A star turn with the Knicks in 2012 made Lin a cultural icon. But the focus on his race — Lin is Taiwanese American — made him uncomfortable for years.
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When he went from mostly anonymous to global celebrity in 2012, Jeremy Lin was overwhelmed by the attention and struggled to tune it out. For many people, he suddenly represented many things — a stereotype breaker, an inspiration — but, well, he just wanted to play basketball.
“It was a tornado of emotion because there’s so much that was happening,” Lin, who is Taiwanese American, said in a recent interview. He added, “I didn’t even know what to feel like.”
He captivated the sports world that February with star play for the Knicks, a stretch that included a seven-game winning streak and was dubbed “Linsanity.” Lin was uncomfortable with the term — and would be for years — but he was also fearful.
“Fear of paparazzi,” he said. “Fear of people chasing down my family members. Fear of people trying to steal from me. Lie to me. Monetize off me. Fear of the people that I love. Fear of not living up to people’s expectations or missing out on opportunities and thinking that I had to take every single one of them off the court.”
A decade later, Lin has fully embraced the phenomenon that turned him into a cultural icon. Though he never again reached those basketball heights after leaving the Knicks for the Houston Rockets the next season, he still carved out a productive N.B.A. career — even winning a championship as a reserve on the Toronto Raptors in 2019.
But the ascendant run in New York remains what he is most known for. It has been memorialized in an HBO short documentary out on Oct. 11 called “38 at the Garden.” The title refers to his 38-point Linsanity performance against the Los Angeles Lakers, whose star guard Kobe Bryant said before the game that he had not known who Lin was. The documentary also explores the persistence of anti-Asian bigotry.
Lin spoke to The New York Times recently from China, where he will play for the Chinese Basketball Association. He discussed his evolving feelings on Linsanity and using his influence.
This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
When someone comes up to you and says, “Hey, Jeremy, you mean X, Y and Z to me,” how does that make you feel today?
Every year, I’ve gotten increasingly more grateful for it. Maybe because words of affirmation are not always my love language, but I’ve always kind of been like a “talk is cheap” type of thing. And so, when everyone is complimenting you constantly everywhere you go, who knows who actually thinks what?
And I think now I’m starting to realize: “Oh, no: A lot of these people genuinely mean what they’re saying. I really impacted their lives.”
How strange was it, if at all, to watch the documentary and to see that version of yourself from 10 years ago?
It’s so crazy because it’s one of those things that I had watched it so many times and I was so aware of it, but I haven’t gone back and watched it in like seven years.
I don’t look up those highlights. I don’t go back to them and watch them to make myself feel better or anything. I’m kind of like, I know that existed, and it was such a vivid memory for this stretch of my time. And then for me, like, my life and career moved on.
I don’t want to call it Linsanity because I know you’ve had a complicated relationship with that word. So, that period of your life in New York, how do you reflect on it now?
I’m very comfortable saying, “Oh, yeah, that was Linsanity.” That shows you where I’m at with it.
Originally, I was like, I’ll never do anything around Linsanity. I don’t want to do a documentary or any of that stuff, or go back in time.
But then, I was like, I have no problem with it. I would actually love to because it was a special moment and also because we need to be talking about it right now. Linsanity has become so much more important and valuable to me.
You just mentioned that we need to be talking about this. Why is that?
That was a moment that was so special for Asian Americans and minorities. It’s because there are so few of those moments. It’s because in general, society does not typically celebrate those type of moments. And because we don’t see that type of success from people who don’t look the part.
What is the biggest misconception about that period of your life?
The way that I left New York and the attacks on my character. I don’t mind getting criticism for my game. Or if I look a certain way. If I play a certain way or whatever. But when you talk about my character, that hits differently to me personally.
My recollection is that the vast, vast majority of fans were not upset with you for joining the Rockets. They were upset at the Knicks for not keeping you.
Yes and no. There was definitely a lot who were upset with me, but the narrative that came out was first that I went to the Rockets to ask for more money and that I was purposely putting New York in a tough position. That’s the narrative that was spun onto me and being called, like, you know, certain things or chasing the money.
The real story is, I actually went to my agent and told him, “Can we go back to the Rockets and ask for a less lucrative offer? Because I actually want to go back to New York, and I want to go back to New York badly. And I don’t want there to be a poison pill.” That’s the true story. But that’s not the story that was thrown out there.
“Saturday Night Live” did a sketch parodying the coverage of you at the time, a significant portion of which featured racist tropes. What did you think of that sketch?
To be honest, I don’t even know if I ever watched it.
The crux of the sketch was that headline writers and sports reporters couldn’t stop leaning into tropes when discussing you. How much did you notice that at all, if at all, during that period?
That’s why this whole thing with Linsanity is complex. My whole life, I tried to run from being Asian, and when I was on the basketball court and the ball was tipped off, race did not matter. It was my safe space to be myself without having to be the token Asian. By the time that Linsanity came around and I got worldwide recognition, the only thing people really wanted to talk about was my ethnicity and my race and oftentimes in very demeaning and condescending and just racist ways.
It was like the thing where I was like, I just don’t want you guys to talk about me being Asian. I just want you to appreciate what I’m doing on the court. I’m an artist, and you’re missing out on the art.
I had to grow up in the sense of why am I, 10 years later, willing to go back in time? It’s because I didn’t use that time and that influence the way that I wish I did. I wish I’d talked so much more about me being Asian but talked about it in better ways versus trying to run from it.
What is your hope of playing in the N.B.A. again?
I’ve always had that hope. But that door seems to be pretty shut, and I feel like that was confirmed and double confirmed after what I had done in the G League and how well I had played and seeing that all the top scorers and all the top assist leaders all got contracts except for me. So, at that point, it was kind of like, there’s nothing else I could do.
I’ve accepted all the challenges of all the front offices to go back and to show you guys that I can do this. And I did, and it wasn’t enough. I’ll always want to play in the N.B.A. I mean, I loved my time there. I love competing in that league, but I just don’t think that’s in the cards anymore.