Almost all of us who grew up in the 1990s and later have them, those endless home videos your parents took of you at every piano recital, sports game, vacation and laughable family moment.
They were not a waste or annoying specters of the past. These home clips, combined with newsreels and interviews, have a place in the documentary Linsanity which came out in theaters last Friday.
Filming began while Jeremy Lin was a senior at Harvard, and director Evan Jackson Leong followed Lin through his tense ordeal with the NBA to Linsanity early last year. Most of Linsanity deals with Lin’s ups and downs through the sports divisions and teams, which make little sense to the non-sports fan. Woven into this journey is Lin’s spiritual life, interviews with his pastor and moments from Sunday services. But just as Lin drew the Asian community to television screens in February 2012 because of his background, Linsanity connects with viewers because it expresses the Asian American experience. Most of the audience in the few rows of the East Village AMC theater late Sunday afternoon were Asian.
Linsanity hits the hearts of Asian Americans because Lin is just one of us – whose life is on the big screen.
I saw those faded, low-resolution videos of Jeremy Lin at eight, ten and sixteen, and realized I have the same videos, only I played the violin, not the piano. I saw Lin and his brothers in those thick sweatshirts we all wore back then, even though Lin was in California and I was in New York. I saw the skinny Asian kid in a jersey running onto the court in middle school with a team of taller, sturdier non-Asians and suddenly I understood how much Lin had to overcome.
Lin’s story is one of being superhuman, and also very, very human, all by the grace of God. The road to fame resembles Jesus’ walk on water, which the film depicts in story and metaphor. As a high schooler, Lin leads his school team to the state championship, and, after failing to play Division I basketball in college, he actually gets a spot on the NBA. But then he falls hard. Drifting between the lower level teams, Lin has the NBA name, but not the recognition on the court.
Most Asian Americans can lay claim to moderate successes: being orchestra concertmaster, winning the regional swim meet, scoring 700 and above on every SAT section, and even getting an Ivy League education. But somehow, at least for me, Asian Americans never feel as if they’ve landed high enough. Like Lin, we can make it to something as grand as the NBA, but don’t shine as much as others there seem to.
The documentary appeals to the stereotypical Asian in every Asian American when Lin’s SAT scores come out (spoiler: Math 800). But Lin also fails the placement tests for math and Chinese at Harvard. Playing off the same stereotype, these failures make him squarely American since he is not the math whiz and doesn’t carry a foreign accent. It’s comforting when Lin cannot speak much Chinese on his Taiwanese interviews, because that makes him more American and less Asian. But Lin’s Taiwanese background adds another layer to his person, because he also taps into the rising Asia story with his basketball camps in Taiwan and mainland China.
Returning to the American story, Lin shows the bamboo ceiling can be broken with hard work, albeit without lasting results. Faith supports Lin emotionally, while vigorous training every day at 6 in the morning pays off when he has a chance on court. Linsanity captures the craze of Lin’s stunning run with the Knicks last year. But the film ends with the present as Lin drops to the Houston Rockets.
Whichever team he plays for in the film, Lin faces name-calling, although it has improved significantly since my grandfather went to high school in New York. From Ivy League game crowds to ESPN reporters, Lin’s experience with racism is sobering. Others may ridicule him for his Asian background, but Lin learns to change his attitude instead. “When I play out of anger it’s horrible,” he says.
He matures through his broken ankle in high school and time spent in the lower divisions of the NBA. The upheavals bring him to peace with God’s call on his life: to play basketball. The points don’t matter as much as the thrill of the sport.
“There are a lot more important things in life, and in the end basketball is just a game,” Lin says. When he makes point after point and stuns crowds with twists, Lin is not vengeful. He is enjoying life.
After almost 90 minutes of film time, I was no longer watching some famous person’s documentary. Rather, I was seeing how a friend just a little older than myself grew up in familiar territories: California, New York and Taiwan. My Taiwanese uncle lives in California; my family in New York. The home scenes with his parents and brothers, especially their trip to see relatives in Taiwan, is so familiar. Only his passion for basketball distinguishes Lin and gives me the inspiring story I need to hear.
Critics say Linsanity is fawning, overplays Lin’s devoutness, and doesn’t delve deeply enough into his personal life. But for me, Linsanity is not about the life of Jeremy Lin. It’s a basketball player’s story of a life Asian Americans all share in some respect. And, like Lin, once born and raised here, we’re just American.