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The Legacy of Linsanity, 10 Years Later

A decade after Jeremy Lin’s NBA breakout, Lin and some of the people who observed his sudden ascent reflect on the excitement and lasting cultural significance of his heroics for the Knicks in February 2012

Jarett Sitter

For a couple of weeks in February 2012, Jeremy Lin was considered a superhero. Long before Shang-Chi would arrive in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Lin was the rare Asian American who broke barriers, performed incredible physical feats, and inspired audiences while wearing a costume—and you didn’t need to visit a movie theater and travel to another world to witness his work. All you had to do was tune into a TV or purchase a ticket to see the New York Knicks play at Madison Square Garden—if you could get your hands on one, that is—and watch as an undrafted point guard from Harvard University torched the opposition on a nightly basis.

If you were watching the NBA that season—hell, even if you weren’t—you probably remember some of the basic plot points and highlights of Lin’s ascent from relative anonymity to global superstardom. After being overlooked in the 2010 NBA draft, Lin flipped a strong summer league performance with the Dallas Mavericks into a two-year contract with the Golden State Warriors (with the second year non-guaranteed), and an opportunity to play for his hometown team in front of his friends and family. But the Palo Alto native bounced back and forth between the Warriors and their then-D-League affiliate Reno Bighorns during his rookie season, and then was cut twice the following season before landing on an injury-depleted Knicks roster in late 2011.

On February 4, 2012, the struggling Knicks were gearing up for their third game in three nights—a byproduct of a lockout-shortened season during which the league pushed to make up for lost time. The deadline for contracts to become guaranteed for the remainder of the season was less than a week away, and as the New Jersey Nets visited Madison Square Garden, Lin’s NBA dreams hung in the balance. “So much stuff had to come together at the right moment—my back was against the wall,” Lin tells The Ringer. “That was going to be it for me. My agent had actually called me before the game and said, ‘If you don’t play well, tonight will probably be your last game in the NBA.’ … The amount of anxiety, the pressure, just the embarrassment that I was facing, if I would finally make it to the NBA and then just completely underperform and fizzle out—that would’ve been a really, really tough pill to swallow.”

Lin came off the bench to score 25 points and dish out seven assists in a much-needed win for the Knicks, who had just lost 11 of their past 13 games. Then, Lin dropped 28 points with eight assists in another win, against the Utah Jazz, two nights later. A couple of nights after that, Lin was crossing up 2010 no. 1 pick John Wall and dunking on the Washington Wizards in the team’s third straight win. Next came a duel against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers at the Garden, where Lin scored 38 points, including a dagger 3 in front of the Lakers bench. Against the Toronto Raptors on Valentine’s Day, he waved away incoming screens with the score tied and the clock waning, and delivered a game-winning triple just before the buzzer.

In Lin’s first five career starts, the Hero From Harvard scored 136 points—the most since the NBA-ABA merger—and went on to lead New York to 10 wins in 13 games, helping to turn around what was beginning to look like another lost season in the Mecca of Basketball. Lin went from sleeping on the couches of his friends and family, and constantly being mistaken as a team trainer by security guards at Madison Square Garden, to landing on back-to-back Sports Illustrated covers and a spot on Time’s list of The World’s 100 Most Influential People. The first American-born NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent had an unprecedented run for an undrafted guard playing in the league’s biggest market and helped keep the Knicks’ playoff hopes alive—even if he suffered a meniscus tear that would sideline him before season’s end and deprive him of a chance to wrap up his magical run with a storybook ending.

Knicks fans still cherish that brief passage of time as the source of some of the franchise’s greatest moments since the ’90s, and many Asian Americans, regardless of fandom, consider Linsanity a source of pride and inspiration. It hardly matters that Lin’s subsequent stints in Houston with James Harden and Los Angeles with Bryant ended in disappointment, or that injuries derailed any shot of a Linsanity 2.0 when the Brooklyn Nets finally gave him another chance to serve as the star of a team in 2016. He had become an NBA superstar, if only for one glorious month in February 2012, and he proved he was an NBA-caliber player over a nine-year career in the league.

But Lin’s early success would come to haunt him for much of his NBA journey. He couldn’t escape the shadow cast by Linsanity, which made him a symbolic figure for both Asian Americans and Asians around the world, whether he was ready for that mantle or not. “Growing up, I could never just be a basketball player,” Lin says. “I was always immediately identified as being different. People were gunning for me because they thought I sucked, or because they didn’t want to be embarrassed by somebody that looked like me. My whole life, I was always the Asian, and I was just so tired of that. I wanted to be recognized for my skills and for what I was bringing to the court.

