The truth is, Jeremy Lin can be kind of a dull guy.
Lives in Plaza Midwood. Eats at Chipotle and Subway more often than anywhere else. Is mildly obsessed with a video game called Dota 2. Won’t say whether he’s dating anyone, but will say, “I’m a homebody, so I don’t do too much outside.”
Yet, when Lin is on the court for the Charlotte Hornets – who face off against the Heat in the first round of the NBA playoffs, starting Sunday in Miami – it’s hard to take your eyes off of him.
This is partly because of how boldly he stands out from his peers: He’s still the only player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent in the NBA.
It’s partly because he’s one of the most renowned professional basketball players in the world: Due largely to a euphoric period of weeks in 2012 when, while practically crawling out from under a rock and materializing on the New York Knicks, he made history by becoming the first NBA player to record at least 20 points and seven assists in each of his first five starts.
And partly because – to this day – when he’s off his game, he’s off it, and when he’s on, he is most definitely on.
If you watch closely, you may see Lin fail to convert a single field goal in Game 1 Sunday, similar to his showing in a loss last week to the Washington Wizards. But change the channel, and you might miss him light up for 29 points, like he did against the San Antonio Spurs last month, in what will go down as one of the most mindblowingly improbable victories in franchise history.
For all of these reasons and more, the 27-year-old Harvard graduate remains a persistent curiosity as he wraps up his first season in Charlotte.
And while much has been written about his time here and his role here, and whether he’s underrated or overrated, the 6-foot-3-inch point guard claims he hasn’t read a word of it.
“During the season, I don’t read any articles,” Lin says as he forks pieces of quiche into his mouth while sitting in the players’ lounge, deep in the bowels of Time Warner Cable Arena, several hours before he’ll score 10 points against the Orlando Magic in the regular-season finale.
“I don’t read any Twitter comments, Instagram, Facebook, anything related to me, because I don’t want to be influenced by what everybody else says or thinks. ... Like, you’ll write the story and – no offense, but – I’m not gonna read it.”
A burden no more
Periodically, however, there are stories written about Jeremy Lin that Jeremy Lin simply can’t ignore.
This past week’s, for instance: A 6 1/2-minute YouTube video that strung together several instances of opposing players hacking the daylights out of Lin with varying impunity went viral, and it didn’t take long for everyone from average-joe fans to ESPN talking heads to start wondering aloud whether racial bias among NBA refs was perhaps a factor.
He basically waved off any controversy when asked about the video Wednesday, with a high-road response. “When the calls come, they come, and if they don’t, then that’s all right. I’m just gonna keep playing.”
At the same time, he’s well aware that virtually anything he says or does could be viewed through the context of him being Asian American:
Lin – whose parents emigrated from Taiwan to the U.S. before he was born. Lin – who crushed it as star of Palo Alto (Calif.) High School’s basketball team but received no Division I scholarship offers. Lin – who dominated as a guard at Harvard University but went undrafted by the NBA in 2010 and came up through its Developmental League. Lin – who spent nights crashing on friends’ and family members’ couches prior to signing with the Knicks and then dazzling New York fans during that crazy stretch in 2012.
Lin, who many felt didn’t get the respect he deserved on his way up (and as you can see, there’s plenty of fuel for that argument) because he’s Asian; but who, at the same time, heard plenty of murmurs that his run with the Knicks wouldn’t have touched off nearly the mania if he’d been an African-American upstart.
“Pretty much anything that I do, someone will talk about race,” Lin says. Or, he might even bring it up on his own.
Like he did the day after the Academy Awards in February. During the ceremony, host Chris Rock and actor/presenter Sacha Baron Cohen both figured they’d get laughs by using Asian stereotypes. The next day, Lin tweeted to his more than 1.5 million followers: “Seriously though, when is this going to change?!? Tired of it being ‘cool’ and ‘ok’ to bash Asians.”
Every major media outlet in the country put Lin and his disappointment into headlines.
“I used to see it more as a burden – like, sometimes I wished people would think of me as just a basketball player,” Lin says. “But as I get older, I see it more and more as an opportunity, and I see how broken the whole view on Asians and Asian-Americans really is in America.
“And it’s not just that ... it’s not just the Asians. It is racism as a whole, and I feel like me being where I’m at – being the only Asian – gives me a different experience where I’m able to relate to minorities or people who are in certain situations. So definitely I want to embrace it; I feel like I have a unique platform and a chance to be able to say stuff, whether it’s the Oscars or whatever it might be.”
Shrugging off the critics
In China, where the NBA is a far bigger deal than the average American can possibly imagine, Lin is revered with a passion that even Michael Jordan may not have been able to relate to in his prime.
Back when “Linsanity” was at its height, sales of Lin jerseys both real and counterfeit were booming on mainland China. Since then, the madness has become more intense by a factor of about 1,000: During the Hornets’ trip to Shenzen last fall, Lin faced massive crowds at every turn, while his personal bodyguard faced the resourceful/obsessed fans who would show up at the door of Lin’s hotel room.
