Point guard Jeremy Lin’s meteoric ascent across more than two dozen games in the 2012 NBA season — beginning in February of that year and dubbed “Linsanity”— triggered a movement of pride so palpable in the Asian American community that it went far beyond the physical arenas he played in, expanding past the confines of sports.
And for Lin, the first Taiwanese American in the league who was a point guard for the New York Knicks at the time, talk of the era revives some bittersweet reflections.
“When I was going through Linsanity, I didn’t understand the weight of it,” he said over the phone while on Lunar New Year break in China. “I knew that the Asian community supported me and I knew that it was an inspiration to everybody, but I didn’t understand the depths of it.”The baller has come a long way since those days, in which he says he was hesitant to be labeled an “Asian athlete.” In some ways, Lin recalls, it was amid the madness that unfolded all around him, his own understandings of race and who he was as an Asian American began to percolate. And now, while the community observes the 10-year anniversary of the Linsanity phenomenon this month, the 33-year-old says he’s left with one “big regret.”
“I was just so focused on playing well in the next game, I wasn’t so tuned into what everybody else was saying,” Lin told NBC Asian America. “There was a lack of understanding of what that moment meant and I feel like, because of that … I wasn’t able to say more and do more with my platform off the court that I wish I could have done and should have done.”
“I wasn’t able to say more and do more with my platform off the court that I wish I could have done.”
said Jeremy Lin
Lin, who commemorated the milestone by matching donations to the Jeremy Lin Foundation and UNICEF USA, is looking back on the Linsanity era in a drastically different stage of life. The point guard, who announced he’d stop chasing NBA dreams last year, is playing overseas with the Beijing Ducks for the current Chinese Basketball Association season. He’s also grown increasingly outspoken about the pandemic-fueled racism that the Asian American community has had to contend with, his own complicated, ever-evolving sense of belonging and the histories of Asian Americans who came before him.
But a decade ago, Lin came off the Knicks bench and blew the crowd away at Madison Square Garden, delivering 25 points and seven assists in a February game against the Nets. It triggered an epic run. Lin ended up scoring 130 points in his first five career starts, dramatically turning around a previously disappointing Knicks season. It was also the beginning of a societal hyperfocus on Lin. As Asian Americans hosted watch parties and Linsanity celebrations, newspapers and television hosts turned to race-related puns to frame the moment. It all prompted the genesis of a personal racial reckoning. Looking back, he said, he wasn’t working with much.
“I just wanted to be recognized for being a great basketball player. I was so tired of, from literally age 8 until Linsanity, it was always, ‘Oh, he’s a good basketball player, but he’s Asian.’ … And so I was trying to run from that tag,” Lin said. “I didn’t understand how far back the systematic injustices went. I didn’t understand the harm of these microaggressions. I didn’t understand just how much turmoil and adversity that generations and generations of minorities had to go through.”
"I didn’t understand just how much turmoil and adversity that generations and generations of minorities had to go through.”
Lin’s interpretation of his identity at the time was, in part, informed by his younger years during which he heard his race invoked to undercut his basketball game, he said. Growing up in Palo Alto, California, Lin was often around Asian Americans in the surrounding cities. But when he began to play basketball competitively, he was thrust outside what he called his “Bay Area bubble” and into predominantly white areas across the United States, where he said he felt unmistakably unwelcome. This became particularly apparent in college when he began playing teams along the East Coast, he said.
Then, there were the overt forms of racism — ranging from fans hurling insults about his eyes or shouting names of Chinese takeout dishes at him — alongside decades-long gaps in Asian representation in American media and entertainment, Lin admitted that he internalized a lot of what was around him. To this day, he said, he’s still disentangling himself from many of the stereotypes that have been heaped on Asian men, including how much they’ve been emasculated in the media.
“I think I was so brainwashed into already being what society had pigeonholed me to be,” he said. “I never grew up thinking I was attractive or manly. Even now, I still struggle with a lot of these things.”
