellers for a while, you know what happened next.
Within a week, Lin was a household name thanks to a dizzying scoring binge that, in the 66-year history of the NBA, was unprecedented for such a young, unheralded player. Suddenly, Lin’s life was filled with endless media requests, national endorsement offers, screaming fans and paparazzi. He graced the cover of Sports Illustrated (in consecutive weeks) and GQ. “Linsanity” was trademarked, and his Q rating in Asia skyrocketed.
Lin became an international icon.
“It was just a big blessing, to be honest,” he says.
A big blessing? Not your typical superstar language from the NBA, which sometimes comes across as the “Narcissistic Basketball Association.” Then again, Lin isn’t your stereotypical NBA luminary. Quite the opposite. His humility is as obvious as his strong Christian faith, which has been a bedrock for him amidst a cyclone of life-altering events.
Now, nearly a year after the phenomenon began, Linsanity is alive and well in Houston, where Lin was once discarded. After leaving the Rockets as a pauper, he returned seven months later as a 24-year-old prince, signing a surprising free agent mega-deal last summer. The former NBA Development League afterthought now helps headline Houston’s young, overhauled roster as he seeks to improve on last year, adapt to newfound riches and fame, and leverage his celebrity for the glory of God.
You get the feeling that the saga of Jeremy Lin is only just beginning.
• • •
This Cinderella story started out far more prosaic than fairytale.
Lin, a first-generation Asian American, grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., an upscale cyber enclave located 35 miles south of San Francisco and hailed as the birthplace of Silicon Valley. The area is home to Nobel Prize winners, powerful CEOs, Fortune 500 companies and Stanford, one of America’s premier universities.
Yet not even Silicon Valley’s most powerful super-computers could have forecast Lin’s re-markable rise to stardom. Far from upper crust, the Lin family lived in a modest ranch home befitting a couple of engineers.
Lin’s parents, Gie-Ming and Shirley, emigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan in the 1970s, making stops in Virginia, Indiana and Florida for education and jobs before settling in California.
Jeremy, the second of three sons, was born in 1988.
Gie-Ming, an NBA junkie since his days in Taiwan, reared Joshua, Jeremy and Joseph on hoops at the local YMCA and on VCR recordings of NBA games. But Shirley, as much as any-one, helped launch Jeremy’s career. She was instrumental in forming a local National Junior Basketball program in which he could compete.
Jeremy eventually grew to be 6-foot-3, a whole head taller than his parents. He started at Palo Alto High School his last three years, leading the Vikings to a combined 89-7 record. As a senior, he averaged 15.1 points, 7.1 assists and five steals per game and scored 17 points in the Division II state championship to spark a shocking 51-47 upset over nationally ranked Catholic powerhouse Mater Dei. Player of the Year honors poured in from the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and the California Interscholastic Federation (for Northern California Division II).
But college recruiters yawned. No one, it seemed, wanted the skinny kid from Palo Alto. Or, dare we say, the skinny Asian-American kid from Palo Alto.
Lin had mailed highlight DVDs to top in-state programs like UCLA and Cal, as well as all eight Ivy League institutions. But no one, not even hometown Stanford, offered him a scholarship.
In 2005-06, Lin’s senior year of high school, only 0.5 percent of all NCAA Division I men’s basketball athletes were Asian-American, compared to 58.9 percent black and 29.9 percent white.
Regardless of whether that consciously or subconsciously factored into recruiters’ decision-making or not, Lin finally landed at Harvard after impressing Crimson coaches at an elite AAU tournament. He earned a starting role as a sophomore and became a mid-major All-American as a junior. Then, during his senior year in 2009-10, it all came together. He was a finalist for the Bob Cousy (top point guard) and John R. Wooden (national player of the year) awards, and the Crimson enjoyed a 21-8 season, their first winning record in eight years and the most victories ever for a mostly lackluster program that started in 1900.
Although “Linsanity” wasn’t coined for another two years, the national media picked up the scent. Time featured him in December 2009 and Sports Illustrated did the same in February 2010.
Bringing It Home Devotional: Second Chances
We’ve all been in Jeremy Lin’s shoes.
We may not be up against the defensive pressure he faces each night on the court, but we can all identify with the international phenomenon’s take on second chances—or, more appropriately, second, third and fourth chances. Lin has received several second chances in his basketball career, most notably last season with the New York Knicks when his NBA livelihood was in doubt. But even he would say that the greatest second chance he’s ever received was given to him freely by his loving Heavenly Father.
Despite all the attention and finishing his Harvard career as the first Ivy Leaguer in history to record at least 1,450 points, 450 rebounds, 400 assists and 200 steals, all 30 teams passed on Lin in the 2010 NBA Draft.
Regardless of ethnicity, stars are overlooked all the time in every sport. There are only so many draft picks to go around, particularly in the two-round NBA Draft. But it’s worth pointing out that only three Asian-Americans had made the NBA prior to Lin.
