Faith and family fuel Sundance 'Linsanity' documentary

Published: Sunday, Oct. 4 2015 1:32 a.m. MDT

"Linsanity" (Sundance Institute)

Professional basketball player Jeremy Lin was unemployed on Christmas Day 2011. Two months later, he had appeared on two Sports Illustrated covers during back-to-back weeks.

Over the course of its final 30 minutes, the new documentary “Linsanity,” which premiered in January at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, capably captures Lin’s meteoric rise on the basketball court. But as compelling as Jeremy Lin’s athletic success has been, it’s still a story that’s already been told ad nauseam.

What makes the documentary feel like a breath of fresh air is the first hour or so, in which director Evan Jackson Leong faithfully retraces the progression of Lin’s childhood and family upbringing. Even though its title is eponymous with a cultural meme built around basketball, the most insightful revelations in “Linsanity” have much more to do with faith than sports.

"Linsanity" (Jeffery Kim) "Linsanity" (Jeffery Kim)

'God orchestrated this'

The ascension of Jeremy Lin commenced when he earned the job of starting point guard for the New York Knicks in early February 2012 — and then scored more points in his first five starts than any player in NBA history. Owing both to the fact that Lin played in the largest media market in the U.S. and, as one of the first Asian-American NBA players, instantly captivated the imaginations of millions of basketball fans worldwide, an international phenomenon known as Linsanity ensued.

Much of the initial media coverage about Lin shared common narratives about his parents emigrating from Taiwan, and him overcoming long odds to even make it onto an NBA roster after playing his college ball at Harvard — a school that rarely sends players to the pros. Every once in a while, an article mentioned Lin’s Christian beliefs. Religious scholar Timothy Dalrymple, who met Lin when they both attended Harvard, wrote a book that touched on Lin's religious beliefs, but the book gained little traction nationally. In terms of the mainstream media, details about the Lin family’s faith felt few and far between.

"Linsanity" (Michael Bow) "Linsanity" (Michael Bow)

Like the documentary's namesake, Leong is Asian-American and Christian. During a recent interview with the Deseret News, Leong proffered his belief that the mainstream media simply chose the path of least resistance in focusing much more on the Asian-American aspect of Lin's success than his Christianity.

"I think a lot of people in the media are afraid of (the Christian angle)," Leong said. "If Jeremy were scientologist or Buddhist, it’d be a different story for everybody. But because he’s Christian, you instantly have this stigmatism attached to what that is. …

"With this documentary I wanted make sure people see Jeremy as a full, three-dimensional character on all the levels — that there are scenes when he’s happy, he’s sad, he’s funny, he has faith, he loses it, he’s angry — because all these things make him who he is."

In "Linsanity," Lin himself succinctly summarizes the intersection of his religious conviction and career: “I know God orchestrated this whole thing. There was too much out of my control — the way it happened is just miraculous.”

Family and faith

Lin is the second of three brothers. The Lin boys were taught to put God first, family second and athletics third. Even then, their father cultivated in them a deep love of fundamental basketball from a very early age. And basketball truly was a family affair for the Lins. Throughout Jeremy’s years of youth basketball, his mother often served as the “team mom.”

As a high school freshman, Jeremy stood only 5-foot-3. Both his parents measure 5-foot-6, so it was something of a surprise when Jeremy shot up to 6-foot-3. By his junior year he was good enough to lead his high school team deep into the playoffs. However, on the night before the state semifinals, Lin broke his ankle playing a pickup basketball game. In “Linsanity,” Lin reflects that God took from him the thing he cared most about in order to teach him to trust in God’s plan for his life.

Another instance of religious introspection in “Linsanity” comes during footage from 2011, as Lin tells a group of children at his annual basketball camp that he plays basketball only for God, because he knows God has a plan for him. One of the film’s most poignant moments occurs when Lin’s pastor, Stephen Chen, recalls Lin’s earnest yearning to trust in God during December 2011, while he was in the midst of being released by both the Warriors and Rockets in a span of less than two weeks.

Right place, right time

Long before the mainstream media ever came calling for Jeremy Lin, Leong was already documenting Lin’s life as the only Asian-American then playing in the NBA.

Lin wasn’t selected in the 2010 NBA draft. But the native of Palo Alto, Calif., caught on with the Golden State Warriors — the team he cheered for as a child — for the 2010-11 season. Leong, who was then based in the Bay Area, met Lin and pitched the player on the concept of a documentary about Lin’s career. After some initial hesitance, Lin eventually embraced the idea.

In practical terms, the origins of the project that would become “Linsanity” result in the documentary’s namesake wearing Golden State Warriors gear on and off the court throughout most of the film. (Lin played for the Warriors for 17 months before being released in December 2011. The Rockets picked him up for two weeks, but then on Christmas Eve they too released Lin. He finally found his way to the Knicks on Dec. 27.)

Throughout most of the production of “Linsanity,” Leong was crafting an intimate documentary about someone who was not famous by any stretch of the imagination. The film is primarily framed as a portrait of a likable, articulate basketball player in his early 20s wrestling the racial stereotypes that come part and parcel with being an Asian-American trailblazer. In fact, the entire first hour of the movie concerns itself with tracing Lin’s path from “child of immigrants” to the cusp of stardom.

Refreshing glimpses

“Linsanity” offers audiences several candid snapshots of Jeremy Lin not taking himself too seriously — such as Lin singing karaoke with his family to the Disney song “A Whole New World,” or explaining to the camera why he prefers his “Lion King” blanket to his Garfield blanket.

During one scene in particular, Lin roams the aisles of a Target store with a friend as they shop for basic household items with which to outfit Lin’s new apartment. Upon encountering a display rack full of relaxation fountains priced under $20, Lin can’t believe his good fortune. The camera next cuts to Lin alone in his kitchen, unboxing his relaxation fountain and silently poring over the instructional manual before commencing assembly. Finally, the fountain vignette finishes with an image of Lin turning on his now-assembled fountain for the very first time.

As the water begins to gurgle over three tiers of small rocks in a brown bowl, a look of I-can’t-believe-this exuberance flashes across Lin’s face.

Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.

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