Linsanity has arrived in Toronto.
It’s quite a fit for the nine-year veteran for a couple reasons outside of the basketball-related ones.
Demographically, of course, Toronto is a melting pot rivaled by none other. It’s a city whose cultural ethos is very much defined by its diversity. With a sizable Chinese community behind him (Markham, I’m looking at you), Lin is sure to feel right at home with the Raptors.
More importantly, though, Toronto is where Linsanity peaked back on that fateful Valentine’s Day evening seven years ago. Sure, he may have dropped 38 on Kobe a few nights earlier, but in terms of one singularly defining moment — Linsanity distilled into a snapshot, if you will — that game-winning three at Air Canada Center (on Asian Heritage Night, no less) will always take the cake.
The cheers for that shot would’ve had you thinking it was a home game for the Knicks. There was an electrifying euphoria in the stadium, a shared visceral reaction to something so unprecedented that even Toronto fans couldn’t help but get behind it that night.
And yet, that exhilaration was a mere murmur compared to what that moment meant for the wider Asian diaspora. A cultural icon had just been born.
Seven years later, Lin remains the only Asian American player in the NBA. Being that cultural icon — that lone wolf of representation — is a burden he still has to bear. But it’s one that he’s learned to live with, even embrace.
“At this point, it’s not that much pressure, to be honest,” Lin told NextShark about his role in representing the Asian community. “At one point in time, maybe it was more so, but nowadays I don’t really feel it as much.
“I feel like, for me, I just try to be authentic. I want to be real; I want to handle things and do things the right way. That’s most important to me and so, maybe in the past, the expectations or the pressure would suffocate me. But nowadays, it’s more like, I’m kind of used to it; I embrace it. I want to use my platform for the right things. […] Hopefully, through that, I can be an example. I can be a role model.”
If ever there was a role model in the world of sports, Jeremy Lin would be it. Even at the craziest heights of that miraculous spell of games in 2012, Lin — humble beyond measure — made a habit of crediting his teammates and coaching staff first-and-foremost in every press conference and interview. His off-the-court record is squeaky clean. And when Kenyon Martin criticized Lin of cultural appropriation for his dreadlocks in 2017, Lin clapped back in the most respectful way imaginable. There’s a humility to his character that echoes sentiments of LeBron James’ famous Finals MVP acceptance speech in 2013: “I’m not even supposed to be here […] I’m blessed.”
Lin understands that all too well — no scholarship offers out of high school; undrafted; cut twice and forced to sleep on a teammate’s couch. It’s a journey that’s instilled in him a deep sense of gratitude, and strengthened his connection with his faith. It’s shaped who he is as a player, and as a person.
“I’ve been grateful to a lot of people; grateful to God just for giving me this opportunity,” he said. “I didn’t grow up with that much […] and for me to have everything I have today is beyond my wildest imaginations.”
Gratitude and faith — they’re the two things Lin has repeatedly turned to over the course of his rather tumultuous career, keeping him grounded and humble during the highs while helping him find solace during the inevitable lows.
And the lows have come; since his meteoric rise to prominence, Lin has bounced around (the Raptors will be his eighth team), at times starting and at times coming off the bench. After a down year with the Lakers, a revitalizing season with the Hornets in 2015-2016 gave him another chance to prove himself as a starting point guard with the Nets, only for injuries to take that opportunity away.
But God has a plan, always, Lin says.
“I’m very joyful and peaceful everyday,” he said. “A lot of that goes back to my faith, so even though maybe at times the career isn’t what I want it to be, or isn’t as successful, or I’m not where I want to be, or I haven’t accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, I still have joy and peace knowing that every day I can just live for God. As cliché as that sounds, it’s really my relationship with God that makes it so I’m really content everyday.”
It’s his faith that inspires him, in part, to give back as well.
“I know I don’t need a lot to live on and I just want to make sure that I’m continuing to the make the world a better place,” he said. “I don’t want to store it all up in my bank account. I want to try to do good things with it too. [There’s] a lot of people out there with real problems and so that inspires me to be more aggressive in trying to help.”