Lin’s Ivy League pedigree didn’t exactly help either. Before him, the last Ivy Leaguer to play in the NBA was Yale’s Chris Dudley during the 2002-03 season. And the last Harvard alum to reach the league? Ed Smith (Knicks) in 1953-54.
Four weeks after the draft, though, Lin got his chance when he signed as a free agent with the Golden State Warriors. Playing exclusively off the bench, he averaged 2.6 points in 29 games as a rookie. He also played in 20 games that season for the Reno Bighorns of the D-League.
The Warriors released him shortly before the start of the lockout-delayed 2011-12 season, but Houston signed him three days later on Dec. 12, only to cut him on Christmas Eve, the day before the season opened.
“I learned a lot about faith and perseverance,” Lin says.
On Dec. 27, the Knicks picked him up off waivers and gave him a non-guaranteed contract to fortify their backcourt, which had been ravaged by injuries to veteran Baron Davis and rookie Iman Shumpert. But Lin was buried on the depth chart behind guards Mike Bibby and Toney Douglas and had no assurance of a roster spot when Davis or Shumpert returned.
That, of course, changed in a New York minute.
• • •
Stephen Chen was a bit perturbed.
It was cleaning day one summer afternoon in 2002 at the Chinese Church in Christ in Mountain View, Calif., where Chen served as a youth ministry leader, and dozens of volunteers were working hard to tidy up the building. Well, all except one. The 13-year-old boy—a “very rambunctious and energetic” kid, as Chen recalls—was cavorting through the halls with a ball, knocking things over and creating more work for everyone.
Stephen Chen, meet Jeremy Lin.
“He was the one making the mess while everyone else was trying to clean up,” says Chen, now a pastor at the church. “That’s how we ran into each other. I gave him a little scolding. He told his mom and said he didn’t want to come to youth group next year because he was scared of this person who scolded him.”
The relationship quickly improved. Jeremy and his older brother, Josh, became student lead-ers in the group and made a deal with Chen: If he taught them the Bible, they’d teach him basketball. So every Friday night after youth group, the trio would head to a court at Stanford and play until 1 or 2 a.m.
“He’d wear basketball T-shirts every day,” Chen says. “It was all about basketball. He was full of energy.”
Lin had grown up in church, but things really started to click spiritually during his freshman year. It helped to be in Chen’s youth group, where he experienced a community of faith and love. That year, he trusted in Christ.
Once at Harvard, 3,000 miles from home and lacking Christian friends, Lin struggled. Bad choices and soul-searching marked his first year and a half. A big question confronted him: Now an adult, away from the insulated comforts of home, was he really going to follow Jesus?
Again, Christian community helped. Lin joined InterVarsity’s on-campus Asian-American Christian Fellowship (AACF) as a sophomore and grew significantly as he enjoyed increased accountability and Bible study. Before long, he was meeting regularly with Adrian Tam, the AACF campus chaplain at the time, for discipleship.
“I was struck by his humility,” Tam says. “He has very strong convictions. He’s a very friendly person. Even though he didn’t know me too well, he agreed to meet up with me to study the Bible, pray together, read Scripture, and read other books about the Christian walk.”
During his final two years, Lin led an AACF small group. His leadership skills on and off the court were maturing.
“Those were my favorite Bible studies ever,” Lin says. “I used to host them in my dorm room. I had a few friends I lived with— basketball and football players. They’d bring another friend who didn’t play anything, and some other people would come. We almost got along too well. There were people on the bed and a few more on the couch. We really had a great time.”
• • •
Ah, yes. Couches.
Curt Schilling had his bloody sock. Joe Namath had his fur coat. George Brett had his pine tar bat. For Lin, the iconic item of his rapidly developing lore is upholstered furniture.
Here’s where we need to throw another bone to those subterranean cave dwellers: In case you missed it, the most famous seats in New York aren’t Jay Leno’s or David Letterman’s guest chairs. They’re the sofas in Josh Lin’s and Landry Fields’ 2012 apartments. That’s where Lin—with no guarantee of a steady paycheck from the Knicks—had crashed on various nights just before Linsanity exploded. At the time, Josh Lin was a New York University dental student, and Fields was Jeremy’s teammate.
So couches are kind of a big deal to Lin.
The now-famous New York-New Jersey game on Feb. 4 started like so many of the other re-cent ones: The Knicks, coming off a miserable 2-11 stretch, were trailing, the Madison Square Garden crowd was growing restless, and Lin was riding the bench.
With 3:35 left in the first quarter, he entered the game as a sub for Shumpert, who was strug-gling through a 1-for-5 shooting night. Lin registered an assist to Fields with 2:11 left. Then he pulled down a defensive rebound with 1:52 remaining. Twenty-nine seconds into the second quarter, he hit a four-foot jumper for his first points. And on it went. By halftime, with the Knicks trailing by two, he had six points. Nothing earth-shaking.
That was about to change.
