“It’s so hard when you don’t look the part,” offers Jeremy Lin. “You have to do everything right when you don’t look the part, and even then, that might not be enough. There is no room for error.”
He pauses. “That’s the story of minorities in America right now.”
Jeremy Lin never looked the part. His parents emigrated from Taiwan to the U.S. in the 1970s, eventually settling in Palo Alto, California. They were both engineers, and both stood 5-foot-6 (Lin grew to be 6-foot-3). When he wasn’t studying the Bible—his parents are also devout Christians—Lin learned the game of basketball via frequent trips to the local YMCA. When his mother discovered there was no elite-level basketball program for middle schoolers in Palo Alto, she helped start one. Lin eventually led his high school team to the state championship, but received no scholarship offers. He went to Harvard. Became a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award. Went undrafted.
After short stints with the Warriors and Hawks, he landed on the New York Knicks. The team got off to a terribly slow start, as is their wont, and Baron Davis reaggravated an injury, so head coach Mike D’Antoni rolled the dice and started Lin at point guard. He proceeded to go on an absolute tear, leading the Knicks to a four-game win streak while averaging 27.3 points, 8.3 assists, and 2.0 steals—including dropping 38 points on Kobe Bryant and the Lakers at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 10, 2012. Four days later, he hit a game-winning three against the Raptors. The media dubbed it “Linsanity.” His jersey became the highest-selling in the league and the 24-year-old graced the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated.
The HBO documentary 38 at the Garden examines Lin’s explosion into the public consciousness within the context of the struggles Asian Americans have faced then and now (struggles exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic). Directed by Frank Chi and premiering Oct. 11 on HBO, it features Lin and his Knicks teammates recounting the height of Linsanity, as well as celebs like Hasan Minhaj, Lisa Ling and Ronny Chieng discussing what it meant to them as fellow Asians.
What isn’t included in 38 at the Garden, however, is what happened after Linsanity. Leading a hobbled Knicks team to the playoffs wasn’t enough to get Lin re-signed by the team—apparently, some of his Knicks teammates (see: Carmelo Anthony) had grown resentful of his popularity—and he ended up on the Rockets, where he didn’t exactly gel with a ball-dominant James Harden. He bounced around some more, got injured a few times, won a 2019 NBA title with the Raptors as a bench player, and then went unsigned in 2019. Out of options, he went to China to play for the Beijing Ducks. After scoring 22.3 and 5.7 assists in Beijing, he received an offer to play for the Golden State Warriors’ G League affiliate, the Santa Cruz Warriors, in the hopes of returning to the NBA. Despite averaging 19.8 points and 6.4 assists per game while shooting over 50 percent from the field, zero NBA teams wanted him. He went back to Beijing.
Lin, 34, now plays for the Guangzhou Loong Lions—and still believes he belong in the NBA. He spoke to me via Zoom from Guangzhou, China, about his journey to (and from) basketball stardom.
I’m half-Asian and used to play basketball—albeit not at nearly as high a level as you—so can relate to some of the struggles you faced. I know we already had a Linsanity documentary, but this film expands beyond your on-court triumphs to tackle Asian stereotypes in general, and the discrimination that they often face.
I wasn’t going to sign up for anything that was only going to highlight myself or say, “Look at Jeremy! He scored 38 points.” That story’s been told enough times, in my opinion. The only reason why we decided to do anything is because of where we are today as a society, and because of what this moment meant culturally, in context. We talk about scoring 38 at the Garden, but the ending is really the meat and the North Star of this project, which is: Where were we ten years ago? Where are we now? And can we maintain hope to make the future better for the next generation, so they don’t have to deal with as many issues as we have had to deal with? I talk in the documentary about how I have these mixed feelings of heartbreak, tragedy and despair, along with happiness and hope, all jumbled together.
I’m about the same age as you, and I certainly didn’t grow up with any Asian basketball players to look up to. Now there’s Jordan Clarkson and Rui Hachimura, and prior to that you and Yao Ming. But when you exploded, you were really the first Asian guard I’d seen succeed at the NBA level. What was it like for you not having those examples growing up?
There was no one person that really was it for me. There was no one like that before I did what I did, so I drew from a lot of African-American athletes growing up as my inspiration, and I talk about how Jordan was my hero growing up. And then when I saw Yao come along, I thought, “Damn! He’s Asian and I’m Asian! That means I can make it!” But at the same time, there were many things that were different. I wasn’t 7’6” and wasn’t going to be a No. 1 draft pick. I always had bits and pieces. Even from Jordan, I loved him and he was my favorite player, but everything he could do I wouldn’t. He was 6’6”, a freak athlete, and he’s not a point guard. It was an interesting place to be.
I read that even before you got to the NBA you’d faced a great deal of racism playing basketball—from opponents, fans, you name it. How did you drown that out? Or could you?