When Linsanity rolled around, Lin said that he had experienced such clear-cut forms of racism, and was unaware of how subtler comments and slights could be harmful. Moments, like when ESPN published a story about the athlete entitled ‘Chink in the Armor,’ didn’t initially register as racist offenses, Lin said, even though the article drew an immense backlash from Asian Americans.
“To me, racism was really simple. Racism was basically when people would look at me and call me ‘Yao Ming, Go back to China.’ or ‘Can you even open your eyes?’ ‘Beef chow mein, chicken fried rice’ — what had been called so many times,” Lin recalled. “When they came out with a 'Chink in the Armor' headlines and, when I was playing, people would make fun of Asian genitals, these things to me were just jokes.”
Though Lin says he wishes he had a deeper racial awareness, Christina Chin, an associate professor of sociology at California State University, Fullerton, explained that there shouldn’t have been an expectation for the athlete to have it all figured out. In a sense, he was on an island of his own.
“Lin being in that sort of trailblazing role, he didn’t have any other role models to navigate that. There weren’t any other previous conversations that he could read about or share, no other Asian American teammates where he could really connect with and commiserate with,” she said.
The act of examining Asian Americans in sports through a racialized lens really hadn’t been done before Lin, Chin said. And so, Stanley Thangaraj, author of “Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity” explained that Linsanity was pivotal in exposing just how little the media and the general population knew about the racial group.
“What Linsanity symbolizes for me, is a long history of refusal — a refusal to engage with Asian American sporting history,” he said.
The experts noted that Asian Americans everywhere had long formed local leagues across a variety of sports, including basketball. Local legends arose from these leagues, often gaining recognition and joining a pantheon of area basketball heroes. Lin, a descendant of these leagues himself, gave Asian Americans a glimpse of what fame could look like on an international level, Thangaraj said.
But the media often failed to interpret the moment accurately, instead, ignoring the tradition of ballers in the Asian American community, and defaulting to tired tropes. Rather than being described as the athlete who played with style, Lin was written as the Harvard guy who played a stoic, mind-centered game, Thangaraj said. Articles from that era constantly focused on Lin’s Ivy League ties, made regular puns about test scores, and labeled him as “poised.” Lin, Thangaraj emphasized, had “swagger” that the media chose to erase.
“The one thing that bothered me about the Linsanity phenomenon was Jeremy Lin was quite a turnover machine, contrary to what the reports were saying,” Thangaraj said. “The journalistic reports were like ‘he’s so composed’ … All these stereotypes of the very brained Asian American kid, when in reality he was playing with such freedom, going all out with different moves and passes that was sometimes sloppy play — that was never covered as such.”
Experts also note that other descriptions cast Lin as a foreigner, keeping him outside of the American cultural imagination. Thangaraj said that it was not uncommon to see Linsanity described as a “dynasty,” or the player depicted as an “emperor.”
“If you go back to all the sporting news, you will see the use of language that makes him already seem foreign,” Thangaraj said. “What it does is in that process, it does two things: it locates him as so deeply embedded outside of our borders and as a site for desire for Asians, and not Asian Americans.”
“If you go back to all the sporting news, you will see the use of language that makes him already seem foreign.”
said AUTHOR STANLEY THANGARAJ
In the years that followed, Lin ramped up his social justice work. On several occasions, he got candid about his experiences with racism. And while he was in China for much of the pandemic, Lin lent his voice to the community, condemning the attacks on Asian Americans and the racist rhetoric around the virus.
“He did us so proud. I hope that he can look back and reflect and realize he left it all out. He took so many chances and he took as many opportunities as he could,” Chin said.
With everything the player has been through and weathered, oftentimes on his own, Lin doesn’t seem to stop taking those chances. Linsanity was ultimately the start of possibility.
“Society has always tried to say Asians can’t do this. Asians you can’t do that. You hear about the bamboo ceiling … or people who aren’t even given an opportunity to come to the country at times through history,” Lin said. “What that moment meant was just being able to compete in the same court, in the same arena. And then to defeat and to overcome and to win.
He added: “I think that’s what I’m really proud of.”