By the fourth quarter, Lin was red-hot and the Knicks were ahead. He scored 12 points in the final frame, and his three-point play with 2:03 remaining to increase the lead to nine produced a thunderous roar from 19,763 fans.
When the final buzzer sounded on New York’s 99-92 victory, Lin led all scorers with 25 points on 10-of-19 shooting, including seven assists, five rebounds and two steals.
Linsanity was born.
“It was potentially the last leg of my career, and when you’re at that point and that desperate, God stripped everything away and forced me to trust Him,” Lin says. “He gave me this peace. I got out on the floor, got a couple easy buckets and got my confidence going.
“I’ll never forget that game.”
Over the next several weeks, the Lin phenomenon proliferated at an epic rate. In his next start, he hung 28 points on Utah. Two nights later, in a 23-point performance at Washington, he crossed over star John Wall, the top pick of the 2010 draft, en route to a monster one-handed dunk that drew a standing ovation from the opposing crowd. Then, on Feb. 10, he outdueled Kobe Bryant, scoring 38 points to Bryant’s 34, in a nationally televised win over the Lakers.
The following night, he finished with 20 points at Minnesota and hit the decisive free throw with 4.9 seconds left. Three nights later, he dropped 27 points on Toronto, including the game-winning three-pointer with 0.9 seconds left. On Feb. 19, he torched defending NBA champion Dallas with 28 points in another Knicks win, their eighth in nine games.
By then, Linsanity, being played out in a metropolis of 8.2 million people, had gone global. Highlights of the NBA’s first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent looped constantly in China, and his face was plastered all over Chinese publications. In the U.S., cheap puns seemed to dominate the headlines of every major sports publication:
To Lin-finity and beyond!
According to one of the two consecutive Sports Illustrated cover stories that ran on Feb. 20 and 27, Lin’s No. 17 jersey quickly became the NBA’s top seller, sales and traffic to the Knicks’ online store increased more than 4,000 percent, Madison Square Garden stock spiked 11 percent, and New York-based Modell’s Sporting Goods sold more than 50,000 pieces of Lin-related merchandise.
With every 15-foot jumper or fearless drive to the basket, Lin shattered the unfair stereotypes of Asian athletes. He broke Allen Iverson’s record of 101 total points in his first four starts (Lin had 109), became the first player in NBA history to record at least 20 points and seven assists in each of his first six starts, and helped return the Knicks to relevancy. New York went 16-10 during seven weeks of Linsanity.
Then, on March 24, Lin tore the meniscus in his left knee during a home game against Detroit and the circus packed up. He underwent season-ending surgery and missed the Knicks’ playoff appearance. He ended the season with averages of 14.6 points and 6.2 assists a game and a permanent place in the history books of one of the NBA’s charter franchises. All this from a former
D-Leaguer who had only scored double figures twice in his previous 38 NBA games.
It was an overall Lin-sational—er, sensational—experience that Lin is still coming to grips with. The whole experience shocked him just as much as everyone else.
“Yeah, definitely. I didn’t expect that,” he says. “At times, I was out there and I was in such a groove, I couldn’t even explain it. That’s when I really realized God was in charge of it.”
• • •
So, where does Lin go from here? After the almost mythical story he penned last year, can he actually provide a rousing encore?
The Rockets certainly think so. Last July, Lin signed a three-year, $25 million contract with Houston, the team that once spurned him, when New York decided not to match the offer sheet. It was a shocking development that produced plenty of media fodder, including a 7,700-word investigative report by ESPN The Magazine.
Initially, Lin openly expressed his disappointment in leaving New York. But he is adjusting to his new environs.
“At this point, I understand that God doesn’t make mistakes,” he says, “and I’m very glad to be in Houston now.”
While fame is not something the naturally reserved star is comfortable with, he’s learning to channel it for good. Last summer, he traveled to China and Taiwan to fulfill Nike sponsorship obligations, and, while there, he shared his faith at two different speaking engagements before an estimated 20,000 people. He also started the Jeremy Lin Foundation last year to provide financial, educational and spiritual assistance to underprivileged children.
It all stems from a gospel-centered heart seen as early as his high school days, when he spent several weeks as a senior working with The Family Center, a Christian neighborhood outreach program in drug- and gang-infested East Palo Alto.
“He understood the privilege he had growing up and the privilege he has even now and that he has a wonderful gift of salvation, which he doesn’t deserve,” Chen says. “He sees the grace of God in all things and wants to share the grace of God with others.”
The future is bright for one of Houston’s newest stars. As they say in the parlance of the movement, this could get Lin-teresting.
“I’ve always been a low-key person,” Lin says. “I don’t need to be talked about all the time. Whatever happens, I’m OK with it. I understand this is a platform God has given me. I’m a steward, not an owner. I can’t control how big the platform becomes. I just have to make sure I conduct myself in a way that pleases Him.”
Originally Published: January 2013
Credits: Thomas Campbell – USA TODAY Sports; Debby Wong – USA TODAY Sports; Daniel Shirley – USA TODAY Sports