The good thing is that I grew up in the Bay Area, and in the Bay Area there are a lot of Asian hoopers. But when I got more and more into elite basketball, that’s when I thought, oh, there are no Asians on my team and there are no Asians on the other team. When I started traveling outside of the Bay Area was when I started experiencing a lot of the racism. I remember being at AAU Nationals, where all the country’s best AAU teams were gathered—we’re talking hundreds of teams. I vividly remember being in Florida, and as I’m walking down the aisle—they’d call your team and you’d walk down the aisle—everyone just being like, “Look at him!” “Yao Ming!” and saying all these things. I remember being embarrassed. I stared at the ground and thought, when will this be over? When will I be done walking in front of everybody?
I ended up with this anger, and I think it wasn’t fully addressed until I was in college. I had the most important game in my career up until that point—we were jostling for the No. 1 position, and who would win the Ivy League—and it was this crucial game, and this guard on the other team keeps calling me a “chink” over and over. The refs hear it, his teammates hear it, and nobody’s doing anything about it. I lose my mind. I play horribly and foul out, just getting all these offensive fouls and running people over. It wasn’t until after the game that my assistant coach, Kenny Blakeney, pulled me aside and told me about his journey as an African-American playing in the ACC, and that’s who truly taught me how to turn that negative energy into positive energy. Up until then, I was just managing it. It wasn’t until that conversation that I turned it into positive fuel.
Let’s talk about you dropping 38 at the Garden on Kobe. I remember watching it, as an Asian guy and a Knicks fan, and being blown away by what I was seeing. I never thought I’d see an Asian dude cooking Kobe Bryant at Madison Square Garden. And Kobe talked some shit about you before the game, which seemed to kick you into another gear.
Yeah, for sure. That’s a great way to describe it. I was already in the zone and had three good games, and I grew up being a Warriors fan in the Bay Area, so we did not like the Lakers and did not like Kobe. And then he extra-gassed me by what he’d said before the game. I felt slighted and disrespected, and all those things put me in a place of, I’m going for it tonight. It was just, if I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m firing it up at the rim. If it doesn’t go in then it doesn’t go in, but it won’t be because I’m not gonna shoot it.
What was it like at the Garden that night for you? I’ve been to plenty of Knicks games and the Garden has not been that fired up in the decade since, that’s for sure.
It was completely out of control. It really was a fairy tale. It was magical. I hate to sound super cliché, but after I hit the corner dagger, it was so loud that I had chills—goosebumps—and I had to look down because I thought I was hovering. That’s how loud and magical it was. I actually thought, am I levitating right now? I’ve never experienced something like that. I’ve won an NBA championship and I’ve won some big games, but I haven’t experienced an atmosphere like that before or after. That game was just so special.
Well, the Knicks haven’t either. One thing the documentary doesn’t explore is how the media failed you while covering this moment. Jason Whitlock tweeted racist stuff about you during the game—literally making an Asian dick joke at your expense—and ESPN ran that infamous “Chink in the Armor” headline on its homepage.
That’s the part I didn’t understand in the moment. I understood everything else that was happening. The reason why I didn’t even blink was because I grew up so exposed to it, and because I grew up so exposed to it I thought, oh, that’s just normal. At least it wasn’t like in the Ivy League when I would look at these drunk students with bloodshot eyes in the courtside students’ section shouting racist things at my face to the point where it sounded like they were going to charge me and beat me physically. At least it was over the internet, you know? I think that’s why I didn’t speak out more at the time, because I just thought, it could be worse. And that’s just so sad, and I regret that. But when it comes to Linsanity, portions of the media were definitely part of reinforcing stereotypes and reinforcing how it’s “cool” to make fun of Asians in these ways and no one will care, and no one will do anything about it. That’s the stereotype about us—that we won’t stand up for ourselves—and in those moments I didn’t. And I regret it. But you’re totally right that the media in many ways failed the moment and failed society.
“That’s the stereotype about us—that we won’t stand up for ourselves—and in those moments I didn’t. And I regret it.”
On a lighter note, have you ever smoked Linsanity OG Weed before? Because we see rapper Rick Ross endorsing it on Instagram in the documentary.
Actually, I have never! No, I haven’t. In the NBA you get drug-tested at least four times a year for it, so that was definitely out of the realm of possibility.
What was the craziest thing to happen to you at the height of Linsanity? I remember even reading rumors at the time—and this isn’t in the doc—that you were dating Kim Kardashian, which I’m assuming was not true.
[Laughs] Yeah, I’ve never met her before. There are plenty of things that came out… There are so many funny stories, and some that are really creepy. Everything that you can think of happened and everything that you can’t think of happened. On the lighter end, BMW was like, “Come on down here, sign a couple of autographs, take a couple of photos, and we’ll give you a BMW.” I was like, “Done.” There were all types of brands send me free stuff. And then there’s the creepy stuff of people waiting outside my house or my parents’ house. People hiding in the bushes. Girls dropping off panties at my parents’ house and waiting for me there, stalking me. Really weird stuff!