“As I went through Linsanity, as I went through more things, I started to see the world for what it is, which is a very broken world with a lot of injustice, with a lot of racism and a lot of stereotyping. And I started to realize, this is not something I should be running from. This is something that I need to be stepping into.”

It’s been a long journey for Lin that has tested his deep religious faith along the way, but over time, he’s been able to embrace Linsanity for the special blip in time that it was. He has found peace as he continues his basketball career overseas, along with a voice to speak out on social issues—one that he was once afraid to use. Ten years after Lin’s mythmaking performance against the Nets, he can celebrate his achievements with the rest of us, and use the appeal of his past to help shape the future he wants to see.

Los Angeles Lakers v New York Knicks
Lin celebrates after hitting a 3 against the Lakers in New York
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

“For all of the ways in which [Lin] is an underdog—D-Leaguer, nerd becoming jock—underneath all of it, the beating heart of the story is still about race to me,” says ESPN’s Pablo Torre, who has been chronicling Lin’s career since his days at Harvard. “And it’s because Asian Americans have spent a lot of time looking for somebody who truly shatters the most conventional stereotype. … Linsanity had the effect of making Asian Americans feel like maybe they were the main character in the movie for once.”

What Lin accomplished on the court during that stretch in February 2012 with the Knicks, as an undrafted 23-year-old, was objectively an incredible sports story—the win column and the numbers don’t lie. But it was the way that Lin looked that made it all such a compelling narrative to begin with, a novelty to the nation and the world. And as he spun past defenses, served alley-oops to a streaking Tyson Chandler, and commanded a floor that he sometimes shared with the likes of franchise stars Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, he did it all with a swagger and confidence rarely seen in Asians in mainstream media.

“Basketball is one of those sports where you can see the sweat, you see nerves,” Torre says. “You can feel it almost palpably. Watching a basketball game is more like watching a theatrical production than any other sport. It’s really up close. It’s about these 10 people on a court. What Jeremy did, it was like performance art. It was like, ‘Fuck, you can be that confident looking like that.’ You can be that guy for all of these people—who’ve had to identify with people who don’t look like them at all—to find inspiration.

“That’s the thing about growing up as an Asian American,” Torre continues. “All of your heroes are people who don’t look like you because you’ve had to find ways to identify with those people—because you don’t have the option.”

Los Angeles Lakers v New York Knicks
Lin fans at Madison Square Garden in 2012
Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

In recent years, representation for Asian Americans in Hollywood has slowly—very slowly—made strides, starting when Constance Wu led the all-Asian cast of Crazy Rich Asians in 2018 after no Hollywood production had done so since the early ’90s. The sports industry has, if anything, proved even more difficult to break into. Because of the longstanding underrepresentation in both spheres, the landscape for Asian Americans in pop culture was largely barren just 10 years ago.

“Linsanity was the first time—and long before Crazy Rich Asians—that Asians found something that we could collectively celebrate and rally around across language boundaries, across ethnicities,” says journalist Jeff Yang. “If you went to those games and you looked around at the percentage of people in the arena who were Asian American, it was quadrupled, quintupled. Everywhere you looked there were Asian Americans. They were holding signs, they were screaming, they were wearing his number and his name. For us, it was like this assembly of community in a time when there weren’t necessarily other things to unite us, to congregate us around this kind of hope and aspiration.”

Lin became a unifying force, a must-see event for many who didn’t even care about basketball. And unlike the 7-foot-6 Yao Ming, the Chinese-born Hall of Famer who hardly had to jump to dunk on his opponents, Lin was 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds and born and raised in the U.S., where he’d harbored relatable hoop dreams of being Like Mike. “For a lot of us, Jeremy Lin represents us,” says Phil Yu, coauthor of the upcoming Rise: A Pop History of Asian America From the Nineties to Now with Yang and Philip Wang. “We’ve been that guy who’s completely underestimated, not just on the basketball court, not just in athletics, but in general. You look at Asian guys, especially, and people size us up immediately and feel like they know who we are on a regular basis, whether that’s at school, at work, in our professions. A lot of the discourse around Jeremy Lin at the time was like, ‘Whoa, how come nobody saw this coming? Where did this guy come from? How could this guy be overlooked?’ And you’re like, ‘You know why he was overlooked.’”

