Depending on whom you ask, Jeremy Lin is either too weak or incredibly strong. Aggressive or soft. Dynamic or one-dimensional.
He’s brash. He’s overrated. He’s back (no, really, for good this time). He’s bombastic. He’s humble. He’s entertaining.
Five years after infusing Madison Square Garden with excitement, it’s easy to feel like Lin has become more symbol than NBA player, or even person — everything you want him to be and nothing at all.
A few months ago, I went looking for the remaining ethos of Jeremy Lin in New York City. I took the 7 train to Flushing and the F to Chinatown. When I asked older Chinese immigrants what Lin meant to them now that he has returned as a member of the Brooklyn Nets, they repeated many of the same answers in different iterations: Lin’s religious. Intelligent. A Harvard grad. Some of them gave a recital of his collective achievements. A grandmother from Suzhou, China, said that Lin was an exemplary model of filial piety.
” Bantuerfei,” she said in Mandarin. “That means giving up halfway. He didn’t do that.”
In talking with some younger Chinese Americans, I found they embraced Lin’s surprising accessibility. He makes silly YouTube videos; he gives you an intimate look into his personal life during basketball season; he indulges in the occasional viral meme. A high school student from Stuyvesant praised Lin’s magnetic “natural swag.”
” Linsane is — like — a description of [that New York Knicks era],” the student said. “Linsanity is the thing that, like, encompasses it, you know?”
Others were more critical, calling Lin exposed, an OK player at best and, my personal favorite, “capitalizing on the shadow of Yao Ming’s fatty legacy.” Rather than an inspiration, post-Linsanity he had become washed up, a faker.
“One of my friends said he’s taking the spot of a player that could have a breakthrough game,” a student from Hunter College said of Lin, who has missed 41 of the Nets’ 53 games because of hamstring injuries.
So time led to apathy, or fatigue from the hype.
“Actually, I’m a Warriors fan now,” said one kid wearing a Nets hat in Columbus Park.
A half-decade since that historic 26-game run in orange and blue, we still don’t really know how to have a conversation about the game’s most influential Asian American player. From a basketball perspective, he’s a good (yet injured) player on the NBA’s most hopeless franchise, averaging 13.9 points and 5.8 assists when he does play. Beyond that? Lin’s quick and relentless ascent into symbolism has stripped most of the nuance from conversations about him and his cultural impact.
He can fit into your perfect compartments of virtuous respect, but he’s also swagaliciously addictive (even all those hairstyles got their own headlines). He’s the underdog. He’s stubbornly reticent. He’s just a kid with a dream.
He’s either up on a pedestal or he fell off it a long time ago.
The narrative now is that this Brooklyn renaissance is either the second-coming of Linsanity — a term we all use but he finds difficult to embrace — or its death. My freshman classmate from college said back in 2012 that ” Kobe [Bryant] can put up the same numbers [as Lin] every night and no one bats an eyelash.”
I was passive. I nodded. I let it go.
But that same year, I learned how to watch as the quintessential Jeremy Lin opportunist — the Chinese American basketball bandwagoner following along as he averaged 20.9 points and 8.4 assists per game in February, leading the Knicks to 10 wins in a 13-game stretch. Before Lin, they were handing out tickets in front of Madison Square Garden. After Lin, MSG was packed every night.
“The Giants’ Super Bowl run, whenever baseball teams are in the playoffs — nothing compared to the excitement in New York at that time,” said Ian Begley, ESPN’s Knicks reporter.
Lin left New York a few months later, because the Knicks wouldn’t match a restricted offer sheet in free agency, despite all indications that they would before the Houston Rockets swept in. I followed him to his new team, watching his gradual descent. When he was dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers so Houston could make a run at Chris Bosh, I dove into the sensationalized drama between Lin and Kobe like a gossip addict. It was just like Lin and Carmelo Anthony on the Knicks. Another superstar, another conflict; a plague of over-psychoanalysis.
By the time he got to the Charlotte Hornets, it felt like Lin would always be that guy with something left to prove. He’d never be the flashy superstar who would fight back. I wanted to see him be outspoken and selfish. A Lin who took every shot possible, a Lin who lived in a state of perpetual incongruity. He drew praise as a reliable backup point guard and earned a few Sixth Man Award votes, but couldn’t he be more?
In 2016, I got the chance to work with Lin at The International 6, an esports tournament in Seattle.
It was my first time meeting him. My mind ran through a montage of expectations. The nerdy Lin. The Lin who used the C—BaLLa88 pseudonym?as a teenager. The caricature of Lin, like in the carefully curated collection of YouTube videos on his official channel. The divisive Lin, someone stuck between the media narrative of unfulfilled expectations and an overlooked player with a chip on his shoulder.
But if you ask me what I remember from the encounter, I couldn’t tell you much. It sort of melted into the background noise. Maybe that was the point.
Lin seemed normal, painfully normal. It’s possible that he’s all of these things we make him out to be, but also none of them. Part arrogant as he isolates and flicks in flashy layups. Part daring as he drives down the court, full of reckless abandon. But also humble and courteous as he works to find his place on a new team. A paragon shouldering the burden of expectations from two different worlds.
Five years after the madness, that’s the player we should be talking about.