How much racism did you face in the NBA? You mention early on in the documentary how a Knicks assistant compared you to a Japanese video game character.
In the NBA, it was definitely more subtle. Some of it was not subtle, but it wasn’t malicious. A lot of the locker room jokes and things of that nature came from people who cared about me as a person, but at the same time, does that mean my teammates respected me and what I could do on the court? No. But it was nothing compared to what I faced in college, where it really felt like, man, if I saw you on the street you might just attack me. That was the level of anger that they had toward me. I didn’t experience that in the NBA. In NBA arenas, you’ll have fans heckling and making racist jokes and comments, and that’s definitely part of my whole experience, but I’d say the height of it was really college.
I’m a die-hard Knicks fan, so I’ve been through a lot. But both Mike D’Antoni and Amar’e Stoudemire have come out and said that some of your Knicks teammates resented you at the height of Linsanity. Did you feel that?
That’s the part that we don’t touch on as much [in the documentary], but for sure. I never experienced that personally, and the fact that D’Antoni and Amar’e said what they said is coming from their perspective, but at the moment I was so naïve and overwhelmed. I never felt that personally, but if they came out and said it then I know it existed, and the fact that I didn’t come back to New York… that was all an indication of what was happening behind the scenes.
That was insane to me that the Knicks didn’t re-sign you. I’m still mad about that.
Yeah. I’m pretty sad.
The reality is, you were a global icon and experts estimated at the time that you had raised the value of the Knicks team by hundreds of millions of dollars. I know Houston inserted a poison pill in your contract, but it still doesn’t make sense. What do you think happened there? Do you think Melo, and his jealousy, was the reason why you weren’t re-signed?
I mean, I think that’s… that’s the theory, and that’s what everyone says, but I can’t feed the speculation train because I don’t actually know. I know, and I’m saying this truthfully, that there were multiple points of opposition completely outside of Melo within what was going on, and once D’Antoni resigned, there was already opposition within the organization—whether it was the coaching staff that took over or certain members of the front office. But there was definitely, from what I’ve heard or gathered in the few years after, it wasn’t all as rosy as people thought it was. I don’t know who to attribute it to, but I know there were multiple points of opposition.
“But there was definitely, from what I’ve heard or gathered in the few years after, it wasn’t all as rosy as people thought it was. I don’t know who to attribute it to, but I know there were multiple points of opposition.”
How do you feel about your exit from the NBA in 2019, and not being there now? I was following what you were doing throughout all this, and you lit up the G League when you were with the Warriors’ Santa Cruz affiliate.
That’s a whole other side of the story that people don’t talk as much about. Coming out of Santa Cruz, being a league leader in points and assists and leading the entire league in shooting efficiency, and having all the top scorers and assist leaders get contracts except for me… I’d dealt with a lot of obstacles, but I was still able to play in Division I in college, and I was still able to play in the NBA and break through these barriers, but during that G League stint, no one was willing to pull the trigger—and that’s from head coaches to front office. I was talking to owners of teams, I was talking to general managers, I was talking to the commissioner of the NBA, I was talking to star players, and nobody was willing to pull the trigger on me.
Even though I’d taken every challenge that was asked of me—they told me, we’re not going to look at what you did in China, so come here and prove what you can do. I took a $30,000 salary in my 11th year as a professional basketball player to come back and do what I did, and even then, it just wasn’t enough. And to me, that moment is also very important in my career, because Linsanity was, you’re fighting an uphill battle but you broke through, and the G League was the more realistic moment that 99% of minorities and people who are fighting uphill experience: I deserved it, I was qualified, and I didn’t get it.
That is really upsetting.
That’s a huge part of it, and that’s something that I had to experience. It’s not an even playing field. It just isn’t. Even after playing in the NBA for nine years!
How’s your health now? I read that in 2021 you were hospitalized in Shanghai with COVID and had lost around 20 pounds. That must have been pretty terrifying.
I’m great now. I feel really good physically. But it was a tough moment. I was in isolated quarantine for three months, and it was a really, really tough situation for me. It affected my body in ways I never thought it would, but I’m fully recovered and gearing up for my 13th season.
The end of the documentary focuses on the extreme racism that Asian-Americans have faced during the COVID pandemic. And it seems like Republicans—and particularly Trump—branding it the “China Virus,” among other things, helped fuel the demonization of Asians in America.
I agree with what you’re saying. It’s weaponizing it. It’s not even a microaggression—it’s just aggression. It’s so blatantly, overtly, and so wildly influential and impactful in negative ways. And it was totally OK and cool. It was treated as a joke. Senators were repeating it in Congress. It was ridiculous. And at the same time, the reality is that this has been going on—it just hasn’t been reported the same way. This problem existed before, and then it got escalated. Now, it’s being exposed. This is an issue that we’ll have to face, because it’s not right.
The post The NBA Made a Fortune Off Jeremy Lin—and Then Kicked Him to the Curb appeared first on The Daily Beast.