Jeremy Lin's unlikely rise from bench-warmer to basketball phenom is retold in a new documentary called (what else?) Linsanity, which opened in select theaters on Friday.
Back in February 2012, Lin, a high-scoring, Taiwanese-American point guard, fueled a seven-game winning streak for the New York Knicks — and seemingly launched a thousand Lin-spired word puns.
Lin has since traded his No. 17 Knicks jersey for his lucky No. 7 with the Houston Rockets through a contract move last year. His less-than-stellar first season with the Rockets led to some critics calling him "overrated" and "a flash in the pan."
Still, for many Asian-American fans, Linsanity the movie captures a phenomenon that remains an important cultural touchstone.
'A Reflection Of Ourselves'
If two seasons ago is too far back for you to remember the intense public frenzy surrounding Lin, talk to Jenny Yang. The life-long Los Angeles Lakers fan remembers rooting for Lin and cheering against her home team in a game with the Knicks during all the Linsanity.
"[Lin] is the kind of guy that represented so many of us who felt like we were bullied or put down for being Asian," says Yang, a writer and stand-up comic.
Jeff Yang (no relation to Jenny Yang), a columnist for the The Wall Street Journal who writes about Asian-American issues, says part of Lin's draw was that he broke a host of popular Asian stereotypes.
"Asian-Americans are consistently told that there are certain things we can't do," he says. "We 'don't have creativity.' We 'don't have athletics.' And I think Jeremy Lin proved that we can all prove them wrong."
For George Wu, a student at Georgetown University's business school who bought a No. 17 Knicks jersey back in the midst of Linsanity, Lin's success has proven that boyhood dreams of NBA stardom can become reality for Asian-Americans.
"We're glad to have that kind of figure in the spotlight now," Wu says. "You know, it's a reflection of ourselves."
Before 'Linsanity' Was 'Even A Word'
Linsanity director Evan Jackson Leong says he started working on the film back when Lin was a rookie with the Golden State Warriors in 2010. "We started this [documentary] long before 'Linsanity' was even a word," he notes.
Leong says he thought Lin's story could help inspire the next generation of Asian-American basketball players.
"You can't strive to be Yao Ming. You can't strive to be [7 feet 6 inches tall,]" he says. "What [Lin was] representing was something like, 'Wow! You could actually work hard, and you could potentially get to that level.' "
The documentary explores challenges that Lin faced as an aspiring NBA player who happened to also be the son of Taiwanese immigrants.
Being Asian, Lin says, proved to be both a blessing and a burden.
"You know, I don't know how big or small of a factor [my race] is, but I can see different things when people are like, 'Oh, he's not that quick!' or, 'He's deceptively quick!' or, 'He's deceptively athletic!' " he says. "I'm not sure what's deceptive about it ... Is it the way I run or the way I move? Or the fact that I'm Asian?"
That fact has also helped Lin establish strong support from an Asian-American fanbase.
Remembering 'Young Love'
Paul Okada, a co-founder of the fan site JeremyLin.net, says many fans still find Lin compelling because of his consummate underdog story — a skilled player who graduated from Harvard undrafted and was later cut from two NBA teams.
"At every level of basketball that he's played, whether it's high school or college or the NBA, [Lin has] always been underestimated," Okada says. "There have always been doubters and people who have thought that he wouldn't be able to make it at the next level."
Since Lin left the Knicks last year, Okada says he's seen a decline in Linsanity fervor. "Certainly things are less insane than they were when Jeremy was with the Knicks," he says.
Still, Jenny Yang remembers Linsanity fondly as "young love."
"[It's like] when you meet someone new, and you're like, 'They're amazing!' And you're all about them," she explains. "Your stomach gets butterflies."
Eventually that passion fades a bit.
She insists, though, the love for Jeremy Lin is still there.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A word that a lot of us sports fans haven't heard in a while: Linsanity. Jeremy Lin's unlikely rise from benchwarmer to basketball phenom hits screens in a new documentary this weekend. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang recently spoke with Lin and some of his fans.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Twenty months ago Linsanity sounded like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)
MIKE BREEN: Lin puts it up, bam, Jeremy Lin from downtown.
WANG: Mike Breen, New York Knicks commentator for the MSG Network couldn't quite hold back his excitement in February of 2012. That's when a high-scoring Asian-American point guard fueled a seven-game winning streak for the Knicks. This was a big deal and if two seasons ago is too far back for you to remember, meet Jenny Yang, a fan from L.A.
JENNY YANG: Jeremy Lin. Try not to blow out the levels on that.
WANG: Jenny, a writer and stand-up comic remembers cheering up during Linsanity.
JENNY YANG: This is the kind of guy that represented so many of us who felt like we were bullied or put down for being Asian.
JEFF YANG: You know, Asian-Americans are constantly being told that there are certain things we can't do.
WANG: Jeff Yang writes for the Wall Street Journal about Asian-American issues.
JEFF YANG: We don't have creativity, we don't have athletics, and I think Jeremy Lin proved that we can all prove them wrong.
GEORGE WU: We're glad to have that kind of figure in the spotlight now, that, you know, it's a reflection of ourselves.
WANG: So, you watch Jeremy Lin play and you kind of think that could have been me.
WU: If I was about five inches taller probably.
WANG: George Wu is a student at Georgetown University's business school. In the midst of Linsanity, he bought the number 17 Knicks jersey of Jeremy Lin.
JEREMY LIN: My life literally changed overnight and probably will never be the same.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WANG: It was a crazy, short-lived moment in basketball history. Classic underdog story. Rise of a then-23-year-old Asian-American player, graduated from Harvard undrafted, cut from two NBA teams, called off the Knicks bench for a home game against the Nets. He scored and scored again. That night, Lin left Madison Square Garden to a chorus of "Jeremy" by fans and Pearl Jam blaring across the court.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JEREMY")
PEARL JAM: (Singing) Jeremy spoke in class today...
WANG: Twenty months later, Lin plays for the Houston Rockets. Overrated was what critics started calling him after his less-than-stellar first season with his new team. Lin insists it's too early to tell.
LIN: I just turned 25. I really only have a year and a half of experience.
WANG: The new documentary explores Lin's experience as the son of Taiwanese immigrants. Being Asian proved to be a challenge.
LIN: You know, I don't know how big or small of a factor it is, but I can see different things, you know, when people are like, oh, he's not that quick. Or he's deceptively quick or he's deceptively athletic, or - you know, I'm not sure what's deceptive about it. You know, and I've thought about that a lot. You know, is it the way I run or the way I move or the fact that I'm Asian?
WANG: A fact that has given him a loyal Asian-American fan base. That continues to include writer Jenny Yang. She says Linsanity for her was like young love.
JENNY YANG: When you meet someone new, and you're, like, they're amazing. You're all about them. Your, like, stomach gets butterflies, but...
WANG: Eventually that passion fades a bit. She insists, though, the love for Jeremy Lin is still there. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.