To that end, Lin runs a non-profit called the Jeremy Lin Foundation, where he focuses his efforts on supporting and empowering at-risk youth — something he’s been passionate about since his Harvard days, where he majored in economics and minored in sociology with the express desire to work with underprivileged children. More recently, he’s paired up with One Day’s Wages, an international non-profit dedicated to fighting global poverty. For its cause, Lin donated his entire game paycheck on Jan. 26, and has pledged to donate $100 for every assist he dishes out through the 2018-2019 season.
“One of the things we’ve done recently is the One Day’s Wages campaign — just encouraging people to give up one day’s wage of their annual salary,” Lin said of his recent philanthropic efforts. “Over the summer break, we’re going to Haiti. We’re going to visit some NGOs and learn about what they’re doing on the ground […] It’s just always trying to get people to think more outside themselves and to continue to learn more about the world and the issues around them.”
When Lin isn’t busy playing basketball and helping those in need, he has one more really big passion: esports. His enduring love for Dota (Defence of the Ancients) — which he still regularly plays with his brothers, especially after a tough game — is such that he owns his own esports team, J.Storm, who recently made it to the Dota 2 2018 world championships and placed 7th. The industry is rapidly developing, but there’s still a lot of work to be done; with his platform as a pro athlete, Lin hopes to be right in the middle of if its growth.
“I see a lot of these gamers who are at the expense — or at the disposal — of their organizations, and I want to help grow the industry so that gamers can have more stability, the industry can be more lucrative, gamers can make more money and be treated better and things like that,” he said.
“And I feel like I have a great ability to do that because I’ve been in the sports industry, so I know how it should look or how it could look. I try to bring a lot of my experiences as an NBA player into how I run our organization.”
Of course, the biggest challenge to esports fully breaking through into the mainstream is deconstructing the stigma and stereotypes surrounding it.
“Growing up, it’s like, [if you’re a] gamer, you’re a nerd or you’re a dork or whatever, and there’s been a lot of negative stigma around gaming that I’ve never really fully agreed with,” Lin noted.
When it comes to challenging perceptions, it’s hard not to draw parallels to what Lin himself has had to overcome as an Asian American pursuing pro basketball. Being overlooked and underestimated because of his race has been the story of his career — and he’s not afraid to point it out. Lin believes he would’ve received scholarship offers out of high school had he been Black, and that his race definitely played a role in him going undrafted in 2010.
“When I was coming out, everyone was just like, ‘Dude, he’s deceptively athletic,’ and it’s like, well, what’s deceptive about me? Why can’t I just be athletic?” he said.
There was overt racism as well, mostly during college. Lin regularly encountered slurs and racist chants from rowdy crowds and opposing players alike. One game against Cornell, he was repeatedly called a “ch*nk” by a player throughout the first half of the game, and the refs did nothing.
These days, though, Lin sees his race-related adversities, and those encountered by Asian Americans in general, as more subtle; misperceptions and micro-aggressions, if you will.
“As an Asian playing basketball, you may have to prove yourself a few more times than the average person. They may see you and think, ‘Oh, he’s going to be weak.’ So there are times where people may test me on the court or they may think, ‘Oh, he’s an easy bucket; he’s an automatic bucket.’ And then they go up against me and one thing that a lot of opposing players always say to me is ‘Dang, you’re a lot stronger than I thought,’” said Lin, who’s 6’3″ and about 200 lbs, 10 lbs heavier than the average NBA point guard. “And so, again, ‘Well, why did you think I wasn’t strong? […] How did you come to that conclusion… and, again, you don’t know.’ They might not even know, right?
“You have to be ready to be tested and to prove yourself and I think for any up and coming Asian person who wants to pursue basketball, I think a big part of it is a strong inner belief in yourself that you belong here. Whatever level you’re at or whatever team you’re at, you have to know that you belong there.”
Lin has had more than his fair share of tests. Now, given his first legitimate opportunity to make a deep run in the playoffs, he’ll look forward to taking on the greatest one yet.