And despite the fact that his commitment to evangelical Christianity clashes with China’s chilly attitude toward religious expression, he is almost unanimously loved by its natives. He is, ironically, almost God-like himself over there.
But in the U.S., Lin has roughly as many detractors as he has defenders.
On the one hand, he’ll almost certainly wind up on numerous ballots later this spring in voting for the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award, which recognizes the league’s best non-starting player.
On the other, his critics can be vicious. In 2013, CNN political commentator Marc Lamont Hill wrote a blog entry with the headline “The Linsanity Sham: Why Jeremy Lin Really Can’t Play” for The Huffington Post that was widely circulated on the Internet. Hill’s thesis: Lin was nothing but hype.
The question is, what would life in the NBA be like for Lin right now if “Linsanity” had never happened?
It’s unanswerable at this point, of course. But consider this, from Lin:
“I’ve always been an extremely controversial subject ... because the media built me up to be something in New York. But if you look at a lot of the polarizing athletes in today’s day and age, a lot of them are polarizing because of things they did. Michael Vick with the dogs, or Tom Brady with the cheating scandals, or other NBA players with criminal records, that’s what makes them polarizing. I haven’t done anything to be a polarizing figure. ...
“But it doesn’t bother me now. It’s fine. It is what it is, and I’m thankful for all the experiences because I think through it all, I’ve been able to really just tune everybody out, the good and the bad, and I think the one thing that I can hold onto is I feel like I did things the way God would want me to do things. ... I try to hold myself and live with high character in a way that God would be proud. I’m not perfect. I’ve made many mistakes. But that’s what I try to put my effort towards: playing and living in a way where if God looked at me, he’d say, ‘Wow, I’m proud of you.’ So that’s the ultimate approval I could get is God’s, versus a reporter’s or a coach’s.”
Learning to let go
In some ways, it’s clear that Lin is extremely happy in Charlotte. Forty-eight wins, of course, have helped; last year, with the Lakers, he won just 21.
But as you just heard, he’s learned to let go.
He’s smiling more on the court. He’s celebrating more. He’s letting his hair down more. Or up. Or out there. Having decided months ago to grow out his locks for this summer’s Asia tour, he’s produced a wide array of whacked-out styles – under the supervision of teammate Spencer Hawes – that have included a bowl cut, a double ponytail, a combover and a mohawk that looked like he had a nasty run-in with a can of hair gel and an electrical outlet.
“This isn’t my my best season individually,” Lin says, “but I’ve enjoyed this season significantly more than any other season I’ve ever been a part of.”
Plus, life is just so much more low-key here than it was when he played in New York, or last season, when he played in L.A. No, there aren’t nearly as many people who look like him in North Carolina, but there also aren’t nearly as many distractions. “Linsanity” weighs on him far less than it used to.
“I think he’s maybe brought it up one time all year,” Hawes says. “And not just to bring it up – it was in Bible study. He doesn’t like to talk about it. It was obviously big for him, his life, his career, but I think he does a pretty good job with keeping things in perspective and looking forward and not backwards.”
At the same time, the fact of the matter is, there’s not much keeping him in Charlotte.
Lin’s a journeyman now by reputation – Golden State, New York, Houston, L.A., now Charlotte, all in just six seasons. He also earned less than half the NBA average salary of $4.9 million (just $2.1 million) with the Hornets this season, the first of a two-year deal that came with a player option he could invoke to become a free agent after the playoff run ends.
And he tempers all the nice things he says about this city with a wistfulness.
For instance: “People are really, really cordial out here, so it’s been a good experience,” he says. But: “It is a smaller city, so sometimes I do miss the bigger-city feel. Really what I miss the most is the West Coast. I just miss California a lot. I miss home.”
Or: “There’s no traffic, which is a big deal coming from L.A.” But: “Sometimes I miss being able to get Asian food, or get Asian dessert, or stuff like that. I miss seeing Asian people. ... But we travel enough, and I get to see my friends a lot. It’s all good.”
So, who knows? This playoff run may be the only one Charlotte ever gets to go on with Lin. And when we say “who knows,” really – no one knows. Not even Lin himself.
“It kind of goes in line with my whole theme of just being able to let go and trust God,” Lin says. “I’m not worried about it. I really am not. I’ve told my agents, ‘Look, don’t talk to me about free agency.’ ... I don’t want to talk about anything related to Sixth Man, I don’t want to talk about any of that stuff. The only thing I care about right now is playing well and enjoying this playoff run.”
“We have a high ceiling,” he says of this Hornets team. “That doesn’t mean we’re always playing near that, but we have a high ceiling and that makes it where you never know what can happen. That’s exciting to me. We’re an underdog. We’ve been an underdog all season. I’ve been an underdog all my life. So I like being in this position.”