At almost every step of his career, Lin had been overlooked—whether by college recruiters, NBA draft evaluators, or general managers. A common refrain would follow Lin in talent evaluations throughout the years: He looked “unathletic.” As then-Rockets GM Daryl Morey explained to author Michael Lewis in his book The Undoing Project in 2016, Lin lit up the team’s evaluative model ahead of the 2010 draft, assigning his value at the 15th pick, which would have placed him just outside the lottery. But Morey and Co. weren’t prepared to place blind trust in their model; as an Asian American kid, Lin just didn’t pass the eye test. A year after Houston and every other team let Lin go undrafted, the Rockets began measuring the speed of a player’s first two steps, and Lin had the quickest first step of any player measured. “He’s incredibly athletic,” Morey told Lewis. “But the reality is that every fucking person, including me, thought he was unathletic. And I can’t think of any reason for it other than he was Asian.”

In spite of what the gatekeeping talent evaluators saw (or, rather, didn’t see) in Lin at the college and NBA levels, he became a person of interest among Asians well before the start of Linsanity, while he was playing at Harvard and on the precipice of becoming the first Asian American NBA player in the modern era.

Lin became a California high school star while playing for Palo Alto High, where he led the Vikings to a 32-1 record and a California Division II championship title over the nationally ranked Mater Dei during his senior year. Yet he landed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after failing to receive a single Division I scholarship offer. Just by achieving success on the more modest Ivy League circuit, Lin was already in rarefied territory as an Asian American athlete—and people across the country, and around the world, had started to take notice. “Even back then, he was a big deal in China and Taiwan,” recalls Torre. “There were people from China, reporters coming to watch his games in college, and it was sort of this curiosity, but it was real.”

For film producer Christopher Chen and filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong, Lin’s journey to being an Ivy League star was already a story worth telling, and Chen wanted to turn it into a documentary. Lin was humble, a devout Christian who cared about God, family, and basketball—in that order. It took some convincing, but before Lin’s college days were up, Leong and his documentary crew were following him around on campus, as if the Harvard guard were Michael Jordan gearing up for his Last Dance. “It was a long shot for him to make the NBA at the time,” Leong says. “But we were like, ‘If anything, this could inspire the next Jeremy Lin to make it to D-I. Maybe he’ll be even better and make the NBA.’ And if he didn’t make the NBA, we always were like, ‘Well, it’s always going to be a good ending if he becomes a pastor.’”

Even before Lin provided Leong’s Linsanity documentary with a greater ending than anyone could have written, Asians were placing their bets and hopes on him as Yao’s injury-plagued career wound down and a void loomed in the basketball world. But Lin’s journey to the league would be far different from that of Yao, who had been a professional and a star in China before entering the NBA and whose towering presence could make even Shaq seem small. Lin did not strike fear into the hearts of his opponents when he stood before them on the hardwood, and he had always played in a sport—and grew up in a country—where he was a minority. Lin represented the possibility of an Asian American going further than anyone else had in the major American sports leagues, presenting a new role model and new dream for kids to aspire to.

When Lin realized that dream in February 2012, the sudden fame and the heightened expectations that greeted him dwarfed the attention he had drawn from camera crews and international reporters at Harvard. “Imagine: Everybody wanted me to be almost like this superhero character, but I’m 100 percent human,” Lin says. “I can’t live up to that. It’s always like these huge shoes that I can never fill, or like this ghost or shadow casting over anything I do. And it’s never good enough. It’s just like worlds of expectations that other people put on me. That’s why I wanted to run from it.”

Atlanta Hawks v New York Knicks
Lin shoots a 3 against Atlanta at MSG
Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Whether Lin was playing for the Vikings, the Crimson, or the Knicks, he almost never ceased to shine in the spotlight, always seeming to perform his best the higher the stakes were. He had that rare killer instinct that allowed him to score 30 points against Kemba Walker and UConn as a senior at Harvard, or knock down a game-ending 3 in front of a season-high crowd of more than 20,000 at the Raptors’ Air Canada Centre. But when Linsanity thrust him into the public spotlight off the court as well, Lin was still that humble kid who wanted only to hoop, and who could do without all the extra attention.

“Jeremy, when I first met him, was one of the worst quotes in the world,” Torre recalls with a laugh. “He was somebody who was naturally very shy, had no interest in being a public figure, who ran away from the term Linsanity. He was uncomfortable in front of cameras, in front of a microphone. During Linsanity itself—as much as he was as public a person could be in New York City, at the height of this shooting-star news cycle—he was kept in hiding. The Knicks, for reasons having to do with their clumsy and counterproductive press strategy and also his natural discomfort, hid him, and they wouldn’t let him talk to me. They kept him away from all of these press opportunities.”

While Lin would receive the honor of gracing magazine covers and win an ESPY Award, he also had to deal with all the shocks that came with becoming an overnight sensation—the good and the bad. The paparazzi stalked his every move, and he’d hear knocks on the door of the downtown hotel he was staying at without notice. (Lin also became tabloid fodder, with rumors swirling of a secret romance between him and Kim Kardashian. What a time.) Then there were all the racist microaggressions, and the sheer, clumsy ignorance displayed by a media industry that now had to discuss an Asian American as its leading story and was prone to manipulating his otherness into a joke or a “witty” pun.

“Mainstream media was still not equipped to talk about Asian Americans in a lot of ways,” says Yu. “Take, for example, the ‘Chink in the Armormoment. You had people defending it or at least going like, ‘Well, I didn’t know. I didn’t know that was something you couldn’t do.’ There’s a clear blind spot when it comes to talking about Asian Americans in popular culture, because there are so few.”

Linsanity would eventually come to an end, but even after Lin left for Houston with a new four-year, $28 million contract in tow, the insatiable appetite for another chapter of Linsanity followed him. Despite being only 23 years old after his sole season with the Knicks and having plenty of time to improve upon the glaring flaws in his game—too many turnovers, a weak left hand, an inconsistent jumper—that had been exposed in the midst of it, everything he did would be compared to and measured against his Linsanity heroics. “I had a pretty hostile relationship with the word Linsanity for the first few years,” Lin explains. “It felt like I had to validate my identity as a person. And it felt like I had to be this phenomenon instead of just being able to be Jeremy Lin, the person who happens to play basketball and is really good at it.”

Memphis Grizzlies vs Houston Rockets
Lin drives during his first season with Houston in November 2012
Set Number: X155751 TK1 R10 F94

As Lin grew under the public eye, his worldview would expand and evolve, as would an understanding of the responsibility and opportunity to speak out against the prejudices he’d faced as an Asian American his entire life. “In the beginning, not only did I not really know what the problems were, I definitely didn’t know how to be a part of the solution,” Lin says. “As time went on, I was able to understand the world more and get to a place where I’m centering myself. I don’t need to establish myself or prove myself to myself anymore. I know who I am. I can start to really develop stronger convictions around certain things. And one of those things is social justice.”

“Even when [Jeremy] would talk about Linsanity to me in the years after, he would never actually say the term Linsanity,” Torre says of those early post-Linsanity years. “He would always call it this euphemism, like he would refer to it as ‘New York’—like, ‘When New York happened.’ And over the years since then, particularly since he left the NBA, he has been so remarkably public in his introspection, and thoughtful. He’s somebody who sees the value of his platform far more than I ever thought he would.”

During the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes amid the pandemic, the most prominent example being the Atlanta spa shootings in March 2021 (in which eight people were killed, including six Asian women), Lin has been a vocal presence across media, decrying these rampant acts of violence, which are often both underreported and underpublicized. He and his sister-in-law Patricia Sun, the CEO of JLIN Marketing, cowrote an article for Time after the tragedy in Atlanta, and Lin has spoken about the surge of anti-Asian violence on podcasts, news segments, and his popular social media accounts. He’s also addressed it in town halls, where he’s shared his experiences of facing racism, from his days of being called a “chink” in Ivy League games to being called “coronavirus” in the G League just last year. His Jeremy Lin Foundation goes even further, serving youth in underserved AAPI communities and other communities of color and spearheading a recent “Be the Light” initiative, which aids COVID relief efforts and works to raise awareness of the rise of anti-Asian racism.

As Leong remembers it, Lin has always been true to his beliefs and the image he presents to the world, even from those early days the filmmaker spent following a fresh-faced Lin on Harvard’s campus and during a challenging rookie season in the Bay Area. “Jeremy, even back then, was so true about what he is and what he stands for,” Leong says. “There was nothing bad that we had to hide, or things that we couldn’t talk about. He’s truly that perfect person to be a role model. And now, to see him grow through these years, he’s taken that spot in the influencer space and in the start of the zeitgeist, of a culture changer, and really just taken the responsibility of it—and uses it for good.”

By the time Lin was a member of the Raptors during their championship run in 2019, he was proudly wearing clothing that celebrated his Asian heritage ahead of every playoff matchup. He became the first Asian American to win an NBA championship that year, and he celebrated with his friend Simu Liu, who would go on to play a larger-than-life hero himself (and cite Lin as an inspiration). Yet the following summer, Lin was unafraid to share his emotions and conflicted feelings about having played only a minimal role on the team—and the pain he felt about believing the league had given up on him—in front of a packed church in Taiwan filled with fans hanging on to his every word. Along with other prominent athletes such as Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, and Kevin Love, Lin has been vocal about the importance of mental health in recent years, sharing his history of struggling with pregame anxiety and the difficult journey he’s had since Linsanity. In October 2021, he became an ambassador for UNICEF, advocating for the mental health of children, youth, and their caregivers around the world.

Beijing Ducks Training Session
Lin during practice with the Beijing Ducks in December
Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images

Ten years after Lin’s hoops highlights dominated ESPN’s airwaves, his NBA career might be over for good. After spending a year overseas with the Beijing Ducks during the Chinese Basketball Association’s 2019-20 season, he made one last attempt at an NBA comeback in 2021, returning to the G League for the first time since he was a rookie. (“I’ve always known I need to jump through extra hoops to prove I belong, so this was par for the course,” he’d later write.) He finished as the league’s seventh-leading scorer, averaging 19.8 points per game on 50.5 percent shooting (including 42.6 percent from 3-point range), along with 6.4 assists and 3.2 boards. Yet he never got that call-up to the NBA, and Lin left last May, ready to pass the torch to the next generation of Asian American hoopers.

Even with former NBA players like Lance Stephenson and Joe Johnson getting second chances in the league as a consequence of the many COVID cases and new hardship exception rules, Lin says he has no regrets about his decision to return to the CBA and leave the NBA behind—just as it left him behind. “I gave myself a year to chase it,” Lin says. “And I ended up only being able to play 11 games in the G League. And that was it. I want to play basketball; I want to play at a high level. I had so many empty promises from GMs and management, and so many people saying, like, ‘OK, go do this or go do that, and then we’ll talk.’ And then I go and do it, and you can’t even reach them. They won’t even call you back. … I gave myself a year to do it, and I did what I needed to do. And no matter what I do, I don’t think it’ll ever be enough. And so I had peace with that decision and now I’m here, and I have challenges and a fun season ahead of me.”

Lin’s basketball career lives on in China, and though he may never again reach the pinnacle of his hoops dreams that was Linsanity, his story has grown into something much larger than that chapter in his life. But he now recognizes how important that chapter was.

“There’s a different weight to it now,” Lin says, as he considers the legacy of Linsanity 10 years later. “As athletes, we need to have a short memory. If we only focus on the past, we can’t be ready for what’s coming in the future—what the next game or season entails. I’ve always been ingrained to just move on to the next thing. But over time, I assumed that people would kind of forget about Linsanity and stop talking about it, but that’s just really not the case. … This story, it really touched people deeply. And I’m shocked at that. I continue to be shocked at that.”

For years, there was a strange lack of acknowledgement of Linsanity from the Knicks organization, even though it was one of the most fondly remembered periods in the franchise’s long history. Lin and the Knicks had an awkward breakup, one brought about by the Rockets’ infamous “poison pill” contract offer and Knicks owner James Dolan’s hurt feelings. (The Rockets contract featured a spike in its third year that would have put the Knicks deep into the luxury tax, a provision that prompted Melo to publicly characterize the contract as “ridiculous.”) But when COVID hit in early 2020, and spirits were low in New York, MSG Network turned to Linsanity as a source of inspiration for a city in desperate need of it. For an entire week from late April to early May, viewers could relive every time Mike Breen bestowed his trademark “Bang!” on another one of Lin’s improbable shots, and be reminded that you can still find hope and overcome the odds when all seems lost.

“When I look back at it, it’s even more incredible to know that it was only a two-week period, to think about the impact that it had and it continues to have,” says Alex Wong, an NBA writer and author of Cover Story. “Even a new generation of basketball fans now, if you want to talk to Asian people—Asian basketball fans—you point to Linsanity. That story is never going to get old. It’s going to become like folklore.”

Yu also testifies to Linsanity’s staying power. “While it’s been 10 years since Linsanity, I think we’re going to still see the legacy of that moment reverberate,” he says. “Like the kids who were growing up during that time—that did a lot for Asian Americans, not just in basketball, but in athletics. Who knows what seeds it